Listen as award-winning author Helen Ennis shares her experience writing the moving and powerful biography of modernist photographer Olive Cotton.
Olive Cotton was a significant artist and pioneer, whose talent was recognised as equal to that of her first husband, Max Dupain. Olive and Max could have been Australia's answer to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, but in the early 1940s, Cotton quit their marriage and Sydney studio lifestyle to live with second husband Ross McInerney and raise their two children in a tent on a farm near Cowra. Despite the barriers of this new lifestyle, and not having access to a dark room, Olive continued her photography away from the public eye until she was shot back to fame by a landmark exhibition in Sydney in 1985, and then again after a major retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2000.
Professor Ennis explores the life of Olive Cotton in a moving story about talent, creativity and what it means for an artist to manage the competing demands of art, work, marriage, children and family.
Image: Max Dupain, Olive Cotton, Holding Camera, 1937 (detail), Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, SAFE/PXA 1951
Olive Cotton by Helen Ennis - Book Launch 28-11-19
*Speakers: Marie-Louise Ayres (M), Helen, Ennis (E), Alex Sloan (A)
*Location: National Library of Australia
M: Good evening and thank you all for joining us for this evening’s very special event. My name is Marie-Louise Ayres and it’s my privilege to be the Director General of the National Library of Australia. Whether you are here with us in the theatre or joining us online welcome to the National Library.
As we begin I’d like to acknowledge and pay my respects to the Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples on whose traditional lands we meet tonight and on whose land the Library does its work. I pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging and I’d also like to extend my respects to the traditional owners of the many lands from which our online audience will be joining us today. We see consistently when we are streaming our events out to Australia that from every corner of this country people are hungry to learn about our culture.
It's a great pleasure to welcome you all here to the Library this evening to celebrate the publication of Olive Cotton: A Life in Photography by a dear friend of the Library, Helen Ennis. Helen is Emeritus Professor, Centre for Art History and Art Theory, ANU School of Art and Design. You may be familiar with her work without even knowing it. Helen is one of Australia’s leading photography curators and since 2000 Helen has curated eight major exhibitions for national cultural institutions including the National Portrait Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Australia and of course the National Library of Australia.
Among other remarkable exhibitions Helen curated the exhibition, Olive Cotton, for the Art Gallery of New South Wales which toured to the National Library in 2000, celebrating our significant Olive Cotton collection so it is very fortuitous that Helen returns to us to speak about her new book.
This is not the first time that Helen has written about Olive Cotton. In 1995 the National Library published Olive Cotton Photographer with an introduction by Helen and I’d like to think that this early work on Cotton’s extraordinary collections provided inspirations for the biography we are celebrating tonight.
Joining Helen in conversation this evening is local journalist, Alex Sloan, who is no stranger to the Library’s stage. Alex has been a journalist for 30 years, dedicating 22 of those years to ABC Radio Canberra, sharing the stories of Canberrans.
Please welcome Professor Helen Ennis and Alex Sloan.
H: Thank you very much, Marie-Louise, and it’s wonderful to see you here tonight. Thank you for coming along. Before we begin the conversation I just want to take this opportunity to say some very important thank you. First I too would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land we are meeting on, the Ngunnawal and the Ngambri peoples. I wish to acknowledge and respect their continuing culture and the contribution they make to the life of the city and the region. I’d also like to acknowledge and welcome other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who may be attending this event tonight.
Members of Olive Cotton’s family are here with us including Olive’s own children, her daughter, Sally, and her son, Peter. I want to welcome them especially and other members of the Cotton and McInerny families.
I couldn’t have written this book without the assistance of Sally who provided me with invaluable source material and her own wonderful reminiscences. She was unwavering in her support of the project.
This book took a long time to write as those who know me know all too well and there are many other people in the audience who helped along the way, too many to mention here. I’m indebted to former and present colleagues at the ANU Centre for Art History and Art Theory and I also want to pay tribute to my own fabulous family, some of whom have travelled a very long way to be here tonight.
My writing was supported by funding from the Australia Council and the Research School of Humanities and the Arts at ANU, a Peter Blazey Fellowship and the ABR George Hicks Fellowship. The resources here at the National Library of Australia and at the National Gallery of Australia have been fundamental to my research, reinforcing my belief that Canberra is an unrivalled place to carry out research into the arts and culture of our country and obviously of other places as well.
The publisher, Catherine Milne, has been amazing and her encouragement over many years. She would send me very persuasive but really lovely emails just to urge me to keep going despite all the difficulties that you have with long projects such as this. She was absolutely committed to producing this, what I think is a very handsome book.
Scott Forbes and Lara Wallace and the team at Harper Collins have been a great pleasure to work with and I’m full of admiration for their professionalism.
Thank you to Kathryn Favell here at the Library for her longstanding interest in my research and especially to the National Library for holding tonight’s event.
I am so thrilled that Alex Sloan has agreed to this conversation and I can’t wait to hear her questions so would you join me, please, in welcoming Alex as we take the stage.
A: I’m the one who’s feeling really lucky to be talking to Helen Ennis. We catch up a lot at the Ainslie shops. But this biography of Olive Cotton, typically I always try to finish the book that I'm in conversation about on the same day and so this morning I finished Helen’s book and I sat staring out the window for a very long time. I just sat there and actually it is dappled and I thought Olive would frame this in the most beautiful way. But my thoughts went to both women, to Olive, the woman, the artist, and Helen, the woman and the artist. Helen Ennis has poured her incredible talents as a writer and a curator into Olive Cotton’s story and like Olive’s photographs it’s been done with time, care, love and a kind of selflessness.
I just want to start with the final paragraph, actually, from Helen’s book. Helen has chosen to write about Olive’s photograph which is a landscape photograph taken in the New England area, I think, called Light and Shade and I’ll just quote her.
This photograph is the stunning affirmation of Olive’s conception of photography as drawing with light, created at the height of her powers. The command of light and the daring composition are certainly impressive but ultimately what endures is something less obvious, the impersonal quality of the photograph. By this I mean that the image is detached and the ego of the photographer, and by implication, the viewer, are irrelevant. The world Olive depicts is humanless and huge, far greater than any individual could be. Thus the significance of Light and Shade is not confined to Olive’s view about photography, it can also be seen as an avowal of her anti-materialism, her abiding love of nature and her gentle advocacy for a rapt engagement with the natural world. All of these sustained her to the end in her photography and her life.
That’s Helen Ennis for you. Helen, congratulations on a work of immense beauty.
H: Thank you.
A: Like Olive taking her photographs, you waited, you waited for the right time, for the right clouds to come over in the right formation. Olive died in 2003, her husband, Ross, in 2011. You write that timing was everything and I quote you. It did not seem appropriate or indeed even possible to write her into being while Ross was alive, while he was alive. Tell me about that.
H: Okay so what always drew me of course to this project was Olive’s art photography, it’s fabulous and there was always the energy there and with any project I’ve done I always feel you go to where the energy is. Sometimes it’s unresolved, sometimes it’s restless, sometimes it’s actually resolved but in a way that still gives off a lot. So with Olive there was always something there that drew me very much to her photography – that drew me to her also as a person. So I guess what happens there, Alex, is I had to think about what it is to write a biography. I knew I wanted to write a biography but I do see a biography as a narrative, it is a story and so I had to conceive of Olive also as a character. I’ve used a lot of literary devices to try and bring her story to life and I felt that she could be neither this character nor this construction - if she were present I would be deferring to her in all her reality and all her presence.
So it wasn’t possible to really think about it until she wasn’t there in the world along with me because then she would still have been herself, not her character in my story.
A: Also with reference to Ross as well?
H: Yes. Because they had such a long marriage and such a long life together and I mean writing biography is an invasive project as you’ll all know and things that you are told that inform the story, they’re not always positive and so it was important for me too that not be trampling around inside their private lives while they were there. They were always the most gracious and generous of hosts but I was a guest and a friend whereas then I became a biographer. After their deaths I became something else and that’s when I began to write them, I guess, into being.
A: You wrote in Meanjin, I was shocked by the strengths and immediacy of the impact on my biographical project, it was electrifying. All of a sudden it was like a key going into the lock.
H: Yes, that’s exactly right because then I felt liberated. But having said that it’s not a fictional biography at all and it’s not a speculative biography. For me it was always crucial to be true to what I saw as the evidence, different kinds of evidence so Olive is the character because this is her life narrative but it’s my story of her life. She might have told another, different one if she were writing an autobiography, another biographer might have a different kind of approach.
A: Because you quote Janet Frame and she says, writing of the dead is different for the dead have surrendered their story.
H: Yes and I believe that absolutely.
A: So in that bush circle cemetery when Ross is laid to rest away you knew, this is a huge project. You make reference to a room of one’s own and the sort of space and the privacy that Olive – so to start writing this you have a room of your own, Helen.
H: I do.
A: You had it repainted.
H: I did.
A: Tell us that story.
H: I gave myself rotator cuff injury in the process because I clutched the roller too hard. My room was an egg yolk yellow which I loved but I knew I couldn’t write about Olive Cotton while the room was that colour so I had to work out from the paint charts what seemed appropriate and it was a blue. Some of you in the audience I can see are wearing it but just a very light blue, a soft blue because I needed to be extremely quiet in writing this book, I could never have any real noise around me. But a friend of mine, she said that blue is the colour of consciousness. I didn’t know that at the time and so it was a very perfect room in fact to be writing about Olive.
A: So to Olive herself, do you remember the first time you saw a photograph by Olive Cotton?
H: I don’t remember the first one exactly but I remember the feelings that I got immediately when I first began looking at her photographs. It’s something about their resolution. They’re very, very resolved works but as I said they have this kind of energy so for me of course it was about beauty, it was about gentleness, about sensuousness, those kind of qualities but also because I’m an historian of photography, they had something to say as well, an alternative view to modernist photography in Australia, less heroic, less dramatic. So I remember the feelings that came from that and I remember too very early on reading Max Dupain talking about the effect of seeing Olive Cotton’s first solo show in 1985 and I’m just paraphrasing but he said it was like walking through the bush and then coming cross a calm, tranquil lake. He spoke about the therapeutic calm of her photography and I have always felt a kinship with that statement too, that there’s something there that draws me, the energy from that.
A: It was a very beautiful thing that Max wrote, wasn’t it? Because I said what are you doing? I said well I’m reading this book, this beautiful biography of Olive Cotton and the easy way to explain to people was of course the relationship with Max Dupain. What do you think about that? Do you hope this book might change that?
H: I do, I hope that there’s new information about their marriage so things that have never been published before so I was able to have access to documents that other people hadn’t looked at, I was able to gather recollections from people who knew them because this is such a longstanding project. So even someone saying oh yes, I had been to the studio in the 1940s, someone who was still alive then and who could say to me I saw Max treat Olive like a piece of the furniture. So I was able to get these firsthand recollections still when the archive if you like was still alive and restless.
So that kind of information is there but there is a very extended discussion too about how active they were as photographers, as artists working together. They didn’t imitate each others’ styles, it was always assumed that Dupain was the dominant one and she was the lesser one if you like as we so often see in those professional relationships but I’m convinced it was not like that. She certainly was not the photographer in the business, she was the assistant but enormously proud of everything they achieved together. Olive, right from the start, she had her own style and her own particular concerns and you can see them as early as – well I think Interior (my room) is a photograph from 1933. It’s there then. She’s 22 years old. It’s a photograph Max Dupain never would have taken and you would find photographs from him from an early period you know she couldn’t have taken either.
So really fertile, really active, really interesting the way they worked together but I think we have to give them full credit as autonomous, independent beings who accomplished a lot independently. She made it quite clear later on that she said that she basically would brook no interference. With Shasta Daisies, one of her best known photographs, it’s on the back of a book, she said, oh Max, he wondered what on earth I was doing climbing up this door working in the studio but she said basically I knew it would turn out alright. Sure enough it did, it gets hung in London and they sell on photography, the pinnacle of achievement for our photographers. So yeah, I think they worked really closely together, I think they loved each other incredibly from teens on -
A: ‘Cause they were kind of children – they grew up together, didn’t they?
H: They did. They met right before they started high school so she was going to go to high school at MLC in Sydney and he was going to go to Sydney Grammar so they meet as children but right on that cusp of adulthood and they fall in love. I mean first of all are just connected by photography, they go to each other’s places, they process negatives together there in the dark at the makeshift darkroom at his place and at her place and then they become incredibly close. I think there’s absolutely no doubt they loved each other but then as a marriage as she said sometimes marriage doesn’t work and in their case it was very brief. She decided quite quickly that it did not suit her.
A: Her father was a geology professor and had been on an expedition with Shackleton and I wonder about the influence of her father as well with her look to big nature and the bigness of the world.
H: I think it’s crucial and her father was Leo Cotton, he was Professor of Geology at Sydney Uni and all reports are that he was just the loveliest man, a very gentle man, enormously talented. Olive grew up in a family of privilege, surrounded by luminaries. I mean their achievements really are quite phenomenal but yes, it was through her father actually that she was really encouraged in photography ‘cause he had learned photographic techniques himself to take photographs of Antarctica on that trip and they are in the Powerhouse Museum.
A: I wondered with my crass kind of explanation of this book and I thought I’ll just stick on my crassness here, who do you think’s the best photographer?
H: Olive or Max?
A: Mm. I’m just going to go there, Helen. I’m a journalist so you know.
H: So I suppose because I'm a very even-handed person -
A: Yes, you are and you’re a professor at -
H: That’s right. I think they have very different contributions to make and I think that Max Dupain’s photography is enormously important and fabulous but I think that he often made too many photographs in the sense that he had all these commercial demands on him so he did more than 200,000. That’s a lot of negatives. So Oilve’s output was really different, much more intense and concentrated. But I think that if I were to be told could you take 100 Max Dupains and 100 Olive Cottons, you make two fantastic exhibitions. Shaune Lakin at the National Gallery did a show of Max and Olive and you see them together and they both are very fine photographers. But I just think that Olive brings to our conversation something very different in this contemporary moment. Obviously hers is a woman’s story and this book is very much a woman’s story -
A: It is.
H: - and yeah, that’s crucial.
A: It’s very hard coming from second wave feminist generation to not give a feminist reading over the top and you warn us against that, you say quite clearly Olive did not consider herself a feminist. Tell us more about that.
H: Yes, that’s right so Olive was at pains to point out that she saw herself first of all as an artist, as a photographer, not as a woman photographer. She didn’t want to be categorised that way. But she did advocate for women nonetheless so in one of her few public profiles in the ‘30s when she gives an interview to The Sydney Morning Herald she does talk about how she hopes that women will be much more involved in the photography arena. So she is a champion that way and also of photography by other woman and her friends. If you look, and you will see some of these portraits go through of her photographs of women, she absolutely understands women. I think she does some of the finest portraiture of women in this whole period.
A: I was doing that comparison between Max and I’m going to start doing that but The Sunbaker and then the wind and that portrait.
H: Yes, taste the warmth, the light, the wind, yeah.
A: That’s all I want on my wall now. I think that is the most extraordinary photograph and it is by a woman of a moment in that moment of complete and utter rapture of nature.
H: Yeah but also she allows her women to have an internal life and to have a power. Their power is a physical power but it’s also an internal power. So this is why her portraits of women I think are very complex. They’re very sensuous, they’re gorgeous to look at but her women are complex beings. She is a complex being and I’ve tried to make her as complex as possible because there’s no point rushing to judgement and so if you were to do a feminist analysis you might say very quickly why didn’t you do this or that?
A: Why did you put up with this?
H: Yeah, exactly but -
A: They were different questions at a different time.
H: Yeah and it was a very complex thing but she was committed all the time to – she believed in the value of an inner life, an imaginative life. This doesn’t matter if you’re a photographer, this is whether you’re a painter or a writer or a musician, all of us who want to have a rich inner life will respond I think to what she is feeling there.
A: I’m jumping a bit but there’s an incredible photograph that you’ve included in the book when she has her studio at Cowra and she’s doing a lot of weddings and there’s a photograph of a schoolgirl. It’s Coe -
H: Jenny Coe.
A: Jenny Coe.
H: That comes through here too.
A: I showed it to my husband this morning and went take a look, that’s a photograph of a schoolgirl but there’s something else to it. There’s incredible power to that -
H: Incredible power and you’ll see that there’s a photo of -
A: She’s a Wiradjuri girl.
H: Yes, that’s right so really powerful. She’s in her school uniform but the way that she and Olive transact the photograph, the session, it’s incredibly commanding so the way that young woman looks into the camera and you feel it, don’t you? You feel the power of that.
A: I took time to look at it and you will when you read this incredible book. But to leap back, the decision to leave Max and she goes to a girls’ school, actually, to Frensham to be a teacher. I mean that was an amazingly strong and defiant decision, wasn’t it?
H: Yeah and so in the book I’ve tried to argue that there are these moments where she makes these audacious decisions, one is after finishing university not to go and be a teacher but to go into Max Dupain’s studio. By then they really are a romantic couple but she said why wouldn't I do what I want to do? Photography is my passion, of course that’s where I will go and then yes, these various audacious decisions. But to leave Max at that time, 1941 in the war, the divorce rate in Australia is miniscule and she chooses to find a teaching position. It is in a very progressive girls’ school. She’s again got the company of women, women who were incredibly politicised and aware of what was happening in the world and of creating a Utopian community so amazingly supportive for her.
Max was blindsided. First of all she’d made that decision to find the position obviously without discussing with him and then she was gone and first she came back for a few weekends to collect some of her stuff but only a few weekends and then in their divorce proceedings you can see that he was completely shocked, he looked so compressed for him but she had made up her mind obviously some time before.
A: There’s no doubt that Olive Cotton had an eye for physical and natural beauty and this is the case when it came to the men in her life, ‘though they were beautiful men.
H: Yes, incredibly handsome men. Yeah and Olive’s granddaughter, Lucy Leeman, she does write about that too, yes, about Olive’s taste in men.
A: ‘Cause that photo of Ross in uniform looking directly at – it’s an erotic photo, isn’t it?
H: It is and she says it was for his parents so -
A: He’s not looking at his parents in that photo.
H: No, I think that was the beginning of the romance, 1942.
A: You come backwards and forwards, you really tease out her reasons for leaving Max and maybe we’ll leave that to the readers too. There’s an incredibly heartfelt story but actually I’ll just leave that for you to read.
H: I guess the point here is that I use evidence to reveal things but slowly so these things happen across a whole lot of chapers and then late in life Olive and Max get to think about their lives in that life review phase and so a little more comes out then. But they then speak for themselves in a way.
A: Olive loved music and there’s something very musical in the flow of the way you have written. Tell me about that, is that on purpose? Or did that reveal itself to you?
H: Look, I always need a metaphor, conceptual metaphor and I have got a few going in this. One was that I was needing a lump of dough and mind you I don’t make bread, I’m terrified by the whole yeast process, I’ve got no affinity really or ability. But it was as if the dough had bubbles in it and I had to go through the process of kneading to try and eliminate the bubbles which were the big ruptures but still allow enough breaks and things in between so that for me was a metaphor of get rid of the big distress things so drop it down a bit but still have these moments which shift and register. So it’s musical in that sense ‘cause you can be going along and then it’s like oh wow, we've gone into another passage but I also felt like I was dealing cards, I’m dealing this one and then I wait and then I deal this one and then I wait and then another one comes.
A: Speaking of cards I mean the cards she chooses when she marries Ross, they live in a tent.
H: They do, that’s right.
A: She doesn’t choose comfort.
H: No, she doesn’t and she stresses that her father – well look, her parents – I mean her whole circle is very unconventional in a lot of ways and her grandfather, there’s a photo she took of her grandfather where she says that he’s probably pointing to Russia on the globe. There’s a little light bit because he was always interested in the five-year plan, he was a socialist, he was really fascinated by that. He called one of his children Karl Marx, he was called Max Cotton so yeah, she came from a family that was very progressive, not just politically but thinking about science and art coming together but in very creative, unanticipated ways, I think.
A: I think Sally who’s here tonight tells you the story but particularly I come from one of those country communities and there is a sort of pressure to dress and look in a certain way in that era which Olive didn’t want a bar of.
H: No, she doesn’t do, that’s right. Sally says how she didn’t have her hair permed like the other farmers’ wives and so on. She was prepared to be different, I think, to be audacious through many moments in her life. Not all but many.
A: You say Olive’s public voice is hard to find with so little on the public record but when it comes to private existence it’s a different matter. Tell me about that so to find that ‘cause there weren’t many interviews and she didn’t like publicity.
H: No, she was very shy, retiring, reserved person and then the second marriage, Ross was the talker and I think in the first marriage probably Max was the talker even though people said how fun-loving and so on she was. So there wasn’t a lot in terms of what biographers want like diaries and letters that you would be able to pore over. For people who’ve read biographies on famous figures like old Manning Clark where apparently there’s just boxes after boxes where he’s gone through and annotated -
A: It was called An Eye to Eternity because he had a photograph taken of himself near a tomb – I mean he knew that this was going to be pored over. Olive is the opposite.
H: That’s right. She’s much more fatalistic, she has a very different view of time and of what it is we do in the world so she wasn’t ego-driven that way at all. Some might say she was too self-effacing, too modest but that was an issue.
A: What was most important to her?
H: Oh look, I think if you talk personally it would be family, absolutely no doubt, children, grandchildren and all that but I think yes, for me it’s this idea of the natural world, having a sense of its importance that goes way beyond you that you already quoted. But of beauty and that too and of having an imaginative life. Her sister-in-law said that Olive had a secret life. It was in her head so we are so orientated to the external world, we give so little time to an internal life and I’ve said before that for me biography, if it’s going to have any relevance it’s because the subjects of biography speak to us now. We’re not just interested in them because of the past so you have to think what are Oilve’s invitations to us in our moment and I think one of them is about that, what really counts and what it means, have time on your own, solitude. Sure, you can be part of a social world and that too but to do the tough stuff in your dark room, no-one else there and making your own prints.
A: There’s many heartbreaking moments in the book but the fact when you say look, for 18 years really she didn’t take many photographs at all, it was about childrearing and family and she enters in the agricultural show and she doesn’t realise that that’s really out of vogue now. Tell us that story and that great gap in her career.
H: Yes, that’s right so when Olive moves to the country and as Alex has pointed out she’s living in impoverished circumstances with her second husband, Ross. They have the children, it’s a few years before they’re able to move into their own home, still really basic, no electricity. Not the access to water that you need if you’re going to have your own darkroom and so on so she’s taking photographs but she isn’t able to print them herself and she saw the printing as part of her creative practice so it was crucial. So she couldn’t do that, she couldn’t advance in that sense but she never – not stopped taking photographs or I don’t think she ever stopped probably thinking about taking photographs but she wasn’t looking at the work of others either, going to exhibitions, it was impossible in her circumstances.
So the decision to enter into the agricultural show, the Royal Agricultural Show in Sydney would have been crushing because she was rejected and so if you think here was our most important woman photographer in the ‘30s and ‘40s, does such fabulous work and then just a few decades later doesn’t even make the cut. So it’s not until the ‘80s really that she begins to take her place in exhibitions -
A: What happens then? What happens then?
H: It’s largely through the retrieval work of feminist historians in Melbourne, Jenny Maber and Barbara Hall and Christine Gillespie and they go there and they interview Olive and they begin that whole process of the pilgrimage which many people like me also made to see her and to see her work. Olive was so generous, she would show you things. She actually gave a lot of photographs away to her visitors in that period.
A: When did you first meet her?
H: I met her first in the mid-1980s and yeah, I kept visiting during those next decades with my -
A: Do you remember your first reaction to meeting her and the questions you started to ask about her?
H: Yes, I do. She’s tiny, she was tiny so that’s one thing that happens, I suppose, you just have that physical disjunction but incredibly modest. I’ve used that word modest before but she did not like to talk about herself particularly or even really about her photography but Sally did a great series of really archival work looking at photographs and recording what Olive was saying about them. So I was very dependent on that, on that even more than talking to Olive directly myself ‘cause she did not say a lot.
A: There’s a great part in the book when I think its Sally and a friend pack up her studio in Cowra. That’s quite revealing as well, isn’t it?
H: It is, that’s right.
A: What was in that studio and -
H: Yeah and if you do look at the photographs you’ll see even on the wall in the ‘60s she’s got Tea cup ballet and some of the photographs from the Sydney years ‘cause there’s been that big gap and she joins it by calling herself Olive Cotton when she opens the studio. But she also joins it by putting it in the Sydney – photographs in there to establish that continuum and by that point she’s too frail when she’s packing up the studio, Olive is by then too frail to do her own printing and so on. But she still wanted to photograph, there’s absolutely no doubt about that.
A: There’s Sally.
H: Yeah, great portrait.
A: The great quote, I think, she says, photography is drawing with light and that is my greatest interest. Tell me your thoughts about that.
H: Yeah so she says that she’s not making photographs in fact for other people, she’s trying to satisfy herself and what she sees in light, I mean this is where I would argue there’s something fundamental about her contribution. She’s got all those values that come from scientific observation and then all that aesthetic and refined sensibility, exquisite sensitivity. Somehow she brings the art and science together so her work is very rational, it’s not irrational or illogical, it’s actually really ordered but at the same time, yes, it has these great invitations to open-endedness and beauty and other things that make them so appealing, make the art photographs so appealing.
A: Now I’ll just put you all on notice and we can get a microphone to you, I’m going to open it up to questions very soon so I’d love you to put your hand up and just keep it up and we’ll get the microphone to you but I’ll just keep – because just while I’ve got Helen to myself for a moment. So how important is Olive Cotton in the history of Australian photography? Where do you put her?
H: I put her right up the top, I do. For the period of modernist photography in the ‘30s and ‘40s I put her right up there in the top group.
H: Because even if we just talk about that unification of the scientific and the aesthetic but to this gentler vocabulary that I’ve spoken about too. Shasta daisies, if I just use that as an example, that’s the one that’s on the back of the cover but she thinks that all things are of equivalent value. I mean she really is an egalitarian, democratic photographer, she doesn’t single out a particular flower when she does her flower studies, she looks at a group and every flower in those studies have an equivalence. She does it when she photographs the Budapest string quartet too. There’s four blokes in there but they all have the same kind of reality if you like so I think that’s really interesting when modernist work so often makes something hierarchical and she doesn’t do that, she’s much more interested in egalitarianism and democracy and I think that’s radical, I think that’s great.
But it’s her subject matter too, the fact that she does draw these things from the natural world, it is those photographs of women and it is this idea of the viewer like she’s never a table-thumper, she’s never didactic. She wants you to have a space in which you will operate and connect with those photographs so when she says okay, I’m making them for myself it sounds like it might be an egotistical statement. It's not, it just means she’s got to be satisfied to her particular standards but she leaves an abundance of room for you and I’ve tried to do that too with her biography that I’ve tried to match that kind of thing. If we talk about music or rhythm, that somehow there’s a space for you to make your own decisions and find your own things.
A: I think you’ve just done that beautifully and I just saw the photo of Jenny Coe just come up there. Helen in the book stops us and just will single out one of Olive’s photographs and then does this sort of masterclass in terms of explaining the photograph to us, it’s so beautifully done. This is of course your background as a curator and as an academic so you did that again as the rhythm of the music so to speak.
H: Yeah, absolutely and because those are your moments of contemplation it’s me saying to you look, all we have now is this photograph and you and we’re a part of a three-way thing, I’m just telling you a story about this particular thing. So those chapters are just a page or two so they’re meant to slow down the whole thing again.
A: It’s hard not to get cross with Ross and Max.
H: Yeah, I agree. No, I’m with you there, Alex.
A: There’s an account and familiar with these kind of characters, might have been my own father but the account of Ross when there is a film being made about Olive and ‘cause she’s being taken up by the film the producer says we’ll get food brought in for Ross and then he complains about the food so she still has to go and cook the – it’s sort of -
H: Yeah. I was told lots of anecdotes about all sorts of people and this is where the card thing I’m telling you. I don’t play all my cards because some of the stories, yeah, they are distressing.
A: They’re tough.
H: Yeah, they are.
A: I guess it was a different generation than a -
H: Yeah. But Olive finds her way through it so I think that that’s where in the end we don’t have to feel sorry for her and make judgement on her behalf.
A: Oh I don’t feel sorry for her but -
H: No but -
A: I feel cross.
H: Because what she gives us -
A: She’s never a victim to me.
H: No, she’s not, that’s right.
A: What Helen has done here is just so beautiful so just get ready with the questions. I did love Bruce James, the quote that she – will I read it?
H: Yes, by all means -
A: Art critic Bruce James wrote this after seeing Olive’s work. 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. That’s just such a great -
H: It is so I think that’s wonderful.
A: Yeah, it’s just beautiful and I think that’s exactly the – I thank you so much for – all I want is an Olive Cotton photograph now. But please put your hand up, I'm sure you’ve got lots. There’s so much in this book and I’m just picking out bits and pieces but put your hand up and ask some questions of Helen. Don’t be shy, I can keep talking. Thank you.
Au: Thank you for a wonderful insight into Olive’s life. I knew a bit about Max Dupain, my mother actually worked for him briefly in Sydney as a young woman but knew nothing of Olive until about the 1980s so thank you. It’s a very plebeian question, is there any celebration of Olive’s work in Cowra? It’s a great country town but do they celebrate her -
H: They do. So the book’s been out just for three or four weeks and where we had the first launch was in Cowra for Cowra people and Cowra community. They are enormously proud of her and there are photographs in that gallery’s collection. They are trying to raise money to buy more works by her and yes, a photograph of Olive appeared on a stamp, Tea cup ballet was on a stamp in the late ‘80s and then it’s like her fame really grew like wildfire in Cowra. Yes, they are phenomenally proud and they hosted the show that went from the National Gallery just recently, just last year and they plan to have a talk and that next year too so it’s an ongoing commitment to her and her work.
A: Now any other questions just put up your hand and we’ll get the microphone. Just over here, thank you so much.
Au: Hi Helen. I’m just wondering with the variety of work, when you see artists these days, they concentrate on a certain genre or a certain whatever and she was quite prolific in quite a wide variety of imagery so can you comment on that?
H: Yeah, that’s a great question because it actually goes right to Olive’s [erve] 43:32, what we would call an [erve], it’s the body of work and when you look in the ‘30s she tries out all sorts of things. She’s a young women in her 20s, part of this really vibrant environment so she’s photographing a little bit in the city but she’s doing still lives in the studio, she’s going out into the natural world with her camera, she’s making portraits of her friends. So that’s in fact where you see the most variety in her subject matter and then later on when she does come back to her photography and just immerses herself in it it is more restricted. It’s the natural world that is the bridge between the two phases so once the studio’s open, the first really strong photograph she makes again – this is now in the 1960s so as Alex pointed out is the 18-year gap – it’s flower studies, just what she’d been doing in the ‘30s. So for her it was as if there was no break, there she was again in the studio taking in the – what she said is for her the Cherokee rose was the most perfect. She loved the flowers for their form, she talks about that, yeah so there were particular flowers.
She’s not running a campaign about Australian natives, indigenous plants or even about exotics, it’s not the most expensive lilies and orchids, it is the things that are growing in her garden and round about, quince blossom, Shasta daisies, wild plum, all these sorts of things. So yeah, more variety early and then later on much more settled and much greater focus on the natural world.
A: Any other questions? Just put up your hand and we’ll get the microphone to you. Yes, just here.
Au: Hi Helen. I was just wondering, the photographs of the houses that she lived in, the two houses in the countryside, they looked pretty wrecked. Do you think that they were like that when she lived in those houses?
H: So the key thing I think there is that they were incredibly simple but of course much more ordered when Olive did live there but the second house which is the house that we knew her in and visited her in is two construction workers’ barracks that are smooshed together. So what’s so interesting then is when they get that, that’s a big improvement in their living conditions but they never erase the signs ever of the people who’d lived there before. So inside that’s why I use the example of her door, the Dymo tape label on her door is the name of the previous occupants because the workers had all the bedrooms. So when you go into Olive’s house you can see the names of the workers who lived there before her.
So certainly there were some aspects of the housing that did improve but there were other things that I found really curious like that that she accepted and Ross didn’t feel the need to paint things and renovate or -
A: Because with her eye for detail as you said all it needed was a quick tug to take that Dymo -
A: So she must have looked at it every day.
H: That’s right but she chose not to do things like that. The yard always was in disarray but it looked like disarray in the sense that it was so full of stuff and I try to use the houses and other kind of documents because we’ve already mentioned that Olive didn’t leave behind a lot of stuff to give me access to her inner life. But the houses, I mean how often with a biographical subject can you see that every house she lived in from Waroona, the beautiful house in Hornsby to the barracks at Spring Forest. But they’re still there so you can go to them.
So there’s all this profusion but in the end I realised that in there there actually was very little of Olive because there were 17 car wrecks, you’ll see those, Austin cars but they belonged to Ross, not to Olive and so the area where there were all the stoves or the area where there's all the beekeeping paraphernalia and so on, that’s not actually hers. So even though that’s her home she’s absent there in a way. In fact someone who wrote to me, people have just started reading the book and sending me an email and one of them, a woman, she said to me Olive is a mystery wrapped up in an enigma because yeah, from those places you still get so little.
A: Some other questions? We’ve just got a little bit more time. Yes, just down here.
Au: Thank you, your book has been on my bedside table for the last few weeks so I’ve been enjoying it. I was just going to ask about – so Max came from his father’s interest in the human form and the sort of physicality in gymnasium and thing so it’s sort of interesting – well I just wondered if you could comment on I guess her way of seeing to what degree we can see that perhaps in that image of Max after surfing, that sort of strong physicality. But then there’s also a sense that she moves away from that and I just wondered if you have a thought on that.
H: Yes. Now that’s an interesting question because you could say well she moves away from portraiture and that preoccupation then with the human subject but in fact because she has the commercial studio in Cowra, that really is all portraiture so the portraiture is still there and the people do have that physicality but that kind of [presentness] 49:16 still in the world. But of course the really sensuous stuff that comes from the ‘30s and ‘40s, that belongs to youth too, that’s a phase when those people are in their 20s and 30s. They’re all gorgeous, they’re designers, they make their own clothes, they copy patterns out of Vogue, they help each other do this and that.
They go to the Ballets Russes, they’re all out there listening to music so that informs I think the whole image of the body as a really vital lived-in body. A lot of people, of course their sexual relations, I tried to work out all that stuff, it was a really puritan era, in fact. All those scholars of history of sexuality in Australia, they do point that out and yet people were not doing as the church and the state and their parents told them, there was a whole lot of stuff going on, there’s no doubt about that. How much in Olive and Max’s case and that I could never work out and in the end it’s not my business to so a lot of that sexuality is displayed, I feel.
A: The Max after surfing.
H: Yeah and some of the other photographs that you’ll see often. I mean because to even photograph a nude was pretty brave because I think there was a great quote from Damien Parer’s biography. Damien Parer was a great friend of Olive’s and Max’s and when he was killed they were extremely distraught. But the biographer points out that for a woman to go out to town without a hat and her gloves and her handbag was considered whorish behaviour. So there were very strict principles in operation and then you see the cover of the book is Olive on a camp with her friends including Max Dupain down at the south coast and look how liberated and free they look. That’s a whole alternative. It’s youth culture but clearly a liberationalist sort of aesthetic is in operation there too.
A: Any more questions? Yeah.
Au: Thank you very much. Did she ever experiment with colour photography?
H: No, she didn’t, really. Now I don’t think she took position against it in the way Max Dupain did because Dupain was adamant that colour photography could not be a creative pursuit but I think that for Olive the black and white, she just loved being able to do that creative printing work in the darkroom. So no, that’s where she stayed. A little bit of colour in the studio and she did do some hand-colouring of portraits for Cowra people but no, black and white was really her thing and that drawing with light, that relates to that because of the patterns and the tones so the drawing is moving through those tones.
She doesn’t use a lot of contrast like not a lot of black and white, she operates a lot in that middle range of tones and that again gives you the softness and the sensuousness.
A: Another question over here?
Au: There’s a weightlessness, an absence of gravity in much of her work, where horizons will disappear, there’s lots of skies. To what extent is that an aesthetic choice and to what extent do you think that comes from her personality?
H: Yeah well if only I knew. But I think that weightlessness, absolutely, I think that that is definitely a concern of hers and I was interested with her because when she comes back to photography she is ageing and her last photograph, the really great one, Moss on the window pane, 1995 so she’s 84 when she takes that. I don’t know about you but I find that really comforting, to think that you can just keep on smashing it ‘til you’re 84 ‘cause that’s what we all want to do. So she has that, that she's still able to do that and I was looking at what is the difference between the early and the late photographs and I think in the late photographs you do find there’s more sky like the horizon is lower down and there is this greater abundance of sky. But because she does do that earlier too, it’s not like the late great break that you do see with some artists where what they do later is different to what they do earlier.
There’s this wonderful work by Edward Said, some of you might know him but he talks about why he loves Beethoven and people in particular who have this late great style which is a going against, it’s a refusal to accept serenity and he likes that fact that nothing is resolved. But in Olive’s case, in her last photographs, that weightlessness is very much about serenity and acceptance so she doesn’t show you a going against, she actually gives you something else which is I think -
A: We talked about that with Sunflowers, the sunflower heads, yes, as well.
H: Yes, that’s right.
A: Any other questions? Yes, in the middle here. Just got time for a couple more.
Au: Hi Helen. You talked about the absence of archival materials which must have been very difficult then to start your project but I did notice that one of the photographs you had in here was of a trunk. It said it was a trunk of all her possessions from Sydney. Do you want to talk about what that revealed, if anything?
H: So that trunk is another metaphor. Remember I said I'm desperate for metaphors and so that trunk is what Olive used to bring her belongings from Sydney down to the country in 1946. So it’s a sea trunk, you’d hope that it was going off to Sri Lanka and to journeys to all around the world and off to England or wherever people might have gone at that time but it’s just transporting her things from Sydney to Cowra. Then in that trunk – I mean I'm sure that over time and the family would be able to tell you this, there was a lot of sorting that went on but by the time I looked at it there were the things from the Sydney years that had never been incorporated into her current life. So it was the concert programs of the concerts she’d attended in Sydney in the ‘30s, it was the books that she had got as school prizes. She was a stellar student.
Not only were her family luminaries but she was extremely talented. I mean even at age seven in her school report it said something like she’s got leadership potential, we’re talking in 1918 so there were things in the trunk that were very revealing like that. But what it revealed to me most was that she wasn’t worried about trying to sort everything out ahead of her death. That’s what I mean about this acceptance and she’s not trying to, like other photographers that we would know, catalogue everything for posterity and try and establish a view which will become a received view. She would leave everything open there so – for someone like me I could - in that case with fortunately the support especially from Sally be able to look through the things that were left behind.
A: What would she make of this?
H: I don’t know, I think she would probably be surprised to see herself like that, I think she would be thrilled that we are interested in her work because she was always so thrilled. She wouldn’t expect acclamation or devotion but yeah, I hope that she would like it but of course in the end this is my story of her life, it’s not her story and -
A: The beautiful part in the book, and if you’ve got a question please put up your hand – oh great – where the comments book for an exhibition here in Canberra.
H: Yes. It was here at the Library, actually, they kept a visitors’ book where you write things in and I just did an analysis of the key words and how many times beautiful or sensuous or lovely or gorgeous and there was just such an outpouring from people that way. People were very genuinely moved like really touched by her photography. That’s what I still hope that the book will do too, that there’s that space there for you to make connections yourselves with some photographs and then to pursue them, to go online certainly but to go to the collections that are around the country here at the National Gallery and look at the works.
A: I think probably the last question here.
Au: Okay, thank you, it’s been very interesting. Just a shift of focus from Olive to you and you mentioned something about a number of devices that you used at the very beginning to write biography. So I just wondered if you could tell us, share your secrets.
H: Yeah so for me that’s right but this was a project triggered by my interest in Olive Cotton’s photographs and that’s the thing, it’s about art and photography but it’s equally then about Olive’s life. Then this other category is about biography so I have used all the way through the selections on biography and I do refer to other biographies like by [Hermane Lee] 59:15, by [Robert Dusay] 59:15 and so on. I use [Robert Dusay]’s device of listening ‘cause when he’s a biographer he speaks about listening too to the environments in which his subjects had lived and I never even thought of doing that so I do choose those sorts of devices. That book, Footstepping by Richard Holmes where he’s going to follow a journey to go everywhere where his subject had been. So I did that kind of stuff as well.
What’s interesting for me now as I’m writing another biography where I can’t do the footstepping so I have to think about what else you put in the biographical space. So yeah, there’s lots of reflections, Janet Malcolm about the biographer being the trespasser like being the burglar.
A: The burglar.
H: The burglar in the house going through all the drawers and lifting up the undies and looking under there and that sense of transgression. I was always aware of that too so yeah, there are reflections on biography. But the way I’ve tried to structure the book is like it’s life, it’s work, it’s these reflections on photography, it’s that kneading of the dough thing I was talking about and then sometimes it’s just the documents themselves that will speak for something. The one document that absolutely threw me was in the divorce proceedings. Olive was visited at the studio by the stenographer from the law firm that represented Max Dupain and the divorce ‘cause of course it’s not the no fault divorce era, you had to prove adultery or desertion and in their case they were going on the basis of Olive’s desertion. So the case was to do with the restitution of conjugal rights to Max Dupain.
So the stenographer turns up with two things, one is one pound and the other is the address of Max Dupain’s parents so that there is no financial impediment for Olive to take the bus back to where Max is and no confusion about the address because he was staying there with his parents. So that meant there could be nothing that would stop her going home to him and restoring conjugal rights. So she takes the pound, she does sign the papers but needless to say she doesn’t follow through and then of course they’re able to proceed on the next stage of the divorce proceedings.
A: Look, I think it is now for you to read the book. Don’t just buy one copy. We’ve got too much stuff, we need great writing, we need great stories and the story of really, truly a great artist. Helen Ennis, you’ve done the most extraordinary job.
Just writing the other biography have you painted the room a different colour or -
H: Oh I’m thinking about that.
H: No, it won’t be red. I don’t know what it’ll be yet but it will be a different colour.
A: Look, I really do congratulate Helen Ennis on a beautiful, beautiful book and it’s so lovely that Olive’s family are here tonight and please go out and enjoy this, buy many copies, get them signed, talk to Helen but thank you so much for coming tonight in celebration of this great work and great writer.
M: Well I’m really pleased to say that the conversation’s not over ‘cause we’ve had a wonderful conversation here but it can continue upstairs over refreshments. Alex, you’ve said it and I think everybody in the room will say you have to buy the book and just as well that you can buy it for a 10% discount in the bookshop tonight and get Helen to sign it. So it’s a bit like the pound, there’s no excuse for not buying that book tonight.
Look, we feel here at the Library that our collections come alive when the words they contain are read and when the images and objects they include are pored over, explored, wondered at and perhaps also given that sense of space that you’ve obviously tried to work with, Helen. We’re really privileged to be the custodians of Olive’s images, three oral histories in which I'm sure she gives away very, very little and a small collection of personal papers. We’re really delighted though that over a long period of Helen’s life these collections have inspired Helen along with the work and have contributed to this wonderful biography. As the National Library we’d also like to say congratulations and to Fourth Estate for a really, really beautiful book. That’s enough for now, please do come upstairs and join us -
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