Olive Cotton Collection

Olive Edith Cotton (1911 – 2003)

Olive Cotton parents, Leo and Florence (née Channon) gave her a musical background, a political awareness and a sense of social responsibility. Florence studied painting and played the piano. Leo was a geologist who learnt the elements of photography well enough that he could take photographs on Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to the Antarctic in 1907. The Cotton family including five children lived in Hornsby to the north of Sydney in a native bush environment.

Given a Kodak Box Brownie camera at the age of eleven, Cotton with the help of her father, converted the laundry of their Hornsby home into a darkroom ‘with the enlarger plugged into the ironing light’Here Cotton processed film and printed her first Black & White images. In 1924 Cotton met Max Dupain while on holidays with her family at Newport Beach, a northern beach of Sydney, NSW. She shared with Dupain a burgeoning interest in photography which was to continue throughout the rest of their lives.

Cotton attended the Methodist Ladies’ College, Burwood, Sydney. At about the same time she joined the Photographic Society of New South Wales gaining instruction and encouragement from photographers such as Harold Cazneaux. Cotton exhibited her first photograph, Dusk, at the New South Wales Photographic Society’s Interstate Exhibition of 1932. After attending Sydney University from 1930 to 1934 (gaining a Bachelor of Arts and majors in English and mathematics) Olive wanted to pursue a career in photography and went to work as an assistant in the studio of Max Dupain (to whom she married from 1939 to 1941). Cotton would work with Dupain until 1941 and managed the studio from late 1941 to 1945 while he was on war service. During this time she also continued with her own photography practice and exhibited in shows organised by several photographic groups in Sydney. Her photography always reflected her very considered personal observations of her surroundings with meticulous attention to the quality of light on her subjects.

In 1946 Olive moved to the Cowra district with her husband, Ross McInerney, and while she continued to take photographs, mainly of her two young children and environs, developing and printing them was out of the question until 1964 when she opened her studio in Cowra.

Aged in her eighties, Olive Cotton ceased to make prints from her negatives in the early 1990’s. At that time Olive packed up her studio in Cowra which for more than 30 years had been at the centre of her life in photography. The move and subsequent sorting of the studio contents brought to light a substantial amount of previously unknown material, including outstanding vintage prints and biographical and contextual items.

The Cowra Regional Art Gallery gratefully acknowledges the support of Sally McInerney and Josef Lebovic Gallery, Sydney.