Max Dupain’s The sunbaker is Australia’s best-known photograph and was printed by the artist in two versions. Although it was taken many years after the First World War, memories of bronzed Anzacs were still strong enough to give this image a nationalist resonance for contemporary viewers. Following the depletions of wartime, sunlight had a special meaning as an elemental force capable of promoting physical and spiritual well-being. Dupain’s subject is a young man who lies ‘sun-slain’ on Culburra Beach in New South Wales, oblivious to anything but the heat on his wet back and the warmth of the sand below. Dupain has positioned his camera almost at ground level in order to emphasise the sunbaker’s domination of his environment and his almost palpable connection with the replenishing forces of nature. Although the young man is an inert, seemingly stupefied presence, we know from his bronzed skin that he is a regular beachgoer. And we know, too, that unlike the damaged returned soldiers, this fit, lithe young man is in only a temporary state of lethargy. When this sunbaker has had enough of the sun’s intoxicating rays he will once again rouse himself to ‘battle’ the surf.

Text © National Gallery of Victoria, Australia


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