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The Space of Biography: Writing on Olive Cotton

Helen Ennis

Helen Ennis considers the life and work of photographer Olive Cotton, and the strange nature of biography itself

I didn’t want to begin with a death but found no way around it. For some reason I am not one of those who can write well on the living. The Australian modernist photographer Olive Cotton, who is my subject, died in 2003 but it wasn’t until the death of her husband, Ross McInerney, seven years later that I felt able to start writing her biography. I had been preparing myself as best I could, being careful not to take any liberties with biographical material I had been given or had already gathered. Ross’s death was not unexpected (he was a lifelong smoker who developed lung cancer at the age of ninety-one) but I was shocked by the strength and immediacy of its impact on my biographical project. It was electrifying. All of a sudden the key had been turned, the door opened and in I went to a space that previously did not—could not—exist. Janet Frame explains this transformative experience best in her autobiography The Envoy from Mirror City when she says, ‘writing of the dead is different for the dead have surrendered their story’. And so the day after Ross’s burial in a bush-circled cemetery in country New South Wales, I assumed a new role—as a storyteller, as Olive Cotton’s biographer.

The space that I have entered into—of story, of biography—is an imagined space, of course. But what became clear after Ross’s death was that if I were to inhabit it successfully, some real life redecorating was required. My preferred place to write is at home in a room I call my ‘workroom’, which was once our boys’ shared bedroom but is now mine alone. When they moved downstairs to their own separate rooms I painted its white walls yellow. At that time I wanted a warm, vibrant space in which I could write. It served me well for years but I could not imagine writing about Olive and her photographs there. It was way too active. And so I repainted it—blue. A very light, quiet blue.

I tell you this because I want to identify what I see as some of the certainties of this biographical project. I want my writing to synchronise with the pace of Olive’s life and the qualities of her photography. From my experience of Olive, whom I met in 1984, she never rushed to speak, never rushed to fill in silence with a rude shock of words. Always she left a space around her. As for the tenor of her photography, her first husband, fellow photographer Max Dupain, summed it up in an eloquent review of her exhibition in 1985 that was published in the Sydney Morning Herald. He wrote: ‘The therapeutic calm of this exhibition is its major attraction. It’s like walking through the bush early in the morning and suddenly being surprised by a tranquil lake.’

Look at the words he uses: ‘therapeutic’, ‘calm’, ‘tranquil’, and later on in the review, the very appropriate ‘serenity’. All perfect for describing the affects of Olive’s photographs across her long career, from her portraits and scenes of contemporary life to her flower studies and landscapes. Through all her pictures, Dupain noted, ‘there weaves a wholesome clannish thread of family consciousness’. What is conjured up for me out of this, out of the absence of agitation and fuss, is the unifying quality of blue. Light, quiet blue.

Colour, or more precisely its particular, affective quality, is not the only thing I am sure of. The rhythm of my writing is another. I can hear it in my head—it sounds like Olive’s photographs—but as yet doesn’t have a written language. In other words, the rhythm is still independent of content. I like the way Joan Didion describes this phenomenon in her recent autobiographical book Blue Nights (2011). She begins with some notes she made for a novel she was writing in 1995 (it was published the following year as The Last Thing He Wanted) that go like this:

‘What we need here is a montage, music over. How she: talked to her father and xxxx and xxxxx—’ ‘xx,’ he said. ‘xxx,’ she said.

Didion explains that she assumed her process ‘to be like writing music’ rather than writing ‘in any real sense’. As she puts it, ‘I was sketching in a rhythm and letting that rhythm tell me what it was I was saying.’

It had not struck me till now that Olive would have been intrigued by the idea of rhythm, given her own interest in music (she played the piano) and the parallels she sometimes drew between music and photography. Nowhere is this more evident than in one of her assured landscapes of 1937, which she titled Orchestration in Light. Of the scene she photographed at the edge of Wollomombi Gorge in the New England tableland, she recalled late in life:

There was such a great range of tones, from light through to darkness, that my mind translated it into orchestral sounds, from the high treble of piccolos to the deep sonorous notes of double bass instruments.

What is this rhythm of which I speak and what kind of language will it entail? Lyrical certainly, free of heavy or discordant notes. Measured, extended, nothing random. Not over-elaborated, not verbose. There is in Olive’s work a curious combination of sustained, detached scrutinising (based on her impressive observational skills and her patience, which involved waiting for the right conditions), and something more poetic arising from reverie. She was always attentive to her subject, focusing on it exclusively, respectfully. This isn’t to say that her photography is evened out and uniform. It is internally varied: some images are more upbeat than others, some more hermetic and intense, others are somehow more open.

If the rhythm is clear, so is the imagined look of the book I have not yet written. I can see how the words appear on the papery pages, open with space around them. The font is classic, Bodoni perhaps, or Garamond. Reproductions of Olive’s photographs are full page and commanding. The book itself is a beautiful object, its weight just right for hands to hold on the couch or in bed. A book for pleasure, not for duty.

The space of biography I have sketched so far is abstract, defined only by colour, rhythm, the look of the writing and design. Yet there is still more abstraction to contend with. I teach in an art school where one of my postgraduate students, Kate, recently chose ‘analogy’ for a keyword exercise we were experimenting with in class. Here is some of what she said:

If something is analogous, it is like something else … To analogise is to create an argument using analogy. Analogy is different to metaphor, which says something is something else in a poetic way.

I have latched on to this—for good reason. In my previous writing and curating, metaphor has been crucial in the conceptualisation process, a way of getting a sense of the project and its potential structure. For quite a few years I had a metaphor for Olive’s photographic enterprise, thinking of it as being like a toddler’s walk. I had in mind the way a toddler doesn’t fixate on an end point, the destination that will preoccupy an adult, but is equally absorbed by whatever they discover along the way. That metaphor doesn’t work any more. It was useful for thinking about Olive’s egalitarian approach to her subject matter and her patience, but it implies a kind of naivety, unconsciousness or even opportunism (in the sense of being easily distracted) that I now appreciate is not applicable to her practice. So I no longer have a metaphor but, thanks to Kate, I do have analogies.

My youngest son has been teaching himself the rudiments of book binding. He gave me one of his early attempts, his fourth book, which looked very satisfactory to me (though its imperfections bothered him), a blue-bound book the size of a decent diary or notebook. Inside he wrote an inscription that concluded with the words ‘Write carefully’. I found I couldn’t write anything of mine in it at all and so have been filling the pages with other people’s writing that has nothing directly to do with Olive’s life and work but somehow bears relation to it. That is analogous.

One of the things I was prompted to write down came from an exhibition of work from the Fondation Beyeler, which I saw in Vienna some months ago. At the entrance to the exhibition were photographs of the foundation building in Switzerland that Renzo Piano had designed for art collectors Ernst and Hildy Beyeler. The accompanying statement by Piano made me think of Olive: ‘Only quietness can withstand the eternal character of art.’


Moths on the Windowpane, by Olive Cotton, silver gelatin photograph, 1995. Courtesy Cotton Family and Josef Lebovic Gallery

Another analogous experience I have recorded in my little book centres on Ernst Beyeler’s observations about a beautiful work by Paul Klee, Figure in Yellow (1937), that was in the exhibition ‘Masterpieces from the Fondation Beyeler’. It dates from the last years of Klee’s life when he was suffering from an incurable illness. Beyeler perceptively noted of the painting that ‘No fixed order is discernible, but signs frolic across the surface, radiating a wonderful freedom with a compelling rhythm and a very strong colouration.’ Reading this made me think again, and think differently, about the late works Olive made, including her last completed photograph, Moths on the Windowpane, taken in 1995 when she was eighty-four. It depicts the massing of moths, a familiar nightly event in warm weather that Olive would have witnessed countless times. As in Klee’s painting the absence of a discernible fixed order is apparent and a particular kind of energy is conveyed. This resonates with something that Edward Said wrote in Late Style: Music and Literature against the Grain (2006): ‘Lateness is being at the end, fully conscious, full of memory, and also very … aware of the present.’ In Moths on the Windowpane, and other late photographs by Olive, that resolution between past and present is not achieved lightly, indicating a passive acceptance of her own mortality. A far more dynamic possibility is suggested in Moths, one that involves an active and unending relationship between different forces, between darkness and light, inside and out, and between the material and immaterial worlds.

When I turn away from abstract matters to the specific details of Olive’s life and work, something curious happens. Paradoxically, certainty—the certainty that comes from sensed, intuited kinds of knowledge—starts falling away. How to decide on what to include, on the weight and respective weighting of the details of her story?

I have a friend who is a potter, who shapes her ideas with her hands as she talks. It is the movement of her hands in space that, for now at least, best describes my activities as Olive’s biographer. But I also can’t separate writing biography from curating, which is equally fundamental to my creative life. Both are plastic activities predicated on the differential weight of ‘things’, whether photographs that have a material presence or other ‘things’ such as snippets of conversations, recollections, reminiscences and observations that obviously do not.

Aside from Olive’s photographic oeuvre there is only a slender amount of primary material in the public domain from which to select those things that are rightly weighted. Olive said little during her long life, her most public ‘appearances’ being the documentary film entitled Light Years, by Kathryn Millard (1991), and the accounts of her photographs published in the book Olive Cotton: Photographer (National Library of Australia, 1995). These accounts, initially recorded by Olive’s daughter Sally, are characteristically direct and clear. For example, Olive explains that her grandfather Frank Cotton was greatly stirred by the Russian Revolution and socialist principles and went so far as to name one of his sons Karl Marx Cotton (which the son later changed to what Olive described as ‘the non-political “Max”’). In her portrait of him, taken in about 1935, Frank is shown pointing to a spot on a globe that she suspects was Russia ‘as he was keen to know how the Five Year Plan was working out’. Olive remembered that her grandfather often used to quote the socialist dictum ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’.

The most extensive first-person account relating to Olive is by her daughter Sally, whose essay ‘Life in the Country’ in the NLA book provides fascinating information and insights into the family’s life at Spring Forest, the property near Cowra where they settled in 1951. Sally wrote that Olive ‘was not much like other mothers; she never had her hair permed in the style of the times’, never learned—or wished to learn—how to make a sponge cake, ride a horse or milk a cow, despite decades spent living in the country.

Then there is Geoffrey Lehmann’s book of poems, Spring Forest (1978), which the poet explains ‘is spoken through the voice of a living person, Ross McInerney of Spring Forest, Koorawatha, and much of it is based around his life and stories’. Although focusing on Ross (he was a natural raconteur), the poems, with their stripped-back vocabulary and simple rhythms, beautifully evoke the McInerney family’s circumstances and experiences, as well as their historical era. ‘Photographs’ refers directly to Olive’s background and her relocation from Sydney to the country that followed her marriage to Ross: ‘My wife’s the daughter of a professor / and married the winner / of the brick holding competition / at Cucumgilliga School Picnic.’ The poem continues:

My wife born in a large house has come
to our two rooms of aged weatherboard
and an added one of iron.
You can see cracks of sky through the ceiling,
and there’s no power—
so our evening conversations take place
by the greenish-yellow light of pressure lamps—
and there’s no water laid on,
so my wife washes up in a plastic dish.

Olive, do your regret your life
of photographing country weddings,
and recording local children in silver nitrate?

In marvellously abbreviated, compelling form Lehmann deals with the McInerneys’ material privations, living on their 500-acre soldier settlement farm that was ‘An invitation to poverty’. In the poem ‘Ex-AIF (Australian Imperial Forces)’, Lehmann writes in McInerney’s voice:

No one added up how many acres
make a living,
and I mortgaged my life
to a low interest loan
with a thirty-year term.
But my eyes were open. I signed.

We do not starve. We trade favours.
I go away to earn.
You water my animals.
You go away. I water yours.

But we return to our mortgaged acres,
our lives of scratching to pay bills,
my life I cannot reject,
squatting on this veranda
as a rainbow lorikeet pecks my finger
taking bread from my hand.

Of the reminiscences and recollections I have gathered over the years some jump forward, their colour and authenticity effectively bringing a character to life. A woman who once lived in the same street in Hornsby as the Cotton family told me that Olive’s father, Leo, was ‘a dear’ who would go off to the University of Sydney (where he was professor of geology) in his gardening clothes if the family didn’t watch out for him. She remembered looking at the gear Leo had worn to Antarctica on Shackleton’s expedition in 1907 and was stored in the family’s attic. Other anecdotes have a completely different tempo. One I was told recently brims with pain. It was about Olive’s response to Dupain’s ‘womanising’ (I don’t yet know how true that is, or if it is true its full extent). She confided in a friend that when Dupain left the Sydney studio where she worked with him from late 1933 until 1940, she would rush over to the window to look down into the street and see which way he turned. Whether he was heading off to visit a client or whether he was on his way to visit a girlfriend. I can imagine her face up against the windowpane, flushed, her heart in her mouth.

Olive’s public voice is hard to find with so little on the public record, but when it comes to her private existence it is a different matter. She kept a large bundle of correspondence throughout her life and it is through this that she now assumes her most substantial form for me. I had read some of the letters before, when Olive and Ross were still alive. However, it was in a blinkered, slightly haunted way, as if they were both there in my workroom with me as I read. I was very wary of prying into correspondence that included private, intimate exchanges meant only for their eyes. Once Ross died this material was liberated, instantly transformed into the stuff of story.

There are business letters from some of Olive’s wartime clients when she was managing the Max Dupain Studio in Sydney. One from artist Margaret Preston, dated 1944, opens: ‘Mr Ure Smith says you are the one and only photographer! Will you do some of me? I want a dozen.’ And there are letters from friends. Photographer and cinematographer Damien Parer writes regularly during the war on official paper with the letterhead ‘AIF Headquarters Abroad’, telling her about his experiences and making it clear that he respects her opinion about his work. On one occasion he writes, ‘It is awfully good of you to pick out a few shots and say they are all right.’ Another time he expresses his sadness at the breakdown of her marriage to Max Dupain.

There is an ardent love letter from Dupain to Olive, his ‘Darling lass’—he signs off as the loving ‘lad’—that makes it clear the couple were already romantically involved as teenagers (the letter was written in 1931, the year both turned twenty). Dupain was at Newport, north of Sydney, where his family and the Cotton family both had holiday houses. Dupain hadn’t seen Olive for ‘an aching age’ and had promised her ‘“the biggest and best” letter’ he had ever written. He took a few days to complete his epic 24-page effort, some of it written at night by the light of a hurricane lamp. He says, ‘What a joy it will be when I can see you and hold you to myself with all your warmth and glowing eyes and lips’ and looks forward to their future together, declaring, ‘We shall have years and years and years and years together some day that will outdo all the little week ends and holidays we have missed …’

Then there is a full run of Olive’s letters to Ross written during the last two years of the war when he was serving in the AIF (the couple married in December 1944). Olive wrote every few days, often early in the morning before work or late at night when all her chores were done. Her letters were filled with details of her life in Sydney: her work and her interactions with family and close friends. On 21 January 1944 Olive recounted a visit to the home of good friends Douglas and Marie Annand where she met the artist William Dobell, whom she described as being ‘quiet and unassuming’. She tells Ross:

He turned up in a coarse … tweed sports coat, which was very old … he told me he’d just bought a golden cocker spaniel puppy that afternoon and was taking it to his home (and spinster sister) by Lake Macquarie the next day. He is probably about 45, a very genuine person with no trace of arty mannerisms.

Something I have learned from working with vernacular photography is that it’s not only the instantly noticeable items that warrant attention. Quiet, prosaic and less dramatic aspects of experience also have an important place. In Olive’s case it is the companionship and support of women that is conspicuous, though mention is always made of the men briefly home on leave from war service. Olive’s friend Jean Lorraine stays over so Olive won’t be on her own; another friend, Olga Sharp, comes to tea and gives her ‘an exquisite little vase’, Olive meets Ross’s mother at the train station to help her with her luggage, and so on. Maida Annand asks Olive to thank Ross for the gift of raisins and chocolate; she was ‘thrilled to get them, as she hasn’t seen either commodity for a long time’ (1 January 1945). Olive updates Ross on the widowed Marie Parer’s difficult situation—she had been pregnant when the much loved and admired Damien Parer was killed in New Guinea in September 1944:

I was talking on the phone to Marie Parer to-day; she is feeling quite well again now, although she was ill for a while after she came home from hospital. The baby now weighs 10 lbs and I shall go and see them both one evening next week. I had been wondering what I could give her for the baby and asked if she’d like a ‘cuddleseat’—have you seen one? … Marie said she’d like one very much as it would be very useful when young Damien is a little older. So I shall get one and will give it to her from both of us, if you’d like that Darling. (23 March 1945)

Olive’s letters are also laden with concern about her new husband’s health and welfare and the pain of separation. On 17 January 1945 she writes, ‘There is so much of your life during war time that I can have no part in’, and two months later tells Ross that ‘I hope this war won’t last much longer because the one thing I’m living for is to be with you again’ (14 March 1945).


Interior (my room), by Olive Cotton, 1933, gelatin silver photograph, pencil & ink. Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased 1997

There is a photograph hovering in my consciousness that is suggesting a beginning. Olive called it Interior and explained that it depicted the room she and her sister Joyce had shared in the family’s large home, which overlooked a valley of unspoilt bushland at Hornsby on Sydney’s north shore. In her own words: ‘Its stained glass windows have a simple floral motif which cast attractive shadows on the wall in the late afternoon.’ As the work of a young woman—she was twenty-two in 1933 and about to complete a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney—it is impressive in its level of accomplishment. But that fact alone is not very sustaining. It’s what she is looking at that prompts the photograph, what it is she makes a photograph from and of, that is much more consequential. This image displays not only her visual intelligence and its elegant resolution, but also the hallmarks of her mature practice. Olive habitually worked with subject matter she knew well and loved, the interior of her bedroom being no exception. She was generally uninterested in narratives established by external events or dramatic happenings, choosing instead to work with light and its transformative properties. As she stated in 1988, in one of her rare comments on the medium that sustained her for more than seventy years, ‘Photography is … drawing with light and that is my greatest interest.’ Interior makes it clear that Olive’s preferred way of working was studied and highly considered, where her pictorial elements and options could all be controlled.

What I have written so far still does not adequately explain why this photograph is captivating me now. There is yet more to it. Interior helps me realise that I don’t want to consign Olive’s photography or her contribution to Australian cultural life to history. Their meaning must reside in our historical moment as much as in hers. Teasing out this meaning will be the crux of my biography. For now I can say that Interior, like so many of Olive’s photographs, speaks about some very contemporary, interrelated concerns. About the importance of quietness and solitude certainly, but also more profoundly about the value of an inner life and the imaginative transformation of experience.

In the 1980s Olive developed a life-enhancing ritual that enabled her to keep working (she was then in her seventies). Every fortnight she spent two days at her studio and darkroom in Cowra, staying overnight at a nearby motel. This meant, as she said in the documentary Light Years, ‘I can come in early one morning … and I can work all that day and … and get up early the next morning and come in again.’ Only in the space of her studio was she assured of her solitude and an expanse of unbroken time—‘time to think and time to concentrate’—which she regarded as being essential to creativity. Her studio was her retreat from what David Malouf describes as ‘contingency and dailyness’ in his Quarterly Essay The Happy Life: The Search for Contentment in the Modern World (2011). Quoting Montaigne, Malouf refers to ‘“the little back-shop, all our own, entirely free”, that we must set aside for our self-preservation’. Montaigne tells us, via Malouf, that ‘In this retreat we should keep up our ordinary converse with ourselves, and so private, that no acquaintance or outside communication may find a place there.’

I recently saw an exhibition, ‘Henri Matisse: Pairs and Series’, at the Pompidou Centre in Paris that proved far more engaging than I had expected (I thought the title signalled a rather tired curatorial idea and a simple rehashing of Matisse’s thoroughly researched oeuvre). Instead the show gave a real insight into the way Matisse worked, through the drawings and paintings on display and selective quotes from his writings. There was a point in Matisse’s career when the beginning of an experimental process actually looked like the end; in other words, what came first was a carefully executed charcoal drawing that appeared ‘complete’. This ‘finished’ drawing then generated a whole sequence of far more summary pencil drawings that continued until all the problems and possibilities of the initial drawing had been resolved. The visual unfolding of Matisse’s process was very satisfying to see. He also wrote with great clarity about his method, and from a wall text in the exhibition I copied down this 1936 statement:

At each stage, I reach a balance, a conclusion. At the next sitting, if I find a weakness in the whole, I find my way back into the picture by means of the weakness—I re-enter through the breach—and reconceive the whole.

This obviously sums up Matisse’s own way of working but it is analogous to creative processes more generally, including those involving photography and writing biography.


© Helen Ennis 2012



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