Olive Cotton is one of the most important and revered figures in the history of 20th century Australian photography. Her highly considered compositions betray an ongoing commitment to the study of light, line and form. Throughout her career, her photographic output was both innovative and broad and straddled pictorialism, modernism and the documentary genre. She possessed an astute sensitivity to detail and could impart a graceful intensity on modest domestic scenes, portraits or fragmentary views taken from the natural landscape.
Having studied English and mathematics at the University of Sydney, graduating in 1934, Cotton pursued an interest in photography and began to work in the studio of childhood friend Max Dupain that same year. In addition to her work in the studio, and later when she had established her own career as a commercial photographer, Cotton pursued her own artistic trajectory and established herself as an independent practitioner.
Max after surfing is a portrait of Dupain taken in 1939, around the time of their brief marriage. While the photograph was taken indoors, the sharply delineated contrast and the dramatic interplay between light and shade evoke harsh sunlight. The work is loaded with suggestion and emotional intimacy. As art historian and curator Helen Ennis noted in 2000, the close vantage point and the tension between visible form and dense shadow ‘creates a space for erotic imaginings’.
gelatin silver photograph
26.1 x 19.0 cm image; 31.9 x 24.0 cm sheet
Signature & date
Signed l.r., recto sheet pencil 'Olive Cotton'. Not dated.
Gift of The Russell Mills Foundation 2015
Not on display
Shown in 1 exhibition
The Unflinching Gaze: photo media and the male figure, Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, Bathurst, 13 Oct 2017–03 Dec 2017