Rick Poynor | Exposure

Exposure: Newport Baths by Max Dupain

 At Newport by Max Dupain, 1952. Collection: Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

When it comes to photographs of people, there is probably no subject more Australian than the beach picture and Max Dupain (1911-92) was the master. From the 1930s, Dupain, a sun lover himself, often returned to the beach scene, although his most famous picture, Sunbaker—quite possibly the most familiar and iconic Australian photograph of all—didn’t become widely known until a retrospective exhibition of his work in 1975.

Dupain took At Newport in 1952 at the Newport Baths, as it was then known, a sea-water pool next to the Pacific Ocean about 20 miles north of Sydney. It’s an ambiguous photograph in more ways than one because the angle of the shot makes it seem as if the tremendous weight of the sea is being held back by nothing stronger than a low wall, with the water rising almost to the brim. Dupain’s viewpoint turns the top of the wall into a taught line across the picture and his five bathers are strung out along it and held in tension like forms on a wire. As one prepares to dive, his counterweight, the sinewy young man, descends on the dry side. At the picture’s edges, the girls in bathing caps counterbalance the boy with hunched shoulders. The distant pilars along the side of the pool duplicate these intervals. There appears to be some indecision, though, about the crop Dupain intended on the right. A print in his archive shows space between the right-hand girl and the edge, which is better, while a print in a national collection omits her entirely. Losing her disembodied head and intense concentration on the diver weakens the photograph. (There is also a second picture of bathers from the same group.)

At Newport can be straightforwardly construed as another celebration by Dupain the dedicated modernist of the vitalizing power of sunlight and the exuberant Australianness of the beach, but there is an alternative way of reading it. An essay in Dupain’s Sydney (1999) notes that the photographer didn’t like people very much, valued solitude, and would rather be doing something than have to talk. (He was remarkably industrious, leaving an archive of more than a million pictures.) This group of bathers is together but disconnected. Two faces are hidden and unknowable, looking down at the water, and the others are half-concealed in shadow, lost in their own thoughts. Then there is the ungainly shape cast by the young man’s long legs, which serves as a foil to the dark tones of the rising land. The shadow introduces an element of discord and adds to the mood of subtle disquiet.


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