Olive Cotton by Helen Ennis

‘Olive Cotton is recognised as one of Australia’s most important photographers of the modern period.’

Olive Cotton (11 July 1911 – 27 September 2003) was one of Australia’s pioneering modernist photographers. Her obsession with photography began when, aged eleven, she received a Kodak Box Brownie camera. Olive was a childhood friend of Max Dupain’s and in 1934 she joined his fledgling photographic studio, where one of her best-known works, ‘Teacup Ballet’ was photographed circa 1935.

But who was Olive Cotton? What is her story? Apart from her photographs (a retrospective exhibition in Sydney in 1985 drew critical acclaim), Olive left few material traces of her life when she died in 2003. Helen Ennis has pieced together Olive’s story from a variety of sources including her own friendship with the artist, from Olive’s children Sally and Peter McInerney, the private papers of Max Dupain, and the personal items Olive kept in a trunk on the property near Cowra, NSW, where she lived for more than fifty years.

I was intrigued by Olive’s story: a childhood of relative privilege, a university education (at a time when few women attended), a brief marriage to Max Dupain (between 1939 and 1941).  We have no insight into why this marriage failed, only that Olive left it and Max was subsequently granted a divorce on the grounds of desertion. Olive later married Ross McInerney and they lived in a tent (without electricity or running water) for several years before buying ‘Spring Forest’ where she lived for the balance of her life.

Around the biographical facts we have about Olive Cotton, Helen Ennis writes of the challenges of trying to balance the competing needs of marriage, children and family with art and the need to earn income.

The book includes several Olive Cotton’s photographs. While I have seen some of these as prints, others were new to me. I would love to see these images reproduced on photographic paper.

I finished the book knowing more about Olive Cotton and with a greater appreciation of her work.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



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