Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Dupain, Maxwell Spencer (Max) (1911–1992)

by Helen Ennis

This article was published online in 2020

Max Dupain, by Clive Kane, 1960

Max Dupain, by Clive Kane, 1960

National Library of Australia, 23235698

Maxwell Spencer Dupain (1911–1992), photographer, was born on 22 April 1911 at Ashfield, Sydney, only child of Sydney-born parents George Zephirin Dupain, physical culture expert, and his wife Thomasine Jane (Ena), née Farnsworth. George, a pioneer in the physical fitness movement in Australia, had founded the Dupain Institute of Physical Education, Sydney, in 1900, and wrote extensively on physical education, diet, and nutrition. As a boy Max worked out at his father’s gymnasium. He later attributed his Romantic nature to the combination of his father’s French and his mother’s Irish ancestry. The family lived on Parramatta Road, close to other members of the Dupain and Farnsworth families. Max accompanied his mother to Church of England services at St John’s Church, Ashfield, but as an adult was not religious, attributing his views to his father’s scientific rationalism.

Educated at Ashfield Preparatory and Sydney Grammar schools, Dupain did not thrive academically, and did not complete the Leaving certificate. He enjoyed athletics, rowing, and the arts. In 1924 his uncle Clarence Farnsworth, an amateur photographer, gave him his first camera. His creativity in photography was recognised at Grammar through the award of the Carter memorial prize for the productive use of spare time in 1928. That year he joined the Photographic Society of New South Wales and presented his early works in the prevailing soft-focus Pictorialist style in the society’s exhibitions. His contribution to the society’s 1932 Interstate Exhibition of Pictorial Photography attracted praise from the eminent photographer and critic Harold Cazneaux.

Leaving school in 1930, Dupain was apprenticed to the photographer Cecil Bostock. His three years with Bostock gave him a rigorous technical training. At the same time, he attended evening art classes at Julian Ashton’s Sydney Art School and East Sydney Technical College, where he developed basic skills in drawing. In 1934, with financial support from his family, he opened a modest studio with a shared darkroom at 24 Bond Street. The timing was auspicious as Australia was recovering from the Depression and the demand for advertising, society, and celebrity photography was growing. Following his move to larger premises in the same building, he employed Geoffrey Powell (1937–38) and Damien Parer (1938–39). The photographer Olive Edith Cotton joined his studio in 1934 as the general assistant. Dupain had met her in 1924 through his father’s business partnership with her uncle Max Cotton; the couple married on 29 April 1939 in a Methodist service at her home; they separated in August 1941, and divorced in February 1944.

The patronage of the publisher Sydney Ure Smith was crucial in establishing Dupain’s career. In 1935 Ure Smith featured his work in Art in Australia and invited him to review J. T. Scoby’s book on the international surrealist photographer Man Ray for The Home magazine. By the late 1930s Dupain was recognised as a leading modernist photographer whose work responded to the realities of contemporary life. He experimented with different techniques, including photomontage and solarisation, and developed a style characterised by a dramatic use of light. Throughout his career his preferred medium was black and white photography. His subject matter was diverse, encompassing still lifes, landscapes, and cityscapes, and he was one of the first Australian photographers to focus on studies of the nude, both male and female. Ure Smith would later publish the first monograph on Dupain in 1948.

Dupain’s passionate advocacy of modernist photography extended beyond his own commercial and personal work. From the late 1930s he played an important role as a commentator in photography magazines and later as photography critic for the Sydney Morning Herald. He was a founding member of the Contemporary Camera Groupe in 1938, formed to counter the prevailing conservatism of Australian photography. His Romantic outlook was shaped by his self-declared heroes in literature, music, and the arts: Beethoven, Shakespeare, D. H. Lawrence, Llewellyn Powys, and the Australian artist Norman Lindsay, whose book Creative Effort was particularly influential. His pantheon of photographers included Man Ray, George Hoyningen-Huene (whom he met in Sydney in 1937), and Margaret Bourke-White.

In 1941 the Dupain studio joined the photo-engraving firm Hartland & Hyde Pty Ltd and relocated to Clarence Street. From 1942 to 1945 Dupain was employed in a civilian capacity as a camoufleur with the Royal Australian Air Force in Darwin, New Guinea, and Goodenough Island, off the north-east coast of Papua, taking photographs that revealed the effectiveness of different kinds of camouflage. Olive Cotton ran the studio in his absence. He joined the Commonwealth Department of Information in late 1945 and travelled around Australia taking photographs for the government’s publicity campaign to attract migrants to Australia.

On 25 November 1946 Dupain married Diana Palmer Illingworth, a status clerk, at the District Registrar’s Office, Chatswood; she later became a social worker. From 1953 until his death they lived at The Scarp, Castlecrag, in a house designed by the modernist Australian architect Arthur Baldwinson, and surrounded by a native garden cultivated by Dupain. In the postwar period his orientation in photography changed and he championed a documentary approach which involved working outdoors, using sunlight, and celebrating spontaneity and naturalness. Although he disdained the artificiality of the studio, he continued working in advertising but increasingly focused on architectural and industrial photography. He established close working relationships with eminent architects including Samuel Lipson, John D. Moore, Walter Bunning, and, in later years, Sydney Ancher and especially Harry Seidler. A reluctant traveller, he made only one trip to Europe in his lifetime, in 1978, to photograph the Australian Embassy in Paris designed by Seidler.

During the 1970s Dupain emerged as a key figure in the Australian art photography movement following his retrospective exhibition at the Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney, which introduced his now best-known photograph, Sunbaker, to the public. This image encapsulated his interest in body culture and embrace of the outdoors: it came to be identified with a characteristically Australian way of life. Numerous shows and publications followed, along with representation in all major public collections in Australia, including the National Gallery of Australia. He had formed Max Dupain & Associates in 1971, initially located at Artarmon, where colleagues included Jill White and Eric Sierins, and continued working until 1991.

Described by his second wife as a ‘complex character’ (Dupain 1993, 458), Dupain was not a social person and was intense, single-minded, and disciplined. His approach to photography was predicated on his belief that the viewer must be involved both emotionally and intellectually, and he devoted his life to achieving excellence in his practice. Becoming an honorary fellow of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects in 1980, he was appointed OBE in 1981 and AC in 1992. He died on 27 July 1992 at Castlecrag, survived by his wife and their daughter and son, and was cremated. After his death his archive was divided into two: the art and personal negatives remained with his family and the commercial negatives were consolidated into the Max Dupain Exhibition Negative Archive, now in the collection of the State Library of New South Wales.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Art Gallery of New South Wales. MS2000.3, Papers of Max Dupain
  • Crombie, Isobel. Body Culture: Max Dupain, Photography and Australian Culture, 1919–1939. Mulgrave, Vic.: Peleus Press in association with the National Gallery of Victoria, 2004
  • Dupain, Diana. ‘Maxwell Spencer Dupain.’ Sydneian 329 (1993): 458–60
  • Dupain, Max. ‘Australian Camera Personalities: Max Dupain.’ Contemporary Photography (January–February 1947): 15–16, 56–59
  • Dupain, Max. Max Dupain. Edited and with Biographical Essay by Gael Newton. Sydney: David Ell Press, 1980
  • Dupain, Max. Max Dupain’s Australia. Ringwood, Vic.: Viking, 1986
  • Lakin, Shaune. Max and Olive: The Photographic Life of Olive Cotton and Max Dupain. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2016. Exhibition catalogue
  • Max Dupain — Modernist. Curated by Avryl Whitnall. Sydney: State Library of New South Wales, 2007. Exhibition catalogue
  • Max Dupain on Assignment. Canberra: National Archives of Australia in association with Noel Butlin Archives Centre, Australian National University, 2007
  • Max Dupain: Photographs. Curated by Helen Ennis and Kylie Scroope. Canberra: Australian National Gallery, 1991. Exhibition catalogue
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • White, Jill. Dupain’s Australians, text by Frank Moorhouse. Neutral Bay, NSW: Chapter & Verse, 2003

Additional Resources

Citation details

Helen Ennis, 'Dupain, Maxwell Spencer (Max) (1911–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dupain-maxwell-spencer-max-27243/text34760, published online 2020, accessed online 17 February 2020.

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