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Max Dupain

Maxwell Spencer Dupain (1911–1992) is regarded as one of Australia's greatest photographers. He stressed simplicity and directness in his work, creating images of sharp focus, boldness and graphic composition. He was one of the earliest and most outstanding champions of modernism in Australia.

Dupain's working life spans decades of commercial and artistic success, and photographic genres. His repertoire includes landscapes, beaches, nudes, still life and architecture. His particular love of the latter, coupled with his carefully set up symmetries made him the pre-eminent photographer of Australian architecture for more than 50 years.

However, Dupain is best known for his photographs of Australians, particularly their beach culture. A dedicated patriot, he believed in clearly and simply showing Australia's way of life. His 1937 photograph Sunbaker is arguably his most famous work. For many, it is an iconic image of what it means to be Australian.


Dupain, Max (1911-1992), Sunbaker, 1937, photograph, 37.7 x 43.2cm. Image courtesy National Gallery of Australia. Gift of the Phillip Morris Arts Grant 1982. NGA 83.2209.

Dupain tirelessly photographed his beloved homeland, and in particular, Sydney, leaving a legacy of more than one million photographs. His work has been collected by most major Australian galleries, and private collectors world-wide.

Dupain's early life

Dupain was born in Ashfield, Sydney, to Ena and George Dupain. He was educated at Sydney Grammar School, where he was a keen rower and lover of English literature and poetry.

At 13 years of age, Dupain was given his first camera, and quickly developed an avid interest in photography. He won the Carter Memorial Prize for Productive Use of Spare Time in 1928, and joined the NSW Photographic Society a year later. Here, he met Australian pictorial photography legend Harold Cazneaux.

In 1930, Dupain commenced a three-year apprenticeship with Sydney photographer Cecil Bostock. He learned the techniques of early studio photography, discipline and a rigorous attention to detail.

Outside the studio, Dupain attended Julian Ashton's Art School and enjoyed weekends away with friends (and his Rolleiflex camera). While he half-heartedly produced soft-focus pictorial photographs, such as Weather of Taratus (1932), he was inspired by photography that was squarely in the spirit of the time—modern photography.

Weather of Tartarus

Dupain, Max (1911-1992), Weather of Tartarus, 1932, photograph: bromoil, 22 x 30.5cm. Image courtesy National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an20086236.

Vital beginnings

In 1934, Dupain set up his own studio in Bond Street, Sydney. He was 23 years old. His commercial output was diverse, including fashion photography, portraiture and illustrative photography for clients such as David Jones, the Australian Broadcasting Commission and Sydney Ure Smith's prestigious magazine, The Home.

Illustration for Kelvinator advertisement

Dupain, Max (1911-1992), Illustration for Kelvinator advertisement, 1936, photograph, 32.8 x 25.3cm. Image courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales: 541.2000.

At this time, Dupain continued to absorb the 'modern' ideas from Europe and America. New photographers such as Man Ray, Laszlo Moholy Nagy and Walker Evans were among those who inspired his experimental works. He produced rayographs ( Rayograph (Key) , 1938), collage ( Untitled (advertising collage ), 1935), montaged imagery ( Photo synthesis (woman & trees) , 1930s) and surreal photography ( Untitled (Nude with pole) , 1936) among others.

Dupain was also influenced by the vitalism doctrine, which held that a transcendent 'vital force' exists within living organisms. In particular, he admired the writings of DH Lawrence and Norman Lindsay, and the photographs of Laurence Le Guay. For Dupain, the beach (and the body) was the obvious setting to portray physical vitality. Well-known images include Surf race start (1940), Surf's up (1940s) and Solitary lifesaver (undated). And, of course, Sunbaker (1937).

Surf race start

Dupain, Max (1911-1992), Surf race start, 1940, photograph, 29.8 x 35.5cm. Image courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales. Gift of Edron Pty Ltd - 1995 through the auspices of Alistair McAlpine. 853.1996.


Between the 1930s and 1960s, portraiture was at the top rung of Dupain's professional and personal work. Ever versatile, Dupain's portraits include glamorous 'Hollywood lit' shots, such as Untitled (fashion illustration  woman wearing hat) (1930s); moody portraits of the Russian Ballet in the 1930s, such as Portrait of Paul Petroff (1938) and Portrait of Tamara Tchinarova (1938); boldly composed and lit portraits, such as Portrait of Arthur A Calwell (1945); and documentary-style images of Sydney-siders in the late 30s and 40s, such as Gypsies in the Domain, Sydney (1930s).

However, Dupain's preferred portraits were of people with whom he had an affinity; subjects involved in creative fields. These include Portrait of Jean Bellette (1936), Portrait of William Dobell (1942) and Portrait of Damien Parer (1940), Dupain's close friend.

Portrait of Damien Parer in the early 1940s

Dupain, Max (1911-1992), Portrait of Damien Parer, 1940, photograph, 36.8 x 29.9cm. Image courtesy National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an11845931.

Documentary photography

In 1939, Dupain married photographer and childhood friend Olive Cotton. Although they divorced a year or so later, Cotton ran Dupain's Clarence Street, Sydney studio while he was at war. The war experience guided Dupain toward documentary photography—photographs as factual documents.

In 1946, Dupain was commissioned by the Department of Information to photograph Australia's way of life as part of a campaign to increase migration to Australia. Dupain's images from this period show his developing documentary style. They are also important records of Australia's changing society.

Meat queue

Dupain, Max (1911-1992), Meat queue, 1946, photograph, 43.8 x 64.5cm. Image courtesy National Gallery of Australia. Gift of the Phillip Morris Arts Grant 1982: NGA 83.2211.

While Dupain captured many images of carefree, can-do Australians, the most memorable is Meat queue (1946).

When Dupain moved back to the studio in 1947, he was determined to maintain his documentary style and abandon the 'cosmetic lie of fashion photography or advertising illustration'.

At this time, he married Diana Illingworth, with whom he had a daughter, Danina and son, Rex.

Capturing industry

Throughout the next four decades, Dupain continued to attract a diverse clientele. In addition to the 'bread and butter' advertising work, he also developed long standing relationships with government departments and industrial firms, such as the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR Limited) and Australian Oil Refineries (AOR).

Dupain's use of light and shade and dramatic composition result in the creative documenting of industry.

Architecture - the 'long suit'

From the late 1960s, Dupain began to specialise in what he called his 'long suit'—modern and historic architecture. His simple and direct approach complemented the shapes within architectural structures so well that he was considered the premier photographer of architecture in Australia.

Dupain enjoyed successful commissions from architects such as Samuel Lipson, John D Moore and Sydney Ancher. Later he worked with Arthur Baldwinson, Ken Woolley and Glen Murcutt. Baldwinson designed a house for Dupain.

Dupain also had a long-standing relationship with well-known Australian architect, Harry Seidler. The pair collaborated on many projects, including Seidler's House at 11 Northcote Crescent, Deakin in Canberra, and were mutual admirers.

House at 11 Northcote Crescent, Deakin.

Dupain, Max (1911-1992), House at 11 Northcote Crescent, Deakin. Harry Seidler, 1951-52, photograph, 37.3 x 50cm. Image courtesy of Harry Seidler and Associates.

From 1961, Dupain was commissioned by the National Trust of Australia to document Australian heritage buildings. He also became involved in photographing Canberra's national buildings, such as the National Library.

The Sydney Opera House was Dupain's architectural icon—an iconic symbol of Australian modernity. He spent hundreds of hours and took literally thousands of images throughout its construction. The 1972 publication Sydney Builds an Opera House uses Dupain's images extensively.

Dupain's later years

In 1971, Dupain moved to a new studio in Artarmon, Sydney, where he worked for his remaining 20 years.

Dupain continued photographing architecture, including properties for The Historic Houses Trust; the Australian Embassy in Paris (one of the few times he left Australia); and buildings by architect, Francis Greenway. Many of these images were used in exhibitions and publications.

In 1975, the first serious review of Dupain's photography took place at the Australian Centre of Photography. It was this Max Dupain A Retrospective 1930-1975 exhibition that first brought Sunbaker into Australia's collective consciousness.

In 1982, Dupain was honoured with an Order of the British Empire, and in 1983 he was awarded a life membership with The Royal Australian Institute of Architects.

As a testament to Dupain's vast and impressive body of work, two major books reviewing his contributions were published in 1986 and 1988, respectively. Many more have since been published.

Dupain died in 1992, aged 81. He bequeathed his personal and exhibition archive to Jill White, his long-time friend and colleague. White's commitment continues today, through the publication and exhibition of Dupain's works.

Useful links

Max Dupain

Print references

  • Crombie, Isobel (2004), Body culture: Max Dupain, photography and Australian culture, 1919-1939, Peleus Press in association with the National Gallery of Victoria, Victoria.
  • White, Jill (2003), Dupain's Australians, Chapter & Verse, NSW
  • White, Jill (2000), Dupain's beaches, Chapter & Verse, NSW
  • White, Jill (1999), Dupain's Sydney, Chapter & Verse, NSW

Last updated: 7 May 2016
Creators: Rachel Roberts Communications

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