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Olive Cotton

Olive Edith Cotton (1911–2003) is regarded as one of the pioneers of Australian modernist photography. However, her work is distinct from the boldness and dramatic compositions of other modernists, because it is characterised by a gentleness and tranquility.

Cotton's career spanned more than six decades, but was punctuated by a forty-year absence from the art scene. Despite this, she never stopped taking photos.

Tea cup ballet

Cotton, Olive (1911-2003), Tea cup ballet , 1935, photograph, 37.3 x 29.6cm. Image courtesy of Art Gallery of NSW. Gift of the artist: 1980. 218.1980.

The common threads of Cotton's work are her use of light and form, keen observation skills and equal treatment of subject matter. Her 1935 photograph, Tea cup ballet, is a case in point. This is arguably her most famous work.

The natural world provided a lifelong inspiration for Cotton. Carefully and patiently, she photographed Australia 's landscapes, trees, flowers and clouds. Her dual interests in art and science are revealed in the homage that her images pay to the beauty and structure of nature.

Cotton's work was included in various exhibitions during the 1930s but her first solo exhibition was not until 1985.

Cotton's early life

Cotton was introduced to the arts, science and a love of nature at an early age. Her mother, Florence, played the piano and painted, and her geologist father, Leo, had a keen interest in photography. The family home was set on 20 acres of natural bushland in the outer Sydney suburb of Hornsby.

Cotton's passion for photography was born when she was given her first camera at age 11. Taught the basics by her father, she took photographs whenever possible.


Cotton, Olive (1911-2003), She-oaks, 1928, photograph, 23.8 x 35cm. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an12826980.

In 1924, while on an annual family holiday at Sydney's Newport Beach, New South Wales, Cotton met Max Dupain, with whom she was to develop a close relationship based on photography. Cotton photographed She-oaks at Bungan Beach in 1928, aged 17.

Early works of 'the general assistant'

In 1929, Cotton joined the Sydney Camera Circle and the Photographic Society of NSW. Here, photographers such Harold Cazneaux and Cecil Bostock provided encouragement and instruction. She exhibited for the first time in 1932, with Dusk.

Following her graduation from the University of Sydney in 1934, Cotton accepted an invitation from Dupain to work in his studio. At the time, photography was a male-dominated craft; women assisted. Nevertheless, Cotton used this time to develop her own style and skills.

Shasta daisies

Cotton, Olive (1911-2003), Shasta daisies, 1937, photograph, 36.3 x 26.8 cm. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Australia: NGA 87.1438.

In Dupain's studio after hours, Cotton experimented with light and shadow, and worked on her exhibition photographs, including Shasta daisies (1937) and The Budapest String Quartet (1937). Both were exhibited in the Victorian Salon of Photography's 1937 International Camera Pictures.

Dupain's studio also provided a stream of interesting visitors, including artists, other photographers, celebrities and clients. Women photographers, including Margaret Michaelis and Olga Sharp were influential on Cotton's work at the time. Cotton's tranquil photograph, The Sleeper (1939), features a post-picnic slumbering Sharp.

Cotton and Dupain married in 1939, but separated two years later. Cotton moved to Mittagong for a short time to teach mathematics at Frensham school.

Cotton: professional photographer

In 1941, Cotton was asked to manage Dupain's studio while he was called to war service. She accepted, and finally worked as a professional photographer.

Cotton ran Dupain's studio from 1942 to 1945. During this time, her photographic repertoire expanded significantly. Commissions included book illustrations, such as Aircraft mechanics (1945) for the Royal Australian Air Force's publication, Wings of tomorrow (1945), as well as product advertising, portraits and child studies. She also did work for the arts publisher and patron, Sydney Ure Smith.

Theme for a mural

Cotton, Olive (1911-2003), Theme for a mural, 1942, photograph, 22 x 34.5 cm. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an12766210.

A major photographic work was Theme for a mural (1942), commissioned by Sydney architect, Samuel Lipson. Cotton spent more than one hundred hours and an all-night printing effort to produce a single image made up of several photographs.

At the end of the working day, Cotton continued after hours, crafting her own work. She took portraits, including Ross McInerney (1942) and Jean Lorraine by candlelight (1943), as well as city shots, such as City view from 49 Clarence Street (1942), Darling Harbour (1942) and City rooftops (1942). As ever, light played a leading role.

Cotton married Ross McInerney in 1944. At the end of the war they left the city and moved to Koorawatha near Cowra, in country New South Wales.

Out of (public) view

The McInerneys' first home in Koorawatha was a tent, which they shared for a short time with their two children, Sally (born in 1946) and Peter (born in 1948). In 1951, they moved to Spring Forest, which remains the family farm today. For many years, however, they had no running water, electricity or telephone. Life was busy with the necessities.

Cotton's focus shifted to the 'private' sphere, and her photographic work followed suit. For the next four decades, her images were largely out of sight. Nevertheless, Cotton still found time to take photos.


Cotton, Olive (1911-2003), Agapanthus, 1955, photograph, 28.8 x 24.8 cm. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an12765768.

Cotton captured her bush surrounds and her children. Photos from this period include Agapanthus (1955), Driftwood (1960) and The young oarsman (1949).

Between 1958 and 1963, Cotton taught mathematics at Cowra High School. A year later, she opened her own photographic studio in Cowra. Here, she made a reasonable income photographing local children, including the 1965 portrait, I'm a whale, and weddings.

Her studio gave her access to darkroom facilities for the first time in 20 years, and allowed her to again produce some of her own work, including Cherokee rose (1964) and The lonely road (1974).

Rediscovering Cotton

After a 40-year absence, Cotton's Tea cup ballet reappeared in Gael Newton's 1980 publication, Silver and Grey: Fifty years of Australian photography 1900-1950. The following year, her work was included in the travelling exhibition, Australian Women Photographers 1840-1960. Cotton was once again in public view.

In the early 1980s, Cotton ceased taking clients in her Cowra studio. In 1983, with the help of funding from the Australia Council, she spent a year reprinting 40 years worth of negatives. Sixty-six of these were exhibited in her first solo show, Olive Cotton - photographs 1924-1984.

In 1991, Tea cup ballet was issued on a stamp to mark the 150th anniversary of photography in Australia. In 1993, Cotton was awarded an Emeritus Fellowship from the Australia Council.

Only to taste the warmth, the light, the wind

Cotton, Olive (1911-2003), Only to taste the warmth, the light, the wind , 1939, photograph, 33.2 x 30 cm. Image courtesy of Art Gallery of New South Wales: 174.2006.

In 2000, the Art Gallery of New South Wales held Cotton's first retrospective exhibition. It featured 68 photographs ranging from vintage prints, such as Beachwear fashion shot (1938), Max after surfing (1938) and Only to taste the warmth, the light, the wind (1939), to her early 1990s works.

According to Sally McInerney, her daughter, Cotton was surprised and delighted to have been 'rediscovered'. Although, McInerney hastens to add, she was never 'lost' to those around her.

Cotton enjoyed a lifetime of photography. For her, it was a means of self-expression; it was 'drawing with light'.

In October 2003, Cotton died aged 92. The annual Olive Cotton Award is dedicated in memory of her role as one of Australia's leading twentieth century photographers.

Useful links

Online resources

Print references

  • O Cotton & S McInerney, Olive Cotton: photographer, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1995.

Last updated: 23 March 2016
Creators: Rachel Roberts Communications

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