forgotten women: Olive Cotton – photographer

This article in the Sydney Morning Herald on 29 March 1938 featured photographer Olive Cotton.

The Lady behind the lens

Young Sydney Artist Discusses A Hobby for Women.

SIX women are represented at the Sydney Photographic Society’s International Exhibition which opened in Sydney on Wednesday. Among them is Miss Olive Cotton, a local amateur photographer, who has twice exhibited at the London Salon. The pictures on this page are examples of Miss Cotton’s work. (Note: newsprint cannot do justice to these photographs. Please see below links to collections of Olive Cotton’s work).

In an interview yesterday, in which she discussed photography for women, Miss Cotton said that the woman’s viewpoint can be captured by the woman behind the camera. She believes that women are doing photographic work comparable with that of men.

“How many women,” she said, “say at one time or another that they are bored? Yet they could find endless enjoyment with a camera assisted by eyes that are not inartistic.  I consider that here is a field where women could do good work – work which has its reward in the production of a good picture.”

MISS COTTON is an attractive young woman with a penchant for art in several forms and a firm belief in women expressing themselves through an art medium. She was precipitated into photography at thirteen years of age when she found that an inclination towards graphic art was in her case handicapped by an apparent lack of talent with brush and pencil.

Olive Cotton image 1943 - Tweed Shire Council

Olive Cotton 1943 – via Tweed Shire Council

Her first camera was of a box type, but she now uses a more involved reflex camera; her first enlarging apparatus was made from a biscuit tin operated from an electric iron contact; and the laundry draped with rugs was her first dark room. Now she has at her disposal one of the best- equipped photographic dark rooms in Sydney.

The Right Spirit.

Women who potter about with a box camera photographing any landscape that appeals to them have the right spirit because they are   expressing themselves rather than merely making tourist bureau records of beauty spots, Miss Cotto said. Those who want to express themselves and have no talent for painting or drawing will find as I did that photography is an excellent medium. It is a universal art form comprehensible to everyone, within reach of all.

The names of women are appearing more and more in the photographic annuals of the world and some of the important Continental exhibitions have included the work of as many as a   dozen amateur women photographers.

I believe that photography will soon be used as a medium for design. It will provide a field for women who have mastered the technique of modern photography.

Some Advice.

“ONE thing that women who wish to become good photographers should remember”, Miss Cotton continued, “is that the camera can do more than merely record an unchanging picture of a subject. A landscape, for instance, is there for everyone to photograph – an apparently changeless combination of earth, and trees, and grass; but it can be photographed in a hundred different ways. The lighting, the relation of the various objects to the shape of the picture, and many other factors can be changed by the individual, and this is where discernment and personality come into the picture, as it were.

I noticed at the exhibition of English pictures in Sydney a few weeks ago that a series of landscapes by a well-known woman photographer was obviously the work of a woman. One, in particular, was a picture of snow with a pattern of shadows. The approach was essentially feminine. A man could never have seen that landscape as she did.”

In the Dark Room.

“EVEN the casual hobbyist,” Miss Cotton declared, should develop and print her own pictures. Otherwise, it would be an expensive hobby and in any case, the treatment during these processes can always make or mar a picture. To become efficient at developing, printing and enlarging, experience over a number of years and constant practice are needed to make the most of one’s opportunties.

One of the commonest and most serious mistakes made by the inexperienced photographer is the tendency to take a dozen pictures of an object in the hope that one will be good. I find it much more satisfactory and less expensive to take one carefully considered and planned picture.”

Miss Cotton believes that more women should employ the camera as a hobby.

The article includes a photograph of Olive Cotton by fellow photographer Max Dupain.

Olive Cotton m Max DupainIn April of 1939 Cotton and Dupain were married in Sydney.

From Design and Art Australia Online

They separated two years later and divorced in 1944. Cotton taught mathematics at Frensham School, Mittagong (NSW), in 1941. From 1942-45 she managed the Max Dupain studio while Dupain was on war service.

…. In the 1980s Cotton’s photographs once again began to receive serious attention. They were included in Gael Newton’s exhibition, ‘Silver and Grey’ (Art Gallery of New South Wales), in 1980 and in the 1981-82 touring exhibition ‘Australian Women Photographers 1890-1950’, organised by Barbara Hall and Jenni Mather. In 1983 Cotton was awarded a Visual Arts Board grant to print photographs for the retrospective exhibition, ‘Olive Cotton Photographs 1924-1984’, which opened at the Australian Centre for Photography in 1985 and subsequently toured. Light Years , a film by Kathryn Millard on Olive Cotton’s life and work, was released in 1991. In the same year Teacup Ballet was issued on a stamp to mark the 150th anniversary of photography in Australia. Olive Cotton was awarded an Emeritus Fellowship from the Australia Council in 1993.

Olive Cotton features in Australian Stories on this Australian government site.  Works by Olive Cotton in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales can be found here.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s