Sydney Modernism – James Allan


Roya Geale puts on a spectacular display of flexibility and balance – Picture Sorce

Frances and I were in Sydney last weekend.  After a trip to the NSW Art Gallery we met for coffee at the State Library of NSW.  “Check out those Max Dupain postcards’.  Sure enough there was a collection of athletic young people on the beach doing dramatic and athletic poses.  The postcards were dynamic and spoke of an era when beach culture, atheleticism and physical strength were esteemed.  It reminded me of my grandfather who every day rode his bike to Brighton beach and swam between the jetties.  We bought several of the cards.  The beach wasn’t Brighton, it was Bondi and the photographer wasn’t Max Dupain,  it was George Caddy.  There is a curious story behind these images, but first let me start with Max Dupain.  It may be of interest to know that the State Library is now the sole owners of the entire Max Dupain catalogue, having acquired it in 2016 from Jill White his studio manager.



Max Dupain came to prominence as a photographer in the 1930’s as he adopted the modernist style that was at the time popular in Europe and the United States.   Perhaps his most famous image ‘sunbaker’ (above) taken of his friend Harold ‘Hal’ Salvage with a roliflex camera in 1937.

‘Dupain understood that his was a mechanical age,’ says Alan (Curator of NSW Library collection) , ‘and it needed a different style of photography. He understood light and the way it could change the shape of an object.’ 


Max made his name in advertising, portrait photography, architecture and his famous beach scenes.  He was a “go to” photographer for Sydney architects, capturing the clipped lined and smooth curves of the modernist era.  He photographed the building of the Sydney opera house.

Chris Vandyke, an architect, had joined Dupain on camping trips to Culburra Beach on the south coast of New South Wales. He compiled an album of 108 original photographs by Dupain and his partner Olive Cotton.  Chris described the album merely as

“The photos of a camping holiday on the south coast ‘reflected some of the simplicity of life during the great depression and showed the pleasure of having ‘such good, interesting friends’.

After his death the album was donated to the State Library of NSW.  The album is what the curator Alan Davies calls ‘the holy grail of Australian photography’.

So it was understandable that I had mistaken George Caddy’s work for the more illustrious Dupain.  So who was George Caddy and how did these images appear in the NSW library coffee shop?

1939-05-07-N556-GeorgeGeorge was a lowly paper pattern cutter living in Bondi at the same time as Max Dupain, between the wars.  Unlike Max he was not professional, but an amateur photographer, who had won awards in local club competition at the junior level.  He had not received recognition in the senior competition,  interestingly the same club as Max Dupain.  He was just like me.  He photographed his hobbies, beach athletics and jitterbug dancing.  Check out that wheeled tripod!  After serving in the second world war he gave up photography to pursue the family life with his wife and new son.  After his death on 1983 his son discovered a box of 290 negatives that he donated to the NSW library.   The collection reveals a world of young fashion an obsession with fitness and athletic prowess.  No wonder these images are so captivating.

This email was sent in 2007 from photographer Jon Lewis to Alan Davies, former Curator of Photography at the State Library of NSW. ‘

“You’ve got to see these. They’re of Bondi and they’re sensational.” 

The negatives were numbered, but contained no notes.  This was after all the library, and they did what they do best.   The Library’s team got to work with books, magazines, newspapers, electoral rolls, telephone directories and their own manuscripts, pictures and online resources. Gradually, the images – and most of the people in the photographs – were identified.

And so a box of unidentified pre-war film negatives introduced Australia to one of its most significant amateur photographers.

I immensely enjoyed these images and the story.

So here are my tips

  1. Go to the website and read about the NSW State Library collections of Max Dupain and George Caddy.
  2. Go to the coffee shop at the state Library and buy the post cards of George Caddy
  3. Go into the library and explore the photography collections.

James Allan