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Australia 1911 – 2003

Papyrus 1938 Materials & Technique: photographs, gelatin silver photograph

Primary Insc: Signed and dated l.r. green and blue pen, "Olive Cotton '38". Titled l.l. green pen, "Papyrus".
Dimensions: printed image 36.8 h x 30.0 w cm sheet 37.8 h x 30.8 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1987
Accession No: NGA 87.1440

For Olive Cotton, the natural world was a lifelong source of inspiration. In the1920s and 1930s, and again in the 1970s and 1980s, she frequently photographed natural subjects – landscapes, trees, plants and flowers. Her approach to nature, and her desire to unify her dual interests in art and science through her photographs, owed much to her family background: her father was a geologist and her mother was interested in the visual arts and music.

Cotton was captivated, not only by the beauty she found in the natural world, but also by the principles that determined its structure and organisation. Her photographic work grew out of careful and often lengthy observation. Photographing this clump of papyrus growing by a pool at the Sydney Botanic Gardens involved watching and waiting until, in her own words, ‘the wind blew a white cloud into place’ behind the fronds.1

Cotton took Papyrus at a time when she was revelling in her creative powers and her technical mastery of the photographic medium. This confidence shows in the selection of relatively prosaic subject matter and the audacious choice of an unusually low viewpoint. This style of modern photography was associated with the Max Dupain circle, of which she was a key member.

Cotton introduces dynamism into her composition through the use of asymmetry and an interplay between still and moving elements. Some fronds are in sharp focus, others are blurred by the wind, on what she later recalled was ‘a breezy summer afternoon’2. This abstracted quality of the image, reinforced by the play of tones, is entirely consistent with her view of photography as ‘drawing with light’.3

Another hallmark of Cotton’s practice evident in Papyrus is her democratic approach to subject matter. Instead of isolating a single frond for dramatic effect, she focused on the group of fronds. This is a group with qualities particularly relevant to Cotton, one in which highly individualised elements form an irregular and vibrant whole.

In Sydney’s Botanic Gardens, where other visitors may have seen only an ordinary papyrus plant, Olive Cotton saw the potential for a photograph. The result is a coherent, energetic and immensely satisfying image.

Helen Ennis 2002.

1Helen Ennis, Olive Cotton: Photographer, Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1995, reprinted 1996, p.54


3Olive Cotton interview with Diana Rich, 11 May 1988, National Library of Australia, ORAL TRC 2413

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002

Cotton regularly photographed grass and flowers from below, ‘against the sky’ - a perspective that was popular at the time. This way of viewing the striking graphic rhythms created by the juxtaposition of plant and sky possibly reflects encounters with her associate Ishinda Kagiyama’s slightly earlier tree studies, which she would have seen published in The Home. Cotton’s photograph of papyrus was taken in Sydney’s Botanical Gardens. While the subject of this photograph seems to be plant life, the picture is equally concerned with photography’s complex and magical relationship with light. The highlights hitting the papyrus fronds are beautifully observed and rendered; Cotton later remembered ‘waiting for ages for the sun to move a little way until it caught the tips of things’.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra