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To the Max

Photographic portraiture and lighting

The Amazing Face, lesson 3

Today we will LOOK at portraits by photographer Max Dupain; THINK about photographic portraiture and lighting; READ articles by Gael Newton and Johanna McMahon; DO a couple of activities and finish with a quiz.

Max Dupain was one of Australia’s most successful photographers, known in particular for his rigorously modernist architectural images and for figure studies such as The Sunbaker (1937), which richly evokes inter-war Australia’s idea of itself as fit, youthful and outdoorsy. Yet portraiture also accounted for much of Dupain’s output during the 1930s, specifically the portraits he created for clients like David Jones and magazines such as the uber-stylish art, fashion and design bible The Home. Dupain’s portrait of Hera Roberts, another member of The Home’s stable of artists, demonstrates both his interest in surrealism and his signature facility with light. Today we will consider this most fundamental element, and looks at how a photographer might manipulate it so as to influence the narrative and reading of a portrait.

Hera Roberts
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Explore other portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection by Max Dupain.

Tamara Tchinarova
Norman Lindsay
1 Tamara Tchinarova, 1938. 2 Norman Lindsay, 1936. Both Max Dupain OBE.


I like few people ... to go into a room of strangers is a chore for me ... I can effect a relationship, but afterwards, I think: was it worth it?

Read the Portrait article Vintage Max by Gael Newton.

Nestled safely in the basement stores of the National Portrait Gallery lies a box containing 30 photographs by Max Dupain. They form part of a larger private collection of vintage prints by the iconic Australian photographer from which the Gallery has judiciously been acquiring works. (As of December 2018, the Portrait Gallery Collection features some 85 Dupain photographs.) The portraits in the box are diverse. Some are formal commercial headshots, such as that of an avuncular, bespectacled man in a suit who confidently leans into a closely cropped frame; Dupain has captured the man’s amiable expression with refreshing frankness.

Read the Portrait article Dupain Detective by Johanna McMahaon

Solo Activity

Looking around your house, you will probably find lots of photographic portraits – school photos, family photos, baby photos, etc. The invention of the camera and subsequent technological advancements have opened portraiture up as an accessible genre that can be enjoyed by anyone. Take inspiration from Max Dupain and experiment yourself.

You will need: a camera (analogue, digital, smartphone); and various methods for controlling light (blinds or curtains, lamps, torches, room lights, times of day, etc)

  1. Try three lighting setups on the same object at home. This could be as simple as returning to the same location at three different times of day, or perhaps controlling the light artificially with blockout blinds and the careful positioning of lamps or other light sources.
  2. Take a series of photos in the different lighting. You may choose to use a black and white setting or colour.
  3. Review your photographs, observing the impact of lighting, including on shadows, clarity and mood. 

Connected activity

Connect with a friend via a virtual movie night and allow yourself to enjoy some black and white cinematography.

You will need: A black and white movie (suggestions: Casablanca; All About Eve; The Asphalt Jungle; Lilies of the Field; The Artist; Good Night, and Good Luck)

  1. Go through your old DVDs or download a black and white movie to watch. 
  2. Contact a friend so they can watch the same movie.
  3. While watching, be mindful of how lighting affects your perceptions. Consider the ways the director focuses on the characters in close ups to communicate the mood of the film or scene. 
  4. Afterwards chat with your friend on the phone or video messaging about the movie and discuss moments in the film when lighting was used to the story.


What did Max Dupain believe was a greater artform than photography?

Dramatic top and side lighting in photography that was especially fashionable in the 1930s is known as:

Which manufacturer and zoo director is represented in the National Portrait Gallery Collection in a portrait by Max Dupain?

Next lesson

4. Sage advice: Background, setting and landscape

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

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