A landmark biography of a singular and important Australian photographer, Olive Cotton, by an award-winning writer – beautifully written and deeply moving.
Olive Cotton was one of Australia’s pioneering modernist photographers, a woman whose talent was recognised as equal to her first husband’s, Max Dupain, and a significant artist in her own right. Together, Olive and Max could have been Australia’s answer to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, or Ray and Charles Eames. The photographic work they produced during the 1930s and ’40s was extraordinary and distinctively their own.
But in the early 1940s Cotton quit their marriage and Sydney studio to live with second husband Ross McInerney and raise their two children in a tent on a farm near Cowra – later moving to a hut that had no running water, electricity or telephone. Despite these barriers, and not having access to a darkroom, Olive continued her photography but away from the public eye. Then a landmark exhibition in Sydney in 1985 shot her back to fame, followed by a major retrospective at the AGNSW in 2000. Australian photography would never be same.
This is a moving and powerful story about talent, creativity and women, and about what it means for an artist to manage the competing demands of art, work, marriage, children and family.
Released 21 October 2019.
Published by Fourth Estate, an imprint of Harper Collins
On writing the biography
I wrote this book because I have always loved Olive Cotton’s photographs. I wanted to better understand them, the reasons why they look the way they do, and what they’ve contributed to Australian art and culture. But I also wanted to delve into Olive’s life, the life of a particularly creative woman, which is why I chose biography rather than any other kind of writing. In my view, a successful biography makes illuminating connections with our own lives and times and I feel sure that Olive’s complex life story has the potential to do that. Some of the themes the book explores concern marriage, motherhood, creativity, ageing and mortality. While the biography deals with the specific details of Olive’s life, the larger context is of course Australian society and culture in the twentieth century (Olive was born in 1911 and died in 2003).
The chapters in the book discuss Olive’s life, her work and individual photographs and include reflections on the biographical process. I have aimed to achieve the momentum of a novel in which the narrative is inexorably propelled forward.
There were three main challenges in writing the biography. Olive’s retiring disposition and her circumstances meant she placed very little on the public record about her views on photography, or about her private life. Secondly, very few personal items that give an insight into her beliefs, motivations and feelings have survived. Lastly, she was married to two charismatic, domineering men – photographer Max Dupain and farmer Ross McInerney – who kept rearing up in the narrative, threatening to overwhelm it. My struggle was to give substance to a sometimes shadowy, enigmatic figure and to ensure that her voice could be heard. Focusing on Olive’s photographs was intrinsic to that process. So was paying attention to the little, often complicated details of her life, a woman’s life. And finally, whenever I could, I quoted Olive directly, from letters, conversations, and a handful of formal interviews conducted when she was aged in her seventies and eighties.
Olive Cotton revelled in the expressive possibilities of photography and, despite the sometimes extreme difficulties she faced, she always believed in the value of a creative life and the importance of art. The photographs she created are her legacy – I am grateful for them and hope this biography will help them find an expanded, appreciative audience.