Max Dupain’s “Sunbaker”

Max Dupain
Max Dupain was considered a pioneer of modernism in Australian photography. His compositions were creative, sharp, and reflective of modern life in a bold move away from the sentimentalism that had dominated previously.
Across a career spanning nearly 50 years, Dupain’s “Sunbaker” remains one of his most recognised and revered photographs.
MAX DUPAIN (1911-1992) Sunbaker 1937
silver gelatin photograph, printed later, 38.4 x 42.5cm | $40,000-50,000

In the 1930s, Dupain captured a holiday snapshot of his friend laying on the beach at Culburra. Dupain recounts the historic moment it all started as “a simple affair. We were camping down the south coast and one of my friends leapt out of the surf and slammed down onto the beach to have a sunbake … We made the image and it’s been around, I suppose, as a sort of icon of the Australian way of life.” (1)
Whilst the original capture was taken many years after World War I, the image of the “Sunbaker” still resonated with the postwar population in its display of a bronzed and healthy male displaying spiritual and physical wellbeing. The sunbaker appears peaceful, revelling in the sun with beads of water upon his skin, seemingly unaware his photograph is being taken. All we can see is his head, shoulders and arms before the distant ocean. Dupain has positioned his camera at ground level, emphasising his subject’s dominant mass on top of the sand – like a monument, and in some conversations, compared to Uluru.
Although more than one capture of the “Sunbaker” was taken in the 1930s, the original image did not formally appear until his monograph was published in 1948. The original image published was slightly different, the positioning of the figure somewhat less dominating. Sadly, the negative was lost and the second version was printed in the 1970s, which is the image we know today as Dupain’s “Sunbaker”. It featured as the poster image for Dupain’s first retrospective exhibition at the Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney in 1975, after which it went from near obscurity to national icon. After Dupain died in 1992, the public became eager to learn of the identity of the then mysterious sunbaker. A radio announcer called for an answer, and after several false identifications, Harold Salvage was identified by his son through another photograph Dupain had taken showing his face, at a similarly low angle. Harold made the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald in 1992, under the headline “Exposed: Max’s bronzed Aussie ‘Sunbaker’ was a lilywhite Pom”.
Whilst the true Australian way of life now takes on deeper meanings and conversations, Max Dupain’s “Sunbaker” certainly held iconic status in this regard for at least a portion of Australia’s history. Its significance in the developments of modernist photography in Australia is without question, and, despite perhaps Dupain’s intentions, it remains one of his most loved images.

Olivia Fuller / Head of Art

(1) From a transcript of an interview between Max Dupain and Helen Ennis at Dupain’s home at Castlecrag, New South Wales, 1 August 1991

Other impressions of this print are currently held in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; Monash Art Gallery, Melbourne; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; and Queensland Art Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.

Banner Image(detail): MAX DUPAIN (1911-1992) Sunbaker 1937, silver gelatin photograph, printed later, 38.4 x 42.5cm | $40,000-50,000
November 2022