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Q&A with artist William Yang about the 'Under the Sun' exhibition

William Yang is one of the 15 artists whose work features in our exhibition Under the Sun: Reimagining Max Dupain's Sunbaker, held in partnership with the Australian Centre for Photography - on show until 17 April. William Yang tells us a little about how he approached the challenge of reimagining the iconic Sunbaker image. 

Image of the back of a man wearing budgie smugglers. Gold leaf has been applied to the image.

William Yang, Golden Summer, 1987, printed 2016 . Courtesy the artist and Stills Gallery, Sydney.

When did you first encounter the Sunbaker and what were your initial impressions of it?

I had been aware of the Sunbaker as an image but remember clearly seeing it as part of an exhibition at David Jones Gallery in the city around the 1990s. I’d always liked the image and I thought of buying a print as it was only $1500. It seemed a bargain at the time but it was a lot for me so I left the collecting to others. I like the formalism of the work and the architecture of its shape.

How did you reimagine the Sunbaker in your work?

The Sunbaker is concordant with a series of my work about the beach. This gave me a chance to reimagine my collection of photos of the beach and edit them down. I had some classics like 'Checking Out Bondi', 'Tamarama Lifesavers' and 'Fighting Boys' which I wanted to show but I also wanted to update some of the images in a contemporary context. So it became 40 years of photographing the beach in Sydney under the title “SUMMER a suite of images.”

What influenced the direction or medium for your work?

The vast body of my work is taken in the photojournalist or documentary tradition, but I can tamper with the images to give them a more contemporary feel. One of the ways I can do this is to write on the images and to place them in a narrative of time and place. As an extension of writing I also drew on the image 'Great Wave Off Clovelly', and I put gold leaf on 'Golden Summer', which added a new dimension to the photographic print.

What challenges did you face in creating this work?

Part of my work involves projecting images and I wanted to do a projection piece. I had a collection of images from the time I lived in South Bondi in the 80s and it was part of my Sydney collection. I’d already used a short version of this in my film “My Generation”, so I extended the piece from about 40 seconds to four minutes and I got the composer, Daniel Holdsworth, to extend the soundtrack. Then I had to talk the curator into projecting the piece rather than showing it as a video on a monitor. Certainly the latter option is easier but a projected piece has an entirely different quality, and I was so pleased that Claire went to the trouble of projecting the piece - a plinth was built to house the projector, to comply with my wishes.

Has creating this work changed the way you think about the Sunbaker?

The image has stood the test of time, it’s still a very attractive image. I don’t think I’ve changed my thinking about it, but it has reinforced an idea I’ve always had about photography – that a photograph captures a moment in time. The beach is still a big part of Australian culture today.

You can hear more from William Yang on his contribution to the exhibition here

William Yang will be at the State Library on Saturday 8 April for the panel event
- Visualising a Nation - the politics of an image.

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