Australian Beach Photography
Iconic photographs capture Australian beach culture from the 1930s to today. Sunbathers, swimmers, surfers, surf life savers and ocean pools by Max Dupain, Jeff Carter, Ray Leighton, Ian Lever. Roger Scott, Anne Zahalka and Narelle Autio.
The beach is dominant in Australia’s national lexicon. It is a physical and cultural landscape, and seen as a place for a shared, universal experience.
The work of nine important Australian photographers working over the course of the past one hundred years reveals differing perspectives of the Australian beach and the swimmers and surfers who populate it.
The photographic lens has been a tool in constructing ideas about the beach, stretching back to late 19th century postcard images of an increasingly active pleasure ground. In these works the beach is shown in various guises, made up of moments, theatrical tableaux and sweeping coastal landscapes.
Pre-eminent in this imagery is the emblematic figure of Max Dupain’s Sunbaker which, with Anne Zahalka’s reworking of it, reveals a transforming and contested beach culture.
Slicing through all this image-making is the work of Michael Cook who explores the beach as a site of encounter and appropriation of identity, of Australia’s first peoples.
Image: The Sunbather #2 ANMM Collection 00030672 copyright Anne Zahalka reproduced courtesy of the photographer
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Max Dupain was a precocious talent who produced a massive body of work of abstraction, portraiture, architecture and Australian life in his commercial practice. His beach images from the 1930s have come to define the rise of a sundrenched Australian beach culture.
Dupain’s interest in form, line and perspective was well served by the contrasts of the beach landscape - the strength of the light, sun, shadow, surf, sand and horizon. So too the muscularity of the surf lifesaver, athleticism of the swimmer, and the geometry of languid bodies on the sand were remade in Dupain’s modernist aesthetic.
He captured perfectly the indelible transformation of the beach to an active site of tanned athletic beach bodies.
Ray Leighton trained in a commercial studio from 1932, opening his own business in 1946. With Max Dupain he became one of Sydney’s most prolific professional photographers with diverse subject interests.
Steeped in Manly’s surfing community, Leighton produced memorable images of friends surfing and hanging out. His beach was alive. It was a time when long boards ruled and surfers congregated at clubs on the beach to store their cumbersome boards which were impossible to transport. Leighton made long boards, with his badged board seen in one of the images here.
Many of these photographs were published in magazines and newspapers at the time.
Soon after leaving school at the end of World War II, Jeff Carter went on the road as an itinerant farmer and labourer. Always with his camera and typewriter at his side, he determined to be an independent photographer and writer.
From the 1950s Carter began selling his photographic essays to magazines like Pix, People, and Walkabout. He used an East German Ikonta camera with square shaped film, and then a 35mm Nikon. From the 1960s Carter’s telephoto lens enabled him to discretely frame moments in the everyday lives of his subjects - ordinary people.
The rise of surfing, subcultures and street life at holiday sites including the Gold Coast were among Carter’s many studies illustrated in the 20 books he wrote.
Roger Scott was a documentary photographer, always looking for that decisive moment. A keen bodysurfer, he immersed himself in the waves capturing a radically different perspective from those before him. The spontaneity and exuberance of swimmers in the rolling surf became his subject.
Scott began experimenting with an underwater camera from 1969, a Nikonos 35mm. Lolling about with it strung around his neck, he was able to take his fellow swimmers by surprise, waiting in the water where personal space disappears, shooting rolls of film, looking for that moment in the odd and the typical.
Scott had a high failure rate; he was often knocked down by the surf, while globules of water obscured his lens. The images remain fresh though - swimmers pop up, rise with the swell, do handstands or roar along the disappearing crest of a wave.
Ian Lever, a keen surfer, began exhibiting in 1987 after a career managing black and white laboratories in Sydney and overseas. Long hours in the darkroom imbued in him a strong appreciation of light and its nuances in composition, form and mood, and prompted his move to colour photography. Nature is his collaborator.
Lever’s Pools series arose from a project he did in 1994 with The National Trust of Australia to document Sydney’s ocean and harbour baths. These large scale photographs, romantic interpretations of ocean baths, highlight the effect of light on water and the hues of the day.
As well as being contemplative sites, these photographs show expansive panoramic landscapes, painterly in intent.
Anne Zahalka composes startling tableaux as playful inquiries into ideas about cultural identity and representation, challenging photographic conventions such as the pursuit of the decisive moment.
In this early series from 1989, 'Bondi: Playground of the Pacific', Zahalka explored the role images of the beach have played in constructions of Australian identity. She referenced well-known paintings like Charles Meere’s 'Australian Beach Pattern', and iconic beach photographs by Max Dupain and Olive Cotton. Zahalka reinterpreted these images to question stereotypes and unveil their illusory nature, historically and today.
Zahalka’s beach is populated by pale skinned redheads, Japanese surfers, Southern European beachgoers and in recent work, burqa-clad swimmers.
In 1999 Narelle Autio and her partner Trent Parke (born 1971), both photojournalists at the Sydney Morning Herald, embarked on a body of work about their youthful fantasies gambolling in the ocean.
Together they probed the different energies of their childhood beaches – Autio’s flat calming Gulf St Vincent around Adelaide and Parke’s powerful Pacific Ocean at Newcastle.
The Seventh Wave series is the result of this study. Delving deeper than Roger Scott physically and also perhaps emotionally, these big, bold otherworldly images show bodies from underneath - a fish’s perspective.
What lurks beneath is raw, compelling, sometimes sensuous, dangerous, serene and above all suspenseful.
Noted pictorialist Cazneaux forms the bridge between the commercial studios and amateur photographer artists at the beginning of the 20th century. Cazneaux spent his early years experimenting with outdoor photography and light, often travelling to the south coast of NSW in search of the picturesque.
World War I catalysed the desire for sunshine and Australian motifs and in 1916 Cazneaux founded the Sydney Camera Circle. The following decade he embraced modernity under the guidance of influential publisher Sydney Ure Smith.
The fun and abandon of the beach allowed Cazneaux to blend abstract qualities of line and form with his sense of the Australian pictorial.
Michael Cook is from the Bidjara people of south-west Queensland. Michael was adopted as a baby, and in his adult life went in search of his Aboriginal heritage, a process that helped him explore his Indigenous cultural identity.
With a background in fashion photography Michael produces subtle yet powerful work exploring colonial narratives of discovery and Indigenous identity. In his series Undiscovered of 2010 and these works from Civilised of 2012 the beach becomes a site of encounter, the stage setting to pose questions about these narratives.
This body of work dresses Aboriginal Australians in the fashions of four European countries that visited Australia before and in the early stages of colonialisation: Spain, The Netherlands, England and France. It asks 'what makes a person civilised?' and suggests how different history might have been if those Europeans had realised that the Aborigines were indeed civilised. For Aboriginal Australians were certainly civilised, as James Cook appreciated.
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Australia National Maritime Museum
Every day 9.30 am - 5 pm
Extend to 6.00 pm in January
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+61 2 9298 3777