You might have seen the story re the State Library of NSW’s recent acquisition of a photo album containing a different version of Max Dupain’s well-known 1937 ‘Sunbaker’ photo.
That Max disliked the widely published version doesn’t strike me as headline cultural news (well done to the State Library’s pr people tho). But the fact that the story was front page is confirmation of Max’s own annoyance that what has become a nostalgic salute to the old Australia of beaches and sunshine is more famous than his urban portfolio, the defining majority of Dupain’s output. The Library rubs it in somewhat by referring to the Sunbaker as ‘the holy grail of Australian photography’.
The Sunbaker photos are part of an album donated to the Library by Tony Vandyke. Tony’s father Chris Vandyke was part of the south coast holiday which produced the ‘iconic’ snap. Chris Vandyke was a builder who in 1937 was producing cheap pre-fabricated houses. A good friend of Dupain, Vandyke was also a leading light of MARS, the Modern Architectural Research Society, an alliance of young architects, writers and others keen to translate contemporary Modernism’s focus on affordable, liveable housing into practical action in Australia. For a few years MARS’ activism eclipsed the architectural establishment in profile and was important in the creation of large-scale public housing programs during the 1940s; MARS member Walter Bunning was the first ceo of the Commonwealth Housing Commission.
Dupain was the leading photographic proponent of this campaign and his work to this end included photography of Vandyke Brothers’ prefabricated housing, including some of the hundreds produced for the NSW Housing Commission during the 1940s and 1950s.
During the 1990s Tony Vandyke donated a group of these photos to the Powerhouse; I’ve made use of them in my Fibro frontier and Designer Suburbs books. Apart from the aesthetic symbiosis between Dupain’s high-contrast monochrome and the hard-edged functionalism of his era, Dupain created a comprehensive record of this period of headlong urban growth.
These streets of prefab fibro houses appeared almost overnight along unmade suburban streets. Max’s photos of them are as true a record of Australian life as anything he shot. Holy grails and icons are something else, I guess.
Charles Pickett, curator