MAX DUPAIN — MODERNIST
Brett Boardman considers an exhibition of Dupain’s architectural photography at the State Library of NSW.
Exhibitions about architecture are infrequent events and exhibitions devoted to architectural photography rarer still. When it does occur, the architectural exhibition usually employs photographs as a proxy for the building, a direct substitute for experience. In Max Dupain – Modernist, photography is presented as the documentation, interpretation and response to architecture at a particular time. The short specific moment of image capture and interpretation is displayed within the extended theme of the evolution of Modernism in Australian architecture.
Presented in three galleries with smaller central island displays in each of these, the exhibition contains two hundred prints by Dupain across a fifty-year period. There are several portraits by others of the photographer at work. It would be hard to imagine a public exhibition of Dupain’s work without images such as Sunbaker, 1937 or Bondi, 1939, and sure enough they are here. A gallery within the exhibition is devoted to works outside of the architectural commission, but their role in this exhibition is not as simple crowd-pleasers. These images contextualize the Australian arrival of Modernism in photography and it is these that defined Dupain as a modernist, as Gael Newton wrote in 1980: “His best images simultaneously belong to Australian culture and to the expression of the modern era which first inspired his work in 1931.” Both Dupain and the older Harold Cazneaux fully embraced the modern in photography, shifting from pictorialism (a romantic approach with its roots in impressionism) to one aligned with the New Photography or New Objectivity emanating from Europe, and in particular Germany, in the 1920s and 1930s. This was photography concerned less with representation and more with formal relationship and composition. While Dupain had a preference for local subject matter, especially Sydney, rather than the exotic (he only left Australia twice), his photographic infl uences were drawn from this new German work. The earliest photograph displayed is Silos – morning 1933 and like the grain elevators depicted by Le Corbusier in his seminal text, the strong industrial forms were directing the young Dupain towards a new architecture. Human bodies have a heroic, Valkyrian quality in images such as Brave new world c. 1935, referencing the montages of Man Ray, and a similar technique is displayed in AWA tower with vinyl record c. 1947. The low viewpoint and frame-dominating composition of Sunbaker, 1937, monumentalizes the body to architectural proportions. Postwar work shows an interest in the documentary style, such as Meat queue, 1946.
This catholic approach to style, experimentation and a broad range of subject matter in his private and studio work of this period was to be the foundation for the way he would approach the architectural subject represented in the remainder of the exhibition. The early work – both private and, more importantly, personal – reminds us how perfectly placed Dupain was, both geographically and mentally, to be the photographer for the modern period of architecture.
The prints here are typically displayed as a large “hero” image of each project accompanied by smaller images often describing the context, interior or detail. Illuminating quotes from Dupain himself or other notable commentators accompany many of the images. The presentation is immensely satisfying, as it not only allows the viewer to appreciate the architecture aesthetically, contextually and tectonically, but also reminds us of the photographer’s full mastery of techniques, showing us through a range of images how the user experiences the building and presenting new ways of appreciating built form.
For example, Manly Surf Pavilion (demolished), 1938 is presented in three images. The primary image is of the shark observation tower, which Dupain renders as a sharp, modern, dorsal-like form against a filtered black sky. Beneath, the smaller images show the tower and pavilion’s relationship to the Manly surrounds and, finally, a promenade of packed beachside walkers with the building in the background. Contemporary architectural photographic practice tends to remove the person from the frame. Here the images are concerned with the human scale within modernity. As Dupain said in 1948, “Modern photography must do more than entertain, it must incite thought and, by its clear statement of actuality, cultivate a sympathetic understanding of men and women and the life they create and live.” The exhibition presents Modernism’s arrival in Australia optimistically. The images are overwhelmingly populated and rather than shifting the attention of the viewer away from the architectural subject, as is sometimes the danger, the people both reinforce the promise of the age and serve to scale the work. Sydney Ancher’s Bogata Avenue House of Neutral Bay, photographed in crepuscular light, has silhouetted figures gazing onto the architecture from outside, as if Modernism were the new radio for families to huddle around. “I had a lot in common with architects, there was this aesthetic input and output that I shared with them, and I would look forward to going out and talking with people like Syd Ancher and Harry Seidler. I’d been reading magazines, and following the trends and teachings of architecture overseas …” Given this concern with overseas trends, it is no surprise that the Bogata Avenue image is reminiscent of Julius Shulman’s luminous image of Kaufmann House, Palm Springs, CA, 1947 – here was a photographer who, like Ancher and Seidler, wanted to bring international ideas to an Australian audience.
The close relationship between Dupain and his clients allowed for the range of work that can be seen in the images of Seidler’s Australia Square series taken over a period of six years, 1961–1967. All of the images here provided in their time a framework for the contemporary architect to view the work, but they also continue to infl uence the way we see the buildings today – there can’t be many visitors to Australia Square who have not sought out the viewpoint of the keyhole shot, Australia Square Tower, 1968.
The exhibition is valuable in that it not only reminds us of a remarkable period of Australian architectural history and its practitioners, drawing from a vast archive (special thanks to both Eric Sierins and Jill White), but we can see the antecedents of today’s architectural photography. The dusk shot (Builders and Traders Exhibition Building, 1955), the hero shot (House [Rose], Turramurra, c. 1951), the montage (Brave new world, c. 1935), low and elevated viewpoints (Goldstein Hall, University of NSW, 1964 and House [Stack], Point Piper, 1953), the conscious inclusion of the photographer’s own shadow (Canteen building, Atomic Energy Plant, Lucas Heights, 1960), the detailed abstract image (Australian Embassy, Paris, 1978), the wider contextual view (Gazebo Hotel, Elizabeth Bay Rd, Kings Cross, 1969) – these now-familiar, requisite techniques have been embraced by architectural photographers all over Australia ever since.
What becomes obvious from the exhibition is both the dominance of Dupain and the importance of his legacy – thousands of clients over sixty years documenting the genesis and evolution of the modern movement in Australia. The exhibition reminds us how fortunate we are to have had a practitioner who was at ease with a vast array of subjects, who had an active mind dedicated to ideas and a concern with the spirit of the age, and who was as tireless in his personal work as he was in his day-to-day commercial work.
Brett Boardman is a Sydney-based commercial photographer.
Max Dupain – Modernist shows at the State Library of NSW until 23 September.