Obituary: Max Dupain
Saturday 01 August 1992
Max Dupain was the giant of Australian photography. It is rare that one person can dominate a cultural scene, but Dupain's achievements were so considerable and his presence so strongly felt that for many Australians his photographs were the ones they were most aware of. He had the kind of reputation, both within the country and in photographic circles the world over, that in France is accorded to Robert Doisneau, in Mexico to Alvarez Bravo or in Canada to Karsh: quite simply head and shoulders above the rest.
Dupain's greatest work is of everyday subjects: illustrating a lifestyle and sense of leisure which pin-points exactly the way Australians thought of themselves. A journalist recently wrote that his work was 'so quintessentially Australian that it would be almost unpatriotic not to like it'.
His image of the Sunbaker at Bondi, taken in 1939, has taken on almost an iconic status. It became most widely known in Britain as the book-jacket of John Pilger's recent book on Australia. Dupain was not thrilled by the way it was used - an image of well-off white Australian society oblivious to the less fortunate underside. He felt that his images did not reflect those values - they were the image of the lucky country.
The Australian photography world in the period from the 1930s to the 1950s, when Dupain emerged as a forcible talent, was very small and very insular, and the few practitioners who were operating on an artistic level stood out and were very aware of each other's work and very reliant on each other for support. Dupain was a vociferous supporter of photography, challenging old-fashioned attitudes and pushing for its recognition. Many of the debates he started were highly controversial. Later in his life, when the style he favoured had in turn come to be regarded as outmoded, he was still relied upon, and recognised as a formidable supporter of Australian photographic institutions. He argued forcefully that Australians should concentrate upon creating a distinctive culture in photography, architecture and the arts that reflected their national experience.
He had characteristics which typified the image of an Australian male of his generation. He could be very blunt and straightforward and exuded both a vigorousness and an easygoing manner. These were the sorts of qualities that he seemed to illustrate in the situations he photographed. He was impatient with 'wafflers or time-wasters'. 'People talk so much bullshit about photography,' he said. He was forcefully defiant about whether his subjects were always as they seemed to be, saying he had no interest in fashionable theories about interpretation, arguing 'photography is about telling the truth'.
Born in Sydney in 1911, Dupain began photography at school with a 'Box Brownie' and while still in his teens exhibited with the New South Wales Photographic Society. His early work was fairly conventional pictorial imagery, but by the mid-1930s he had completely broken away from that mode and taken up a Modernist, realist style. He began experimenting with light and formal composition, trying to reflect the industrious spirit of the age rather than the romanticism of the previous schools. These were ideas that were trickling down to Australia from Europe and the United States, by publication and description.
Few photographs from the Modernists in America or the Bauhaus School in Berlin were actually seen by the Australians, but Dupain and his more adventurous contemporaries were hungrily consuming what information they could, and reflecting the imported ideas into an Australian setting. In the early Thirties Dupain was making surreal double exposures and floral studies using the solarisation technique that Man Ray had popularised. His studies of industrial buildings and machinery echo the quality of imagery being produced at the same time in the US by Margaret Bourke White.
By the late 1930s Dupain was working as a professional photographer, with fashion and portaiture work as a preference but taking anything else that was available. Outside work he was making the documentary images that are outstanding in his work, often recreational subjects like his swimmers at Bondi and life-savers. During the war, Dupain, who was a pacifist, worked for the camouflage unit of the Royal Australian Air Force and the Department of Information, leaving his studio under the control of his first wife, Olive Cotton, herself a noted photographer.
From the Fifties Dupain specialised in architectural photography, which is easily the finest of his professional work. He developed a particularly close working relationship with prominent architects like Harry Seidler, Philip Cox and Glenn Murcutt.
Dupain never retired but continued working until recent ill- health forced him to take on fewer projects. His work was most recently exhibited in Britain last year in an 80th-birthday celebration at The Photographers' Gallery in London.
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