My essay for the Australian Centre for Photography exhibition Under the Sun: Reimagining Max Dupain’s Sunbaker. State Library of New South Wales 18 February — 17 April; Monash Gallery of Art 6 May — 6 August, 2017.
The Sunbaker photograph was taken eighty years ago. That’s an entire lifetime. After eighty years it’s time to look back at your life. But if we were able to wake the Sunbaker up and tell him what had been happening to him he might reckon it was all a bit of a soap opera.
The Sunbaker we know was conceived on Culburra Beach near Nowra in 1937, during the camping trip of a bunch of friends from Sydney who were all twenty-something years old and brimming with sex. Two of the group, Max Dupain and Olive Cotton, took photographs of the trip that are horny and aesthetic at the same time. Taut skin and patterned sunlight predominate. Our Sunbaker was born one of twins, a pair of negatives Max Dupain shot of Harold Cyril Salvage — an English bookseller and avid reader, rower and pipe smoker — who, in Dupain’s words, ‘slammed himself down on the beach to have a sunbake’ after a swim.
A small print of one of the negatives was made for a personal album of the trip compiled by one of the party (the album is now in the State Library of New South Wales). In 1948 a signed and dated enlargement, now lost, was reproduced along with other documentary-style photographs in the book Max Dupain Photographs. Here, the Sunbaker lies darkly and heavily at the bottom of the frame, one hand grips the other, and the distant surf rolls creamily through the crook of his elbow while clouds demarcate the backdrop of sky. He is located. He’s on a particular beach at a particular time. The book was limited to an edition of 1000 copies, didn’t sell well in any case, and is now rare, but on its contents page the Sunbaker was christened. The photograph is not titled ‘Harold Salvage’, but ‘Sunbaker’. And not ‘Sunbather’, but ‘Sunbaker’. According to the Oxford English Dictionary ‘sunbaker’ was an exclusively Australian variant to the more globally accepted word ‘sunbather’. It implies an excess. Not a genteel luxuriant bathing in therapeutic rays, but a vigorous and transformative baking, like a steak slammed down on a BBQ.
Fast forward to 1975. Photography is now art, not documentary. It is the International Year of Women. Gough Whitlam has been in power for almost three years. His wife Margaret has just opened the Australian Centre for Photography. Max Dupain is sixty-four. It’s time for his first retrospective. The ACP is the place. The negative Dupain had printed before had been lost to history during one of his studio moves, so he prints the second negative, our negative, our Sunbaker. Harold Salvage is moved upwards in the frame and the line of surf disappears behind his forearms so the figure floats abstractly against fields of tone. The hand unclenches so the wet fingertips rest on the sand. Water droplets roll over his muscles. His forearm hair forms rivulets down from his elbows.
This Sunbaker was chosen for the retrospective’s poster and the rest is history. No longer a document of a particular beach, nor a dark glowering print from wartime Australia, it quickly became mobilized as a bright national symbol within the visual environment of seventies Australia. As the figure, photographed thirty-eight years earlier, lay suspended against the non-perspectival bands of sand and sky, it looked as contemporary as an abstract ‘colour field’ painting of the day. In its composition it almost felt as bold as the new Aboriginal flag, designed in 1971 by Harold Thomas, which graphically deployed the same three symbolic elements of sun, land and people but in an entirely different configuration. Perhaps it even reminded some of Ayers Rock (now Uluru) in its timeless monumentality. Or even, as Harold Salvage’s physically engineered shoulders arched across the frame, it reminded us of the tensile strength of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, opened five years before the Sunbaker was made.
In the following decades until his death in 1992 Dupain made about 200 prints from the surviving negative. The print exhibited at the ACP in 1975 was priced at $85, but eventually he was selling them for $1,500 each. As he iterated prints from the slightly overdeveloped negative he incrementally made the Sunbaker even more abstract, lightening the burned-in borders of sky and sand at top and bottom, and dodging the thick shadows around his head so he is suspended with even more high-tensile strength against the void. The image was frequently reproduced. It became an icon seemingly as delicate and solid as the Harbour Bridge itself. Before his death Max Dupain professed to being embarrassed by all the attention it was getting, from jingoistic Australians in general, and from gay couples decorating their new flats in particular. He said he preferred other of his classic shots such as Meat Queue, 1946, where there is more going on in terms of content and composition.
After Dupain’s death the Sunbaker continued his apotheosis. His studio, which continued to be run by its manager Jill White, made posthumous editions of his famous negatives and the Sunbaker’s edition of ninety, printed slightly lighter still than Dupain’s own prints, virtually sold out at up to $8000 each. Importantly, the Sunbaker began to be pastiched and parodied by photographers and cartoonists. In 1989 Anne Zahalka photographed a pale-skinned red-haired ‘Sunbather’ growing a fine crop of pre-cancerous cells. And in 1985 the Indigenous photographer Tracey Moffatt pointedly displaced him entirely with her photograph of ‘The Movie Star’ David Gulpilil reclining at Bondi complete with boardies, a tinnie, a surfboard, a ghetto blaster, dreads and tribal face paint.
Parodists pounced on the Sunbaker to exploit the incipient ambiguities of his state of mind, which could become a stand-in for the national state of mind. As he claims the beach for himself, sucking up spiritual sustenance from the land and exposing his back to the benedictions of the Australian sun, is he poised, ready to spring into virile action, or is he experiencing the ultimate state of relaxation, in blissful post-coital communion with the beach? Or, is he in some heat-induced stupor, or asleep? In an historical coma, or dead? An example of these many parodies is the cover of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine from 1996, where an obese sunbaker snores away on the beach above the tagline ‘Sleep! Slop! Slob! Wake Up Australia, you’re getting fatter!’ Many other cartoons and photographs used the Sunbaker to comment on Australia’s high sun cancer rates, its general political torpor, its sexism where public space was ruled by men, and his persistent claim to a supposedly ‘pure’ Australian Anglo Celtism in the face of an ethnically diversifying Australia. But, for a time, all these parodies only reinforced his iconicity.
Meanwhile the Sunbaker still had his unalloyed fans. In 1995 the retail artist Ken Done made a series of paintings which gridded the Sunbaker’s instantly recognizable muscular arch in a gestural shorthand across a bright orange field. In the year 2000 the Max Dupain Studio licensed the photograph to QANTAS, who obviously still saw it as an unproblematic image of ‘The Spirit of Australia’. For the Sydney Olympics they published it on billboards and across both pages of broadsheet newspapers with the tagline: ‘The Spirit of Australia: When it comes to the art of relaxation, Australians are recognized as truly world class. Perhaps that’s why the people at QANTAS are so naturally good at making you feel at home, wherever in the world you happen to fly.’ QANTAS’s copywriters summed up the essence of his iconicity: the Sunbaker is at home in Australia, truly relaxed in his decisive claiming of the land. He’s baked in.
But Harold Salvage slammed himself down on a very different beach to the beaches of today. In the 1930s, before the rise of bohemian surf culture in the post war period, beaches were unproblematic places for collective displays of health, vitality and nationalism. Surf lifesavers were idolized as embodiments of racial purity, and at annual club carnivals they marched across our metropolitan beaches with Nuremberg like precision. More remote beaches like Culburra could also become tabla rasa sites of personal potential for idealistic groups of young people such as Dupain and his friends, but they were again centred around the vigorous, vital, pure, white body. If the Sunbaker awoke from his coma today we would have to gently break to him the news of the Mabo decision of 1992 which overturned the concept of terra nullius; the Cronulla race riots of 2005 which revealed fault lines in assumed cultural rights of beach ‘ownership’; the advent of the burkini which challenged the hegemony of the body in the scopic regime of the beach; and the inexorable rise in skin cancer mortality rates.
Nonetheless, Sunbaker prints continue to command good prices in the art market. A standard sized print from amongst the 200 or so Dupain printed will set you back between twenty and thirty thousand dollars, while a special larger print from his family estate recently sold at auction for 105 thousand dollars. But there are signs his popular iconicity in the media is fading. Image icons need to be continually reproduced to survive. Unlike the Harbour Bridge or Uluru the Sunbaker is no longer in our face every day. Even though in 2013 his son, Rex Dupain, made a new sunbaker on a Xperia ZI smartphone for a charity auction, we certainly aren’t seeing the same number of parodies as before. The complexity of contemporary debates around our national identity may have superseded his graphic usefulness for cartoonists. And today’s teenagers can’t seem to place him. ‘It’s a guy on a beach’, my daughters helpfully tell me.
In 2004 the Sunbaker made it to the front cover of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine for the second time. This time it was not a parody, but the precious, auratic, original negative that appears, held up to the camera by a white-gloved hand. The lurid tagline, ‘How this tiny negative of Sunbaker came to be at the centre of a tale of love, money and ambition’, refers to an article by the journalist Janet Hawley about the legal tussle over Dupain’s will. Seeing the negative in public for the first time (it has recently been purchased by the Stare Library of New South Wales) we noticed a shadow in the lower right hand corner that had been cropped out of all of the enlargements. It looks like the shadow of the camera strap on Dupain’s Rolleiflex, cast as he lay on his stomach in front of Salvage grabbing his two shots. This common ‘mistake’, made every day by generations of photographers, immediately takes us back to the holiday that started it all. Those friends. That beach. That moment.