Olive Cotton took City rooftops during her time as a practicing photographer in Sydney in the 1940s. This was a period of her life which she would later describe as ‘really great years’, a reference to the freedom she enjoyed managing Max Dupain’s studio whilst he was at war 1. City rooftops captures this sense of euphoria despite its composition during the years of the Second World War. Cotton recalls climbing to the rooftop of 49 Clarence Street, the location of the studio, and waiting until the sun was low in the sky before exposing the shot. She said that the low angle of the light ‘accentuated all the vertical signboards’ providing a glimpse of civilian city, gauged toward domestic consumption rather than military mobilisation 2. This image exudes a moderate modernist aesthetic with the window frame bluntly cutting through the right side of the frame. Yet, this angular reference to the photographer’s perspective is then offset by the softer smoggy horizon.
Cotton grew up in the northern Sydney suburb of Hornsby, the eldest of five children. She was gifted a Kodak No 0 Brownie camera by an aunt at the age of eleven, igniting her life-long passion with photography. Cotton completed a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney with majors in Mathematic and English 1934. She defied her father’s wishes upon graduating and pursued a career in photography joining her childhood friend, Max Dupain’s studio at 24 Bond St, Sydney. Cotton continued to practice photography, alongside working as a teacher, after relocating from Sydney to the rural NSW district of Cowra in 1946 3. Her work has been exhibited extensively during her lifetime and posthumously, notably at the London Salon of Photography in 1935 and 1937 with major retrospectives at the National Library of Australia and the Art Gallery of NSW in 2000.
1. Ennis H 2005, ‘Olive Cotton: photographer’, National Library of Australia, Canberra p 7
2. Ennis H 2005, ‘Olive Cotton: photographer’, National Library of Australia, Canberra p 42
3. Annear J 2015, ‘The photograph and Australia’, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney p 275
gelatin silver photograph
30.5 x 28.0 cm image; 47.3 x 37.6 cm sheet
Signature & date
Signed l.r. sheet, pencil "Olive Cotton". Dated l.l. sheet, pencil "...c '42".
Not on display
Shown in 6 exhibitions
Five years on: a selection of acquisitions 1981-1986, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 26 Sep 1986–23 Nov 1986
Souvenirs of Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 14 Mar 1992–10 May 1992
In a certain light: Clarice Beckett and Olive Cotton, Ivan Dougherty Gallery, Paddington, 08 Mar 1995–15 Apr 1995
Soft Shadows and Sharp Lines: Australian photography from Cazneaux to Dupain, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 30 Sep 2002–17 Nov 2002
Sydney Moderns, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 06 Jul 2013–07 Oct 2013
Referenced in 5 publications
Deborah Edward and Denise Mimmocchi, Sydney moderns: art for a new world, 'Sydney moderns', pg.12-17, Sydney, 2013, 14 (illus.).
Susannah Smith, Look, 'Women's work: their diverse and significant contribution to the modernist art scene', pg. 13-15, Sydney, Aug 2013, 14.
Unknown, Five years on: a selection of acquisitions 1981-1986, Sydney, 1986. cat.no. 150
Soft shadows and sharp lines: Australian photography from Cazneaux to Dupain, Sydney, 2002, (illus.). no pagination or catalogue numbers
Unknown, Olive Cotton, Sydney, 2000, 29 (illus.). cat.no. 44