Australian Icons: Max Dupain’s ‘Sunbaker’
On the 27th of July 1992, Australia’s most celebrated twentieth-century photographer Max Dupain died in Sydney, Australia. From 1924 – the year a Box Brownie camera was given to him by his uncle – right up to his very last days, he had taken hundreds of thousands of pictures capturing the daily life of Sydney. The city determined his whole life and career. “It’s all here,” he used to say. “Why do I need to go anywhere else?” Such pictures as Draughts in Belmore Park (1938), Morning Rush Hour, Sydney Harbour Bridge (1938), or Meat Queue (1946) depict the life of the city in the most direct and honest manner. But for many Australians, it is the beach that became the epitome of Dupain’s photographic oeuvre. The Sunbaker (1937), At Newport (1952), and Bondi (1939) all depict, and define, Australian beach culture.
The most famous and most celebrated of Dupain’s photographs is The Sunbaker, a holiday snapshot of Dupain’s friend, Harold Salvage, taken on a camping trip to Culburra Beach. In the picture, the young man, beaded with water droplets and encrusted with sand, lies before us, partially disembodied by Dupain’s camera – all we can see are his head, shoulders and arms. The almost indistinguishable horizontal boundary between sand and sky produces an effect of ‘rushing towards’ and monumentality compared to that of Uluru – one of the natural symbols of Australia. “The Sunbaker is thought to have been taken in 1937; this is the date ascribed to it in every Australian art museum and photographic history. Based in part on its timing, this image is often seen as exemplifying a move within Australian culture from an insular provincialism toward a more modern (and by that is usually meant “more international”) sensibility. Geal Newton, the current curator of Australian photography at the National Gallery of Australia, has argued, for example, that The Sunbaker’s “simple geometry and dynamic symmetry had perfectly expressed the energy of Modernist formalism.” As further evidence, she refers us to Dupain’s enthusiasm for Man Ray and his distanced familiarity with the New Photography movements in Europe and the United States. Certainly The Sunbaker’s lack of anecdote and acute angle of vision self-consciously draw attention to its mode of production, a characteristic typical of Bauhaus-inspired photography of the time.” (Geoffrey Batchen, Each Wild Idea: Writing, Photography, History)
Often referred to as an “Australian icon”, The Sunbaker is mainly praised for its symbolic value. “Sunbaker is more than just a young man on the beach sunbathing,” says Isobel Crombie. “It is iconic, it is a symbol of the body in contact with primal forces. These are elemental, regenerating forces, and the body on the beach gains sustenance from the earth, the sun and water.” (Angela Bennie, Looking at Dupain in a fresh light, The Age, 13 December 2004). The image has been used repeatedly in a range of cultural and commercial contexts and has become increasingly associated with the Australian way of life. It could be claimed that The Sunbaker enshrines the Australian ethos, summarising the beliefs and aspirations of a sun-worshipping nation who have a very unique relationship with the beach.
However, the photograph has been also questioned in relation to its representative value of what could, or should, be understood as Australianness. According to Kathryn A. Manzo, The Sunbaker depicts “a sunlit Australia where the Anglo-Saxon “type” has been able to thrive” (Kathryn A. Manzo, Creating Boundaries: The Politics of Race and Nation). The Australian artist Anne Zahalka, on the other hand, challenged a resolutely masculinist character of the photograph. Her colour postcard The Sunbaker #2 (1989) reproduces Dupain’s composition but features a pale androgynous sunbather.