While Australian photographer Max Dupain is best known for his famous image Sunbaker, he’s also responsible for one of the most iconic photographs ever taken of Kings Cross.
We find out more about Australia’s most influential photographer and the landmark photographs he captured of Sydney’s east.
Max Dupain: Australia’s most iconic photographer
Max Dupain is arguably the nation’s best-known photographer, famous for his black and white images of Australian life and culture in the 20th century.
Dupain was born in 1911 and grew up in Ashfield, but his association with Sydney’s east began when he attended Sydney Grammar in the 1920s. His lifelong passion for photography was sparked while he was still in high school when his uncle gifted him a camera. After school, Dupain studied at East Sydney Technical College, housed in the old Darlinghurst Gaol (now the National Art School), before opening a commercial photography studio in 1934.
In 1935, Dupain’s work was featured in the magazine Art in Australia, published by Sydney Ure Smith. Ure Smith was a Potts Point local (he lived in the iconic apartment building Manar), a good friend of Kings Cross artists and bohemians like William Dobell, and an artist in his own right.
Dupain’s inclusion in Ure Smith’s publication was a pivotal moment in the establishment of his career, and by the late 1930s, he was a leading modernist photographer. He experimented with different techniques, like photomontage and solarisation, and the dramatic use of light in his black and white photographs became one of his signatures.
Rush Hour in King’s Cross, 1938
In the 1930s, Kings Cross was a magnet for people seeking artistic, intellectual or social change, with its urban environment fostering a bohemian vibe. It had its own cinema and repertory theatre, cafes that stayed open after 11 pm and nightclubs that became the place to go when the city clubs closed. This was the Cross that Max Dupain sought to capture with his iconic photograph Rush Hour in King’s Cross, taken from the window of a flat belonging to relatives of Australian war cinematographer and photographer Damien Parer in 1938. It depicts the frenetic energy of city-bound trams juxtaposed against a string of traffic-jammed cars at Darlinghurst Rd and William St. Before the Kings Cross Tunnel was opened in 1975, this junction was the first stop east of the city, always bustling. The image portrays the growing sense of national confidence evident in Australia at the time, as well as the rising pressures and stresses of modern life. Today, almost 85 years after its creation, Rush Hour in King’s Cross is an iconic representation of the energy and vibrancy of our neighbourhood and a glimpse into the Cross of the past.
Australian beach culture and buildings
Max Dupain’s work encompassed most genres, including portraits, landscapes and still life, and he was one of the first Australian photographers to focus on studies of the nude, but he was best known for his photographs of Australian beach culture. His most famous image, Sunbaker, was taken on a South Coast beach in 1937, but it didn’t rise to prominence until the National Gallery purchased a print of it in 1976. By the 1990s, it was firmly entrenched as Australia’s most famous photograph. Another equally iconic Dupain Australian beach image, Bondi, was taken here in Sydney’s eastern suburbs in 1939. While he took several photographs of this particular couple, it was the photograph of the woman tweaking her swimmers that captured the public’s imagination.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Dupain’s work was dominated by architectural photography. His architectural photographs highlighted a structure’s simple shapes and designs, emphasising their abstract qualities. While he developed working relationships with a number of leading architects, his association with Harry Seidler was a standout. Dupain photographed many of Seidler’s buildings, including the Ithaca Gardens apartment building in Elizabeth Bay.
Max Dupain devoted his life to achieving excellence in photography, continuing to take photographs until a few months before his death in 1992. Today his negatives are in the collection of the State Library of NSW.
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Photo credit: NGV