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image icon 'Sunbaker', 1937

'Sunbaker', 1937
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This is a black-and-white photographic image made in 1937 by Max Dupain (1911-92), which measures 38.0 cm x 34.2 cm. It shows the head and shoulders of a deeply tanned man, who is lying flat on his stomach on the sand, in bright sunlight. His head is laid to one side and resting on one arm and his other arm is lying out in front of him. Drops of water cling to his body and gleam in the sun. The figure has been photographed head-on and very low down - the sun appears to be almost overhead, casting most of the figure (apart from the shoulders and upper parts of the arms and out-thrust hand) into deep shadows. The composition is divided into two halves, with an empty area of sand in the lower half, and the bulk of the figure filling most of the upper section.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is a photographic work by Max Dupain (1911-92), who is regarded as one of the most significant Australian photographers of the modern era - photography was a childhood passion for Dupain, who was given his first camera at the age of 13; he trained as a photographer in the late 1920s, at a time when art photography and pictorialism (a photographic movement of the early 20th century that subscribed to the idea that art photography needed to emulate the painting and printmaking of the time) dominated the photographic scene within Australia; by the mid-1930s, he had began to use an approach very similar to that of Europe’s ‘New Photography’ which involved the photographer working like a reporter to document scenes from everyday life
  • is a powerful visual image that is now regarded as an icon of Australian photography - contemporary Australian photographer William Yang has said that Dupain ‘selected and simplified images to a point where they developed an iconic value’; another of Dupain’s photographic ‘icons’ is ‘Bondi’ (1939); while his life’s work encompassed a wide range of subjects, including the building of the Sydney Opera House, other architectural photography and elegant figure studies, he is best known for his observations of everyday life and culture in which he demonstrated a talent for capturing moments that expressed what it meant to be an Australian
  • shows the influence of the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004), who is considered to be the father of photojournalism, on Dupain’s work - Cartier-Bresson stressed the need for the photographer to capture the ‘decisive moment’; this image was ‘snapped’ by Dupain while on holidays in 1937 on the New South Wales south coast
  • represents a turning point in Dupain’s career and of modern Australian photography - this turning point was the result of his disagreement with the favourable reviews given to a large photographic exhibition that was held in Sydney in 1938 to celebrate the sesquicentenary (150 years) of the state of New South Wales’; this exhibition included many works by an older generation of pictorial art photographers, and in Dupain’s view there was no modern spirit in the exhibition comparable to the work of European and American photographers such as Man Ray (1890-1976) and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946); the controversy that followed created a split in the photography community, between those defending pictorial art-photography and those who advocated a new, modern approach
  • is an image that has been interpreted as a powerful comment about Australians as a nation of beach-goers and sun worshippers - ‘Sunbaker’ has continued to attract differing opinions about its possible meaning; one view put forward at the time of its making was that it was intended as a symbol of a regenerated Australian nationhood, which had been sapped of vitality by the First World War and the Great Depression (1929-32); others have seen it simply as an outstanding example of Dupain’s ability to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary
  • reflects, in its interpretation of the subject, a modern approach to photography that involved exploring the forms of things, rather than their everyday meanings and appearances; other elements in ‘Sunbaker’ that reflect a modern approach include the ‘worm’s eye view’ close-up captured by the low-angle shot, the foreshortening of the figure, the creation of a non-specific, almost depthless (flat) space by close-cropping the figure, and the elimination of any reference to a specific location
  • indicates the depth of Dupain's understanding of the basic idea that all pictorial art is built on a system of visual symbols - an exhibition by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2004 traced the relationship between Dupain's work and ideas and those of the great European modernist photographer Man Ray; Dupain was possibly the first person in Australia to write about Man Ray's work, commenting 'Man Ray... possesses a great ability to treat the most complex of subject matter so that... it is broken down to a design of essential lines and masses'; Man Ray's influence is evident in 'Sunbaker' in the way Dupain has reduced this figure to a dark sculptural mass.