My cousin Doug gave them to me with other objects Elmer and his wife Madge collected over the years. A ferry captain plying the strait between the two islands of the New Zealand archipelago, Elmer, a Dane, became an alcoholic after Madge's death. I remember a brief period when he occupied my brother's vacant bedroom during my final years at high school. He would go down the bayside parade to the Watson's Bay pub every afternoon. On his return, more often than not, he would weep alone in his borrowed room, until he fell asleep.
The photographs evidence an extreme purity of conception that I associated with the work of Max Dupain, an Australian photographer active in the same years these were taken, the 1930s. Dupain, I remembered, had been associated with the popular pseudo-science of eugenics, a few years ago.
I contacted an academic, who initially brushed me off. I already knew as much about the photos as she told me in her email. When pressed, she directed me to Isobel Crombie, a curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, who published a catalogue, Body Culture: Max Dupain, Photography and Australian Culture 1919-1930, in 2004.
Anne Maxwell also alerted me to a thesis, also by Crombie, which I found on the University of Melbourne's Web site. "As far as I know this work spends a lot of time discussing Du Pain's photographs in terms of his ideas about vitalism -- a particular branch of eugenics to do with the body beautiful and health," says Maxwell. Crombie starts off, as is usual, with acknowledgements:
The idea for this thesis first began around 1984 when I was working as a Curatorial Assistant of Photography at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. At that time, my colleague, Martyn Jolly, proposed an idea for an exhibition exploring vitalism in Australian photography of the 1930s. Although the exhibition did not progress beyond the theoretical, I found the linkage of vitalism and photography intriguing and I started to read in the area. Other projects intervened but, in 1992, my interests were revived when Max Dupain died and previously unpublished photographs from his archive began to appear on the art market. Among these works was a group of photographs from the 1930s that featured naked white Australians posing in sand dunes. These images were so unlike anything produced in this country that I knew they warranted further research.
Hence her thesis, which is dated June 1999. The abstract is on the Melbourne Uni Web site linked above.
Madge was born in 1910 and died in 1970. Her elder brother (not my grandfather) was a judge of the Victorian Supreme Court and chancellor of the University of Melbourne from 1954 to 1966, and was knighted in 1960. I don't have the dates of Elmer's birth and death, but Max Dupain lived from 1911 to 1992. They were his exact contemporaries.
These photographs apparently came in a set of 24, but I've only got the nine. Some are more 'modernist', in that they possess abstract qualities that are self-consciously artistic. Others are more like what Crombie saw in those early Dupains: just "naked white [women] posing in sand dunes". Dupain was the apprentice of Cecil Bostock from 1930-33. But a Bostock nude is quite different in type from these.
They have 'Das Deutsche Aktwerk' (German act-work) on the back and 'tafel' (board) with a number. Mine are 5, 9, 12, 14, 15, 18, 21, 22, and 24. To frame them all, even with a plain frame, will probably cost me something in the order of $600.
Another item of Elmer's is an old-fashioned photo album with dozens of snaps taken in a European country where there are mountains. It could, of course, be New Zealand.