‘I would not like to be labelled a romanticist, Pictorialist, modernist or any other “ist”,’ OLIVE COTTON once wrote. ‘I would feel neatly confined to a pigeonhole, whereas I want to feel free to photograph anything that interests me in whatever way I like.’
Olive Cotton, one of Australia’s greatest photographers, always resisted being defined. ‘I would not like to be labelled a romanticist, Pictorialist, modernist or any other “ist”,’ Cotton once wrote, pushing away from any attempt to position her or her work within an art historical category or style. ‘I would feel neatly confined to a pigeonhole, whereas I want to feel free to photograph anything that interests me in whatever way I like.’1
Rather than being contained or restricted by language, dogma or fashion, Cotton saw her work as floating freely, perhaps something like what she always maintained was the primary subject of her practice – light. You can see this at work in her photographs. A landscape Cotton photographed in 1937 – an accumulation of grass, air, trees and rocks – dematerialises and becomes an Orchestration in light. In the photograph The way through the trees 1938, a view of light falling through a forest of spotted gums on Yuin Country near Ulladulla, New South Wales, is completely flattened out, rendered an abstract monotonal study of soft all-overness. These photographs pictorialise the sense of freeness Cotton held on to as a framework for her practice throughout her life.
This sentiment also seems to sum up Cotton’s in-its-way extraordinary life: one that saw her become, during the 1930s, a key member of a highly creative community of artists who brought great innovation to photography in Australia and then, in the 1940s, leave Gadigal Nura/Sydney to raise a family on a farm in rural New South Wales, seemingly invisible in the stories starting to be told of the development of modernist photography in Australia. This omission was only corrected when her work and extraordinary contribution to photography in Australia was recovered and celebrated in the 1980s.2 In the words of Cotton’s most sustained commentator, her biographer Helen Ennis, Cotton’s practice ‘never followed a straight line’, instead creating ‘its own patterns with gentle sweeps backwards and forwards and from side to side.’3 The lightness in Cotton’s work (and the freedom it encodes) was intentional and, in its way, a small act of resistance.
All the same, it is possible to say, without pigeonholing her, that Cotton was one of Australia’s most important modernist photographers. Her work reflects a series of important shifts that took place in the character of modern photography during the 1930s, a period of critical experimentation and growth in Australian photography. Cotton was part of a dynamic community of young photographers living in Gadigal Nura/Sydney who emerged out of Pictorialism in the 1920s and brought aspects of its style and imagery into contact with contemporary international practice. Cotton’s associates included her good friend (and, for a short time, husband) Max Dupain and other friends such as Geoffrey Powell, Laurence Le Guay and Damien Parer. Together, they were concerned with the development of what they referred to as ‘contemporary Australian photography’, driven to bring photography into contact with ‘original thought of the living moment’.4 Their ideas on what ‘contemporary Australian photography’ looked like were elaborated in critical commentary (written chiefly by Dupain) as well as exhibitions: Cotton presented 11 photographs – including her marvellously strange study Papyrus 1938 – at the Contemporary Camera Groupe’s show at the progressive David Jones’ Exhibition Gallery in 1938, an exhibition that claimed to be ‘prophetic in its modernity’.5
This community of young artists learned about current ideas and approaches in contemporary international photography through European books and magazines such as Das Deutsche Lichtbild – for which Dupain had a subscription – and the British anthology Modern Photography, copies of which were bought at Swain & Co bookstore on Pitt Street or at Gilmour’s Bookshop on Bond Street.6 These publications were shared at Max Dupain’s studio at 24 Bond Street, where Cotton worked between 1934 and 1945. When she spoke with the curators Barbara Hall and Jenni Mather, who in the late 1970s were piecing together a history of Australian women photographers, Cotton recalled seeing the work of figures such as Man Ray, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Margaret Bourke-White and Bill Brandt during the 1930s and being ‘particularly impressed’ with Brandt’s work.7
Drawing on these conversations with friends and the reproductions of contemporary international photography in the publications they were sharing, Cotton at this time made some of Australia’s finest modernist photographs. Perhaps, among their generation, only Cotton and Dupain were peers in the level of sustained critical engagement with modernist ideas and formal strategies in their own work. Cotton experimented with avant-garde processes and effects, such as the tone-reversal technique of solarisation,8 which was popular with Man Ray and other Surrealists. At the same time the language and style of many of her key photographs from this period show a strong interest in the highly formal, geometric effects created by the interplay of light, objects and shadow. Photographs like Teacup ballet 1935, Glasses circa 1937, Drainpipes 1937 and The patterned road 1938 reflect a concern with the abstracting effects of light and shadow shared by many modernist photographers. The intensity of the shadows in these pictures recalls André Kertész’s interiors, landscapes and still lifes of everyday objects (including eyeglasses) featuring long shadows, which were well known by the mid-1930s; Cotton would certainly have seen a reproduction of one of Kertész’s shadow photographs in the 1931 edition of Modern Photography, a copy of which Dupain owned.
However, Cotton’s photographs – and this demonstrates how these young photographers were refracting the lessons of international modernist photography through a local prism – equally reflect her own aesthetic and formal attitude. Whether photographing teacups, eyeglasses, urban infrastructure or the bush, the subject of her work was always light, both as phenomena and as an experience. ‘There’s no particular subject that I prefer – the light is why I take photographs’, Cotton asserted.9 But these were not simply formal exercises or abstract studies of one of photography’s fundamental attributes (for the most part, light creates the photographic image). All of Cotton’s key photographs from this period – and, indeed, from across her long career – include a tonality and warmth that are very specific to her own work and reveal a particular sensibility. By bringing together light, form and shadow in pictures, Cotton was searching for what she once beautifully described as ‘an indescribable element of meaning or feeling’.10 Her achievement is not that she – alongside Dupain and others – simply borrowed the language and style of international modernist photography. It is that she brought often highly abstract modernist ideas into contact with the photographic culture and the modernity of her own place – Gadigal Nura/Sydney in the 1930s – and the pleasurable experience or ‘feeling’ of being immersed in light and space.
Cotton’s historical achievement can also be seen in the fact of her gender. She was not the only woman in the social group centred around the Dupain studio who took photographs – describing her good friend Olga Sharp as a ‘very talented’ photographer11 – but she was certainly the most dedicated and critically engaged. Despite the aspirations of her progressive parents, Cotton pursued a life in photography. Cotton completed a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney in 1933, where she also studied mathematics, after which she was expected to enter a reliable profession such as teaching.12 But soon after, she began working as the studio assistant at Dupain’s newly opened studio on Bond Street. For an extremely bright and intellectually curious woman from an affluent family in conservative Australia at this time, this was a radical choice.
Cotton’s position at the studio was clearly defined: Dupain was the photographer and she was responsible for studio administration, looking after models and some darkroom work and retouching. She rarely took photographs for clients, although there were exceptions, including Glasses circa 1937, which was made for a spectacle maker. But, throughout her time at the studio, Cotton made use of camera and darkroom equipment at night, including the large, half-plate Thornton Pickard camera once owned by Dupain’s father. She continually refined her use of this elaborate bellows camera, clearly drawing on her mathematical and creative intelligence to create some of her best photographs, including Shasta daisies 1935 and the mesmerising portrait of her good friend Jean Lorraine 1943. The latter made with the studio in complete darkness except for a single candle, which Cotton used to illuminate Jean’s face for the 90-second exposure.
Cotton’s commitment to photography was in part tied to its mechanical origins, which she felt – perhaps, reflecting the liberal politics of her ancestors – rendered it economically and technologically more accessible and open than other artforms.13 She was particularly sensitive to the opportunities the still-relatively young technology offered to women; for her, photography seemed ‘a universal art form comprehensible to everybody and within the reach of all.’14 Cotton developed this appreciation of photography’s openness when she was young. She grew up in a creative family – her mother and sister were artistic, Olive musical – and realised as a young teenager that photography allowed her to confidently make pictures. As an older woman, she remembered the event of receiving a Kodak Box Brownie camera from two aunties on her eleventh birthday as ‘the big thrill of my life,’ and feeling that ‘I’d never be any good at drawing or painting’: ‘this is right for me. Now I’ve got something.’15
The resolve and straightforwardness revealed in this anecdote is also integral to Cotton’s pictures. Her subjects and titles are usually extremely uncomplicated and prosaic, with images that are singular and free of rhetorical flourish or sentiment. At the same time, her approach or point of view was often highly contemplative, as if reflecting or considering deep knowledge. Cotton accompanied her geologist father on expeditions and – during her mathematic studies at the University of Sydney under Professor Horatio Scott Carslaw – encountered non-Euclidean and differential geometry. Carslaw’s close connections to international research also gave students access to emerging fields in mathematical physics, such as quantum mechanics.16 As a student, Cotton was introduced to theories which posed that space is hyperbolic and nature is comprised of atomic and subatomic particles, and she read in the 1930s an article written by her grandfather Frank Cotton on the phenomenal, destructive potential of atomic energy.17 It is hard not to see her work as drawing on abstract ways of thinking about space, time and energy; ways of thinking opened up to her through geology and mathematics and, indeed, by music.
So, while many of her pictures appear to be records of a transitory event – light hitting a form at a particular moment – what we actually witness is an extended duration or a moment that has somehow been stretched. Objects and images are suspended in an unfamiliar temporality that has no beginning or end. This is most clear in her uncanny images from 1935 of light emanating from the heart of a seashell (Shell) and of waves of sea foam meeting the shore (Surf’s edge). While both are pictures of a specific (and, with their scale, quite intimate) photographic moment, they share a temporality that is also geological, atomic and cosmological, fusing together the instantaneous and the infinite.
Cotton left Gadigal Nura/Sydney in 1945, after she married her second husband, farmer Ross McInerney. In a way, she left behind an exceptional photographic project she had developed over the preceding two decades. She spent the rest of her life in relative isolation raising her two children on Wiradjuri Country near Cowra, New South Wales, living in a state of comparative hardship for a highly educated woman from a prosperous North Shore family. While she operated a small studio in Cowra from 1964 until 1996, mostly taking portraits of local children and photographing weddings and annual debutante balls, Cotton continued to take photographs with the compact Rolleiflex camera she had acquired in 1937. Using this beautiful little camera, with its square-format roll film, she continued to find moments of quiet transcendence and photographic freedom in her environment, usually in her garden at the family property named Spring Forest.
Know My Name: Making it Modern is on display from 5 August to 8 October 2023.
- Olive Cotton, unpublished notes, collection of the McInerney family, Gadigal Nura/Sydney, cited at Helen Ennis, Observations on the Olive Cotton project, website, viewed 14 June 2023.
- The recovery of Cotton’s work in the early 1980s – led by the curators and historians Barbara Hall, Jenni Mather, Gael Newton and Helen Ennis – was driven by, on one hand, a feminist endeavour to correct the gender imbalance in the historical record and reassert the vital contribution of women to the history of Australian photography and, on the other, to help account for the shift towards an intentionally ‘contemporary’ Australian photography during the interwar period. Hall was subsequently involved in Cotton’s first monographic exhibition in 1985, Olive Cotton: photographs 1924‒1984, at the Australian Centre for Photography, Gadigal Nura/Sydney. Barbara Hall and Jenni Mather, Australian women photographers 1840–1960, Greenhouse, Naarm/Richmond, Victoria, 1986.
- Helen Ennis, ‘Patterns in time’, in Olive Cotton, Olive Cotton: Photographer, National Library of Australia, Kamberri/Canberra, 1995, p 15.
- ‘Great art has always been contemporary in spirit’. See Max Dupain, ‘Art of the camera’, letter to the editor, Sydney Morning Herald, 30 March 1938, p 12; Max Dupain, catalogue essay, ‘Exhibition of photographic studies by Contemporary Camera Groupe’, David Jones’ Exhibition Gallery, Gadigal Nura/Sydney, 1938.
- Contemporary Camera Groupe exhibition invitation, cited in Clare Brown, interview with Sandra Byron, transcript, 1 August 1990, Papers of Clare Brown: Max Dupain research material, National Gallery of Australia Research Library, Kamberri/Canberra MS 93, folder 10, box 5.
- Max Dupain, interview with Helen Ennis with annotations by Dupain, transcript, 1 August 1991, National Gallery of Australia file, Kamberri/Canberra, NGA 82/0671-01, folios 149‒167, p 4.
- Barbara Hall, Olive Cotton: Photographs, 1924‒1984, exhibition catalogue, Australian Centre for Photography, Gadigal Nura/Sydney, 1985, np; Cotton also told the writer Clare Brown, who was preparing a biography of Max Dupain in the early 1990s, that she studied publications from overseas in the 1930s, ‘but never tried to imitate another person’s work’. Olive Cotton, conversation with Clare Brown, transcript, 10 September 1991, Papers of Clare Brown: Max Dupain research material, National Gallery of Australia Research Library, Kamberri/Canberra, MS 93, folder 10, box 5.
- Olive Cotton, conversation with Clare Brown.
- Olive Cotton, quoted in Kathryn Millard, ‘Light years: a script for a fifty-minute television documentary’, 1989, transcript, National Gallery of Australia file, Kamberri/Canberra, NGA 81/0842-01, folios 160–194, folio 174 quoted.
- Olive Cotton, quoted in Barbara Hall, 1985, np.
- Olive Cotton, interview with Barbara Hall and Jenni Mather, transcript, c 1980, National Gallery of Australia file, Kamberri/Canberra, NGA 81/0842-01, folios 39‒61, folio 54 quoted.
- Helen Ennis’ recent biography of Cotton provides detail on the nature of her independence from familial expectations; Helen Ennis, Olive Cotton: A life in photography, Fourth Estate, Harper Collins, Gadigal Nura/Sydney, 2019, pp 83.
- Cotton’s grandfather Frank Cotton, with whom she was very close, was a committed socialist and very active in the fledgling Labor Party. Helen Ennis (who met Cotton in the 1980s and worked closely with her) maintains that Cotton herself was not especially political, although it is difficult to say how similar the older and younger Cottons were; see Helen Ennis, 2019, pp 19‒20.
- Olive Cotton, quoted in ‘The lady behind the lens’, Sydney Morning Herald, women’s supplement, 29 March 1938, p 13.
- Olive Cotton, interview with Barbara Hall and Jenni Mather, folio 59 quoted; Olive Cotton, quoted in Robert McFarlane, ‘Talking Cotton down on the farm’, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 May 2000, p 21.
- On Carslaw’s teaching and international connections, see IS Turner, ‘The first hundred years of mathematics’, lecture transcript, University of Sydney 1952, pp 15‒16.
- Olive Cotton, conversation with Clare Brown.
Art & Artists
Orchestration in light
The way through the trees
1937 prtd 1997
1937 prtd 1985
The patterned road
1943 prtd 1985
1984 prtd 1985