Max Dupain’s Slaughtered Mangroves

“All industry has an aesthetic and it is up to the photographer to discover it” — Max Dupain

As one of the most prolific and celebrated photographers of the 20th century, Max Dupain needs little introduction. A true documentarian of Australian life, perhaps most famous for capturing the beach-side culture of Sydney in his iconic image Sunbaker (1937), Dupain worked as both an artist and as a commercial photographer for a wide variety of clients.

Of his commercial work, which included architecture, studio portraits, and cultural events, some of his less-known images are from photoshoots that occurred in Newcastle and Lake Macquarie. Among these was a photo essay of the wartime efforts undertaken at the lakeside Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) base in Rathmines.

Open hull workboat motoring into RAAF Rathmines, c. 1943.

After the war, the removal of embargos on iron and steel exports in 1961 saw Australian steel output more than quadruple between 1960 and 1970. Dupain, by then a seasoned photographer of industry, came to Newcastle to capture the BHP steelworks in 1969. He was said to have found industrial photography to be just as glamorous as any other subject matter.

The exterior of the No 1 blast furnace at BHP, 1969

While shooting at BHP, Dupain appears to have been drawn to what was happening on the opposite side of the harbour — the extensive land clearing of mangroves, and the remnants of this destruction.

Exactly what compelled Dupain to capture these dead trees, whether he understood the ecological devastation that had occurred or simply found them to be compelling visual subjects is unknown, however, the particular use of the word “slaughtered” in the series title is a provocative choice. Regardless of Dupain’s intent, as a record of this particular time, these photos are rare and invaluable documents of a little-seen aspect of local history.

What they show is that by at least 1969, these native mangroves had been almost entirely eradicated along this 6km stretch of Kooragang Island. As we know today, this means far more than a loss of greenery — it means a loss of habitat for birds and crabs, the loss of breeding grounds for fish and prawns, the loss of a first line of defense for flooding, and the loss of a much-needed natural filtration system for the river.

In his quote, “All industry has an aesthetic and it is up to the photographer to discover it”, Dupain was clearly talking about the spectacle of architecture and engineering, but it’s interesting to relate these words to these images, a product of the industrialisation of the Hunter Estuary.

Today, this narrow stretch of the riverbank that fringes Cormorant Road has been almost entirely regenerated with productive mangrove forest. These photos now serve as a reminder of not only the mistakes of the past but, more positively, the vast potential for correcting those mistakes in the present. With the industrial smog, sun-bleached wood, and seemingly dead soil depicted in these photos it’s hard to imagine that this could ever be returned to a functioning wetlands environment, and yet, thankfully, it has happened.

“Slaughtered Mangrove” with BHP Steelworks in the background

Dupain would once again return to Newcastle in 1979 where he photographed container ships, cranes, and other industrial activities on the harbour.

Images: State Library of New South Wales.

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Categorized as Fathoms
Heath Killen

By Heath Killen

Heath Killen is the founder and editor of On A Floating World. Born and raised in Newcastle, he is passionate about the coastline and waterways surrounding his home. Elsewhere he helps people develop brands, campaigns, and projects based on their passions.