Coastal impressions

As a photographer Pietro Zanaboni brings the observation of a cultural anthropologist to his work. His record of the beach-goers of the Northern Beaches of Sydney attempts to document how people are behaving at the start of the 21st century.

It is a massive task, and naturally he describes his portfolio as a partial document, but there is enough material here to raise the question, how will our descendants regard our behaviour? [conitnue to read >> scroll down >> after gallery]
source:; book available on

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We think of our beach-going pleasures as timeless, yet it is not so long ago, only a little over a hundred years, that there were strong social taboos on bathing during the hours of daylight. Sydney Councils employed “Inspectors of Nuisances” to enforce the bizarre regulations. Even after public opinion had evolved enough to allow all-day bathing, there were still strict notions as to what constituted a permissible bathing-costume. Decency demanded a costume covering its wearer from neck to knee. It is only relatively recently that costumes have become abbreviated enough for comfort.

Similarly, when we watch surfers, we think that people are practicing an ancient activity, yet its evolution into the skilful adrenaline-fuelled sport of today is also of relatively recent origin, with the Northern Beaches playing an important role in its development. Improvements in board design, coupled with advances in costume and technique, mean that the sport looks very different from a century ago – as do its practitioners. In a memorable phrase, a journalist described how early surf-board enthusiasts “rode the surf like gods”. The mystical appeal of surfing allows the assertion that it will always be an important activity on Sydney’s beaches.

With the acceptance of all-day bathing, and the popularity of surfing, other social structures arose to accommodate beach-goers. Surf life-saving evolved and with it grew the almost legendary figure of the Aussie life-saver. Surf life-saving clubs established premises on the beaches, necessitating advances in architectural design. The surf life-saving clubs remain important organisations in the coastal community, and it is a foolish politician who ignores their wishes, for the altruism of surf life-savers is a very attractive aspect of Australian society.

The ocean, dangerous yet alluring, forever tempts people to test themselves against its mysteries. A generation of bathers were conscious of the fate of young life-saver Leon Hermes, taken by a shark at North Steyne in April 1934, and teenager David Paton killed by a shark at South Steyne in February 1936. A shark tower was built at the end of South Steyne, from the top of which lifesavers continually monitored the water with powerful binoculars for the signs of a shark’s presence near the beach. The tower was strikingly portrayed by the photographer Max Dupain in several black-and-white images, offering a powerful vertical contrast to the low, flat life-saving building alongside, a prize-winning architectural design from 1938.

But sharks are not the only danger, and there are notorious rips and currents along the Northern Beaches which can trap the unwary. Gartrell’s Hole at South Steyne owes its name to Captain Arthur Gartrell, who drowned there in March 1916 when on leave from the army, but there have been many unremembered victims. From 1820-1970 around 200 drownings have taken place in the waters around Manly, despite the best efforts of the surf life-savers – some of the victims have been drowned when their boats capsized, others were suicides taking place under cover of darkness, but in every case, the body was deposited on the beach to await a shocked discovery. The presence of life-savers patrolling the beach must always leave the possibility of drowning in the minds of the bathers, and explains the elation in their expression when they emerge from the pounding surf unharmed.

Zanaboni brings the perspective of an outsider, but a highly observant outsider. How will these photographs be seen in fifty or a hundred years’ time? It is certain that what at present may strike us as quotidian, even banal, will have acquired a marvellous historical value impossible to predict at this moment. The costumes, hairstyles, amusements will have changed, and no doubt will be seen as risible, naive or quaint, but the bathers’ expressions and the intention of their bodies will still have a timeless resonance. Some coastal impressions are fleeting, some will last forever.

John MacRitchie 2012.