I first came across the work of Olive Cotton, the Australian photographer from the 1930s and 1940s when I was 19, while studying photography.
Her way with sunlight and the natural gentleness she brought to her work immediately attracted me to her.
A couple of years ago I was experimenting with different narratives within my own work and was exploring a nostalgic coastal theme for a new print collection. I hadn’t thought about Olive’s work since those early days of study, though I accidentally rediscovered her work. Through my research I found references to a ‘holiday album’ from 1937 which she made with her husband, photographer Max Dupain from a camping trip the couple had with their close friends.
The album was filled with personal and carefree photographs which they both captured from the weekend and without realising it they had captured the essence of Australian beach culture.
It was these photographs from the holiday album which have inspired my latest print collection. I retraced the steps of the Culburra camping trip, creating a body of work inspired by Olive’s weekend, being led by her sensitive and feminine eye.
I wanted to share with you the making of this print collection, as the body of work has been a tender labour of love, a true dedication to Olive Cotton and keeping her photographic legacy alive.
My print collection ‘Ode to Olive’ is available now.
I remember the afternoon vividly when I first discovered the work of Olive Cotton. My photography lecturer allocated Wednesday afternoons to introducing our class to iconic photographers and their creative lives from around the world. These were my absolute favourite classes, and I always looked forward to these days the most.
My lecturer brought us the world of French street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, the final frontiers of combat in the Spanish Civil War through war photographer Robert Capa’s camera, to the rock and roll sheer hedonism of Annie Leibovotiz photo essays with Rolling Stone Magazine. Then one Wednesday he introduced the class to the work of a woman called Olive Cotton, from Sydney.
I was so drawn to her name, you can’t really say it without smiling, and that is the same feeling I had when I saw her work for the first time.
It’s gentle and humble, led by an observant eye. Her way with light and the sensitivity she brought to her work was her signature, perhaps a lot like her.
Olive Cotton successfully ran a studio in Sydney with renowned Australian photographer Max Dupain, who she photographed often. They were childhood friends and went on to marry, and then also later divorce.
She is often referred to as one of Australia’s pioneering modernist photographers, a phrase modest Olive might feel uncomfortable with if she was alive today. The work I love the most of Olive’s is when she was out in nature, capturing the landscape, in the bush and at the beach.
A couple of years ago I rediscovered one of Olive’s works ‘Max in the Shadows’, which she captured in 1935.
It’s a portrait of Max Dupain, his skin dappled in the sheoak shadows. I was so struck by how in one frame she captured so much atmosphere.
It led me down a research rabbit hole of sorts. In that one moment I wanted to know everything about her life, what happened after her divorce, was her career overshadowed by Max Dupain’s photographic success?
In my research I found references to a particular weekend that Olive and Max spent with a group of friends, camping down on the south coast at Culburra Beach, New South Wales in 1937. They made a ‘holiday album’. Personal and carefree snapshots of their weekend. In the photographs I could see glimpses of coastal trees, long stretches of empty beaches, and portraits of faces filled with happiness and emotion.
Right there and then all I knew was that I wanted to hold this sentimental holiday album in my hands, I wanted to retrace the steps of the Culburra camping trip and create a body of work.
And that’s exactly what I did. I contacted the Mitchell Library in Sydney, where the holiday album is held, in their ‘special collections’ department, to see if I could view the work.
I live in Brisbane, though at this time I was about to embark on a solo east coast road trip, calling in on small coastal towns to photograph and explore new work. I had hoped to be able to tie this into the same trip and visit the library and then drive down to Culburra, south of Sydney.
The library however had other ideas. They said no, and they didn’t see a need for me to view the work in real life. The work has been digitalised and is available online.
I really couldn’t take no for an answer, so I tried again, and again (and again). Explaining why I needed to see the work. I think I was becoming a bit of a pain. I just had a real desire to hold these printed pages in my hands and to feel what they felt.
Eventually I was able to sway the library. They granted me supervised time with the holiday album. It was everything I hoped it would be. Pages and pages, revealing a special carefree weekend by the beach, filled with joy and freedom, documented on black and white film, and drenched in sunlight.
I walked out of the library buzzing and so excited! I immediately drove down the coast to Culburra that afternoon, two and a half hours south. Desperately holding onto the energy I just felt from Olive’s work.
I had never been to Culburra, so I didn’t know what to expect from the sleepy seaside town. I rented a rundown old surf shack along the beachfront. I had decided I would stay for two nights, absorbing the landscape which was in front of me, just as Olive had.
I got talking to a man who was doing up the shack next-door, a local, who had lived in the area for 50 years. He wanted to know what had brought me to Culburra. I showed him some printed photographs I had stuck in my diary, the digitalised files from the library of the ‘holiday album’.
He held my leather diary for a long time, staring at the glued in photographs. He slowly started to tell me that where we were standing would have been very close to where they camped, if not the exact same spot. He pointed to the landmarks in front of us – the headland to the left hand side, the sand dunes at the front and how the tall trees and scrub would have sheltered their campsite from the strong sea winds. All which we could see in my diary from the 1937 photographs.
In that moment tears welled up in my eyes and I felt my face getting hot, as I stared in disbelief at the kind man.
I could feel I was on the verge of something really special.
For those two days in Culburra I walked the long stretch of beach. Observing the windswept patterns in the sand, the curved shoreline and the light filtering through the native flora. I chose to shoot the body of work on 120mm black and white film, using my Hasselblad. It’s the camera I use to capture my most personal work on, plus it’s the same square format as Olive’s camera, her Rolleiflex.
As I photographed I kept Olive and her quiet and modest ways always on my mind.
And here is my collection of work from my ‘Ode to Olive’ print release. A four print collection in nostalgic sepia tones, which capture the innocent days by the beach and the gentleness of nature.
Summer Holiday – I was sitting and patiently watching from under an old sheoak tree, watching all the holiday makers splash in the water and squeal with the crashing waves, waiting for something to happen.
Just as I was lining up this shot two boys walked into my frame, shirtless with the glow of sunshine on their bare shoulders. They appeared for a second and then were gone. Their similar silhouettes adding so much to this photograph and capturing the essence of those innocent days by the beach on summer holidays.
Coastal Symphony – Going slow and taking in all the small and quiet details was vital to this collection.
A lot of the time I sat in the sand or in the dirt, felt the cool coastal breezes and waited and watched. I waited and watched for the beauty of what was in front of me to appear, like in this photograph.
I love the atmosphere of this image so much, the iconic shapes of the natural world – the coastal pandanus, gentle feathery sheoak branches, and the row of paperbarks in the distance lining the shore. Timeless simplicity.
Sea and Sky – I was walking along the water’s edge, looking out to the horizon, searching, when I glanced down and discovered what I was looking for was right at my feet.
The afternoon tide gently on its way into shore, hugging the shoreline, while the beauty of the day’s sky was being reflected in the shallow water. A meeting of both the beautiful sea and the sky, within the one frame
Gumtree Embrace – While shooting this ‘Ode to Olive Cotton’ collection I wanted to explore and expand on different vistas and see new landscapes with fresh, yet traditional eyes.
In Olive Cotton’s photographic work she would photograph upwards often, and I wanted to introduce this angle to the collection. ‘Gumtree Embrace’ was one such piece where I happened to look up while exploring the landscape to find two old gumtree branches touching.
To me it looks like this pair of old branches are reaching out to touch each other. The bronze of the sepia tones makes for such a timeless image.
I hope you enjoyed reading about Olive Cotton, her life and the ‘behind the scenes’ of the making of my ode to her.
My print collection ‘Ode to Olive’ is available now.