William Yang: The beach


William Yang, like many of his fellow Australian photographers, cannot help but be fascinated with the beach. In 1969, Yang left Brisbane for the bright lights of Sydney, and he fell in love with the city. At a distance from his family and Queensland’s conservatism, Sydney provided an opportunity for reinvention.

It was here that he combined his two photographic passions — landscape and people. Yang embraced the bleached allure of the city’s eastern beaches and took many iconic photographs of Bondi, Tamarama and Clovelly.

DELVE DEEPER: Read more about the work of William Yang


William Yang, Australia b.1943 / I Was Happy Here 1984 / Inkjet print on Innova Softex paper / 29 x 37cm / Collection: William Yang / © William Yang
William Yang, Australia b.1943 / The Pool at Bondi #1 1987 / Gelatin silver photographs / 23.3 x 41.5cm (two parts, overall) / Purchased 2001 / Collection: The University of Queensland / © William Yang


William Yang, Australia b.1943 / Tamarama Lifesavers 1981 / Inkjet print on Hahnemühle Fine Art Pearl / 39 x 70cm / Collection: William Yang / © William Yang


William Yang, Australia b.1943 / Great Wave off Clovelly 2005/2016 / Inkjet print on Hahnemühle Fine Art Pearl / 40 x 40cm / Collection: William Yang / © William Yang

Australian photography and the beach ultimately calls to mind Max Dupain’s Sunbaker 1937 (illustrated). Yang regularly took portraits of photographers in order to champion the artists behind the camera that Yang felt were often overlooked. Yang photographed Max Dupain (illustrated) in 1991 one year before Dupain’s death.

Yang’s beach images present a refreshingly different framing of the typical Australian beach scene. The usual shots of bronzed female bodies or recreational pursuits take a backseat. Instead, Yang takes immense joy in the male figure, and his works represent a desirous male gaze on desirable male bodies.

Max Dupain

Max Dupan, Australia 1911-92 / Sunbaker 1937, printed early 1970s / Gelatin silver photograph on paper / 39.1 x 42.5cm (comp.) / Purchased 1995. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Max Dupain/ Copyright Agency
William Yang, Australia b.1943 / Max Dupain. Studio 1991 / Inkjet print on solid substrate Kapaplast / Collection: William Yang / © William Yang

The beach captured Yang’s eye from early in his career. At the time he started exploring the beach in his new Sydney home, Yang was also a jobbing social photographer, capturing celebrities and the ‘beautiful people’ behind the scenes at A-list parties for magazines. His approach to this work was in the photo-journalist style of capturing the unguarded moment. 

Of his passion for taking images of the beach, Yang is a romantic at heart and has said:

There’s an impulse in me that makes me go for the runny make-up, the unguarded moment, the Freudian slip. I mean I could photograph the plastic bags in the water, the rolls of fat, but the beach brings out the romantic in me. I’m overwhelmed by the beauty of it — the space, the surf, the sand and all that flesh. I’ve never gotten beyond the obvious.

Rosie Hays is Associate Curator, Australian Cinémathèque, QAGOMA, and Curator of ‘William Yang: Seeing and Being Seen’

William Yang, Australia b.1943 / Golden Summer 1987/2016 / Inkjet print, gold leaf on Innova Softex paper / 40 x 30 cm / Purchased 2021 with funds from Cora Trevarthen and Andrew Reeves through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © William Yang

Buy the publication

The accompanying publication William Yang: Seeing and Being Seen explores the artist’s prolific practice. The 220-page hardcover monograph features reproductions of over 200 photographs, tracing Yang’s career from his heady early days as a social photographer in the 1970s documenting Sydney’s queer scene, family ties, sexual and cultural identity, and the Australian landscape. It also examines his deep connections to Queensland / RRP $49.95 / Special limited edition with signed print RRP $300.00 / Available from the QAGOMA Store and online

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Featured image: William Yang / Lifesavers #3 1987 / Inkjet print on Hahnemühle Fie Art Metallic Pearl / 32 x 49.5cm / Collection: William Yang / © William Yang
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