Australia 1911 – 1992

Sunbaker 1937 Place made: Culburra, New South Wales, Australia
Creation Notes: printed c.1975
Materials & Technique: photographs, gelatin silver photograph

Dimensions: printed image 37.7 h x 43.2 w cm
Acknowledgement: Gift of the Philip Morris Arts Grant 1982
Accession No: NGA 83.2209
  • During a camping trip with friends in bushland on the coast south of Sydney in 1937, Max Dupain made two negatives of his friend Hal Salvage after a swim: an image which he later called Sunbaker. The power of the image comes from being so close to the man’s body, though he remains unrecognisable and unknowable. The figure could be a stand-in for Dupain himself, then a fit 26-year old whose father ran a modern physical education gym in Sydney. Although Dupain later described the image as a virtual holiday snap, the low-angle close-up and simple geometry of the composition is classic modernist styling. It is unlike the other images of jollity around the camp and playing up for the camera which Dupain made on several trips with his friends in the late 1930s. By this time Dupain had, within a few short years of setting up his studio in Sydney, achieved a considerable profile as a modernist photographer in Australia, both for his personal exhibition work and in promotion of his commercial practice.

    Dupain regarded the Sunbaker image as special; he published it in 1948 in a monograph described as ‘my best work since 1935’.1 On that occasion, Dupain chose the alternate Sunbaker negative showing Salvage with his fingers closed (it seems that negative was lost by 1948 as the book reproduction was made from a print dated 1940). Dupain is not known to have printed the surviving Sunbaker negative again until 1975, for a retrospective at the Australian Centre for Photography. It was not until the Australian Bicentennial celebrations in 1988 that the Sunbaker image started to acquire iconic status as an image encapsulating a way of life and values in Australia, perhaps nostalgically evoking a bygone, less complicated, era.

    Gael Newton

    1Gael Newton, ‘The Sunbaker’, in Jill White (ed.), Dupain’s Beaches, Sydney: Chapter and Verse, 2000, pp.68-73; Max Dupain, Max Dupain Photographs, Sydney: Ure Smith, 1948, p.12.

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
    From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002

  • During a camping trip in bushland at Culburra Beach on New South Wales’s south coast in 1937, Dupain took a number of photographs of his friend, Harold Salvage after a swim. Like many of Dupain’s great images, this one engages photography’s inherent realism and its formalism. It is the most simple of images. True to Dupain’s maxim that photography should ‘clarify’ complex forms and that the form should determine the design of the photograph, the picture exemplifies modernist pictorial reduction and control: the horizon line cuts the largely white landscape in half, with the body forming a dark pyramid. This pictorial simplicity has no doubt contributed to the accessibility and popularity of the image, which is often referred to as Australia’s most iconic photograph. But its appeal is also due to the fact that the image is shot from the point-of-view of another sunbaker: we are all invited to identify with Salvage in his moment of sweaty self-absorption.

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra