The Lives of Max Dupain
Max Dupain’s Australia Viking, Australia, 1986. $39.95
‘Photofile’, Vol 4, No 4, 1987
Max Dupain’s eminence has been with him for over fifty years. In the 1930s, inspired by the Modernist movement of Europe and America, he first began to champion the New Photography against the remnants of Pictorialism. His eminence continued into the 1940s when, through his first monograph published in 1948 and the Australian Photography 1947 annual, he espoused the ‘creative treatment of actuality’ dictums of the Documentary Movement. Later, in the 1960s and 70s, he was honoured by the architectural profession as Australia’s foremost interpreter of their work.
More recently, however, his eminence has been taken out of his own hands. Gael Newton’s excellent exhibition at the AGNSW in 1980, with its accompanying monograph (his second), re-asserted the importance of the purely Modernist Dupain. Treating her work much more cursorily than it deserves, Gael Newton inserted Dupain into a worldwide Modernist Movement and constructed an artistic oeuvre for him which was fundamentally defined by the purist Modernist motivations of transcendant truth, beauty and form. His career as a commercial photographer, his documentary work of the 40s and 50s, and his later architectural work were all incorporated into the development of his larger artistic presence as Australia’s most eminent Modernist photographer.
This scholarly and useful approach has largely defined Dupain’s subsequent, and growing, eminence. However Max Dupain’s Australia operates tangentially to this familiar construction of Dupain’s importance as an Australian artist.
Although it is his third monograph Max Dupain’s Australia, as its title suggests, functions primarily as a picture book about Australia. Dupain’s artistic eminence is used to privilege his ‘personal’ view of Australia. Throughout the book’s text his personal artistic vision effortlessly transmutes into historical annecdote and commentary and then out of it again. The book’s extended captions often discuss his formalist reasons for composing and exposing a photograph in a certain way, and then go on to discuss the social configurations depicted in the image, all without changing register.
Therefore as a monograph, as a book about Dupain the photographer, Max Dupain’s Australia acts as the re-assertion of the voice of the artist — in the face of written history, and by claiming to be ‘raw’ history. In contrast to the careful scholarship of his second monograph, Max Dupain’s self-commentary is discursive, even eccentric. Yet even in its wilful idiosyncrasy this voice is immediately familiar to any who have read his newspaper reviews.1 It therefore re-asserts his eminence, but now on his own terms. Dupain the critic reclaims Dupain the artist for his own.
In terms of oeuvre Max Dupain’s Australia concentrates on his documentary imagery, particularly from the 1940s — the period of his first monograph when he was overtly
championing the Documentary Movement. The ideological rationale for the book is based in the 1940s, when truth was integral to the appearance of things, only waiting to be revealed by the perspicacity of an artist. In light of the encroaching Bicentennial celebrations it is significant that much of the book’s content comes from the 40s and 50s. In the postwar period industrial growth, progress, and a single, almost legendary ‘national character’ were valorized. The book also includes substantial amounts of Dupain’s later industrial and architectural work, however, in the context of the books narrative progression, these also become inscribed within its essentially 1940s vision of Australia’s nationhood — a simple people, a rugged land, and an ever expanding economic growth.
Although many of the same images appear in all three of Dupain’s monographs as well as his other books and exhibitions, their different contexts and accompanying commentaries give different inflections to Dupain’s eminence — nurturer of an artistic vision born within 1930s Modernism, or Documentary photographer revealing his country’s Nationhood. The Dupain of the 1980 monograph was a completed historical figure, with all of his influences and developments neatly incorporated into the whole. The Dupain of Max Dupain’s Australia tears at these contrasting historiographic ligaments and a re-animated voice rages from within.
For instance Dupain’s studio work of the 1930s, which is vital to the Dupain of the 1980 monograph because it provides him with a direct link to the Modern Photography Movements of Europe and America, is contemptuously dismissed by the Dupain of Max Dupain’s Australia with just one image and one line: “This typifies the glamour period which I endured at the early stages of my development. It was all about creating a make-believe atmosphere. The silhouette in dress suit and top hat is a rear projection onto a glass screen.”