Olive Cotton: A Life in Photography

Olive Cotton: A Life in Photography
Helen Ennis

Tea cup ballet (1935) transforms mundane domestic objects – cups and saucers – into graceful dancing figures, in formation. Shadows and abstraction of form are an integral part of the photograph; capturing their presence, position and movement, and adding to their narrative or performance, much like this publication.

Six chapters shed light on the personal and professional life of one of Australia’s pioneering modernist photographers, Olive Cotton. Childhood, education, marriages (to Max Dupain and later Ross McInerney) and family life, are detailed as well as her journey and growth as an artist, the progress of the medium, and shifts in Australian society.

Ennis highlights specific works, such as the piece mentioned above, in an attempt to synchronise the perennial effects of everyday life with a serial creative output. Her photographs of landscape, people and objects reflect the cyclical nature of life, its contours and imbrications, through the use of light, shadow and geometric compositions.

The inclusion of personal photographs and letters from Cotton’s friends provide an intimate understanding and explanation of the intricacies of defying convention – in balancing life and work, breaking the boundaries placed on women artists at the time, abandoning the craft for almost 20 years, and opting for remote minimalist living in the country without the access of a darkroom.

In her later years, Cotton was removed from the stir of the Australian art world, almost forgotten, but not rightfully so. Cotton’s legacy is one that should be celebrated, even if the artist, Ennis writes, ‘[would be] slightly bemused by the fuss.’