Olive Cotton: A life in photography

Published October 21, 2019. Full details about the book available here.

On Olive Cotton

Some of the most insightful comments about Olive’s character were made by her late sister-in-law, Haidee McInerney. She said that Olive ‘had another world inside her head’, a world that was ‘secret’, that she was ‘happy with what she had’, and that ‘her love of photography overshadowed everything else’.

Olive Cotton on photography

Light brings a subject to life…. That’s the main thing about all my photographs, the light no matter what it’s of. That’s what draws me to take a photograph.

‘Olive Cotton, artist’, c.1992, MS 66 Papers of Helen Maxwell Gallery, National Gallery of Australia Research Library & Archives, NGA, Canberra.

I spend a lot of time looking and composing the picture before I take it. I only use black-and-white, it allows the photographer more control and, in the developing and printing, you can make your work distinct.

Janet Hawley, ‘Olive went bush’, Good Weekend magazine, 16 May 1998, p.35.

I like to do everything myself from start to finish. I’d never give anyone else my negatives to print up for an exhibition, because then it’s not my own work.

‘Olive Cotton, artist’, c.1992, MS 66 Papers of Helen Maxwell Gallery, National Gallery of Australia Research Library & Archives, NGA, Canberra.

I would not like to be labelled a romanticist, Pictorialist, modernist or any other “ist”. 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Olive Cotton, unpublished notes. Collection of the McInerney family.

All I can do is photograph what I like, the way that I like it … When someone says they like it, that’s a real thrill for me, to think someone else has got something out of it too.

‘Olive Cotton, artist’, c.1992, MS 66 Papers of Helen Maxwell Gallery, National Gallery of Australia Research Library & Archives, NGA, Canberra.

Critics’ views of Olive Cotton’s photography

Max Dupain, Olive Cotton’s first husband, reviewed her solo show at the Australian Centre for Photography in 1985 and wrote a very insightful review.

The therapeutic calm of this exhibition is its major attraction. It’s like walking through the bush early in the morning and suddenly being surprised by a tranquil lake; serenity is the soul’s narcotic … In all these pictures of land forms, of slender tracery, mysterious gorges and bright sunlit poplars, there weaves a wholesome clannish thread of family consciousness …

Max Dupain, ‘Olive Cotton: Works that act as the soul’s narcotic’, Sydney Morning Herald, 16 October 1985, p.14.

Art critic Bruce James discussed the Olive Cotton retrospective exhibition held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales on ABC radio in 2000.

I called Cotton a force for change. What does that mean, save that I’m struggling for a cliché that won’t stunt her? I think she’s among a small group of artists who are causing us … not simply to know ourselves better as a people but to like ourselves more; not simply to admire the environment … but to reverence it; not to look at Australia, but apprehend it.

Sandra Byron, former curator of photography at the Art Gallery of NSW, wrote:

Cotton’s iconography, past and present, is emotional and accessible, her sincerity and dedication always preventing sentiment from regressing to photographic clichés. … No matter where the work is stylistically located in her career it is always Cotton’s affinity with all her diverse subjects that proves the most affecting for the viewer.

Sandra Byron, ‘Olive Cotton: Photographs 1924-1984’, Photofile, Sydney, no. 4, Summer 1985, pp.28-29.

Shaune Lakin, Senior Curator of Photography, National Gallery of Australia, who curated the 2016 exhibition Max and Olive described Olive, and Max Dupain as ‘key figures in twentieth-century Australian visual culture.’

They ‘engaged with international photography and debates on the place and function of photography in modern Australian life’ and ‘explored ways that form, technology and the intrinsic properties of photography could come together. As a consequence they created – perhaps for the first time – a ‘contemporary’ Australian photography.’

Shaune Lakin, Max and Olive: The photographic life of Olive Cotton and Max Dupain, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2016, p.36.

Art critic John McDonald commented on what he saw as the measure of Cotton’s artistry, writing that:

‘anybody can take a photo, but only a great photographer can consistently distil something beautiful and profound from the stuff of everyday life’. In addition, McDonald made the perceptive comment that, ‘almost everything in this exhibition has been deliberately staged but nothing seems forced or unnatural’.

John McDonald, ‘Olive Cotton: The Cowra Breakout’, AFR, 16 January 2003, p.41.