Olive Cotton (1911–2003) is regarded as one of the pioneers of Australian modernist photography. Cotton’s lifelong obsession with photography began with the gift of her first camera, a Kodak Box Brownie, when she was eleven. She was a childhood friend of Max Dupain’s, and in 1934 she joined his photographic studio, where she made her best-known work, the angular composition Teacup Ballet in 1935. The common threads of Cotton’s work are her use of light and form, keen observation skills and equal treatment of subject matter. Between 1939 and 1941 Dupain and Cotton were married, and she photographed him often; her work, Max After Surfing is frequently cited as one of the most sensuous Australian portrait photographs.

Cotton’s iconic photograph Teacup Ballet taken in 1935 reappeared in Gael Newton’s 1980 publication, Silver and Grey: Fifty years of Australian photography 1900-1950. The following year, her work was included in the travelling exhibition, Australian Women Photographers 1840-1960. In 1983 she reprinted 40 years worth of negatives. Sixty-six of these were exhibited in her first solo show, Olive Cotton – photographs 1924-1984. In 1991, Tea cup ballet was issued on a stamp to mark the 150th anniversary of photography in Australia. In 1993, Cotton was awarded an Emeritus Fellowship from the Australia Council. In 2000, the Art Gallery of New South Wales held Cotton’s first retrospective exhibition. It featured 68 photographs ranging from vintage prints, such as Beachwear fashion shot (1938), Max after surfing (1938) and Only to taste the warmth, the light, the wind (1939), to her early 1990s works. Olive Cotton died in 2003 aged 92. The annual Olive Cotton Award is dedicated in memory of her role as one of Australia’s leading twentieth century photographers.

Olive Cotton’s work Pepperina shot in 1985 from the Badger & Fox Collection will be showing at Home@735 Gallery in our June exhibition. Sydney artist Alice Couttoupes has created a ceramic piece in response to the photograph. The two works will be show alongside one another in the exhibition.

Teacup Ballet by Olive Cotton