Text by Andrew Stark
As a race of people, Australians live narrowly upon the front patio of a dry and unforgiving land. We cling to the edge like a U2 groupie on a Luna Park fun ride, garnering succour from the ocean’s breeze and that squishy feel of sea weed pushing up between our toes. From Cottesloe to Bondi, past Silver Sands and St Kilda, the ocean is our oxygen, our outlook, our spiritual core.
And when pondering the chronological machinations of Australian ‘realist’ photography one is struck almost instantly by an over riding motif of the beach and that playful verve to be found upon the waters edge. For every Aussie snapper has paid fulsome homage to this timeless union of sand, wave and the SPF15+ way of life.
A closer look through the ‘Down Under’ portfolio of coastal capture illuminates a clear evolution. Let us focus on three specific photographs, consummate images shot by leading representatives from three distinct generations of Australian photography. All shot in black & white, the photographs were taken 67 years apart and their combination serves to minimally map the maturation of a youthful nation in a profound sequence I’ve labelled – The Dolphin Effect.
The first of our exulted trinity is Max Dupain’s iconic 1937 photograph, “The Sunbaker”. A masterful work of measured modernist form, “The Sunbaker” depicts a macho looking bronzed Aussie male lying in the traditional melanoma pose of yesteryear, soaking up the rays and oozing a kind of semi conscious horizontal swagger. This was nabbed in an era when men were men and tackling nature head on, preferably without a shirt on, was just one of those everyday things the hairy-chested gender was expected to do. The shape of this powerful looking figure bears a striking resemblance to the great monolith, “Uluru” and just as with the big red rock, the photograph emits a dry and crisp feel with only the barest hint of water to be seen.
Jumping forward to 1975 and specifically Roger Scott’s energetic surf candid “Queenscliff”, we view a picture captured just off Sydney’s northern beaches. It shows a male plunging backwards into the surf with only his legs remaining unsubmerged; pointing skywards and showing a clean pair of heels toward our New Zealand cousins, it is an image that imparts a marvellous sense of ease and playfulness. This is the transition photo in our evolutionary set; Dupain’s dry and stiff pre war land creature has risen from his stupor on the sand and strolled toward the wet stuff before light heartedly plunging, with reverse pike into the cooling breakers.
Our metamorphosis becomes complete upon observing Trent Parke’s “Untitled #10” image from the “The Seventh Wave” series, a body of work he produced with his wife and fellow photographer Narelle Autio during the dying days of the twentieth century. For within this wholly underwater vista we bare witness to a collective of anonymous figures gliding ethereally within a serene dream world of embryonic delight. Fluidity and an ad hoc style, dance with an effortless surrealism; the silhouetted central figure assuming an Astro Boy in the sky with diamonds kind of persona as Dupain’s “Sunbaker” loosens to the point of trippy high intoxication.
And so you can see, just as it has been along the evolutionary path of the snub nosed dolphin, which began it’s curious journey as the African land creature Mesonychidae before passing through the amphibious, or Roger Scott stage, ultimately settling on the highly intelligent marine mammal we’re familiar with today –Australian beach photography has moved from high up on the dry sand, down through the breaking waves, to a vast watery wonderment. And in using these particular images, a triplex of sturdy, symbolic pylons have been highlighted; an underpinning that’s served to truss the Aussie pier to an open aired corridor of limitless creative opportunity.
For upon this very boardwalk, further Australian photographers have wandered and observed before dangling twitchy toes into the rip of a salty shore line creation: Axel Poignant, Kerry Dundas, Narelle Autio, Andrew Stark, Christine Godden, Craig Golding, Andrew Quilty, Tim Hixson, Rennie Ellis, William Yang… and the list, just like the bubbling surf at Bondi, goes on forever…
Left, ©Axel Poignant; Right, ©Kerry Dundas