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Olive Cotton, A life in photography by Helen Ennis

In lieu of our 2020 Lecture Series we are presenting you with an eclectic series of essays and excerpts on art and artists by our 2020 series lecturers. We hope you enjoy it!

Photography scholar Helen Ennis published her long-anticipated biography of Australian modernist photographer Olive Cotton, A life in photography, in 2019. In this excerpt from her book, she discusses The Shell, c.1935, articulating the multiple and enlightening readings presented by this luminous work of Modernist Australian photography.

Olive Cotton, The shell c.1935

When I first saw this photograph – and it was a surprise, because it came late in my research – a single word kept running through my mind: ‘animate’. There is only one concrete element in the image, a shell that fills the frame. Nothing could be simpler. But it’s not the shell itself that brings the composition to life; it’s the teardrop-shaped glowing white light that sculpts the shell from the inside – animating both it and the image.

The shell belongs in some ways to the still life experiments Olive Cotton conducted in the studio – where she removed objects such as teacups, ice-cream cones and cardboard from their usual settings and usage, decontextualising them for pictorial reasons. The shell continues with this exclusive focus, adopting a neutral, deliberately uninformative background that has no potential for distraction. But the photograph also differs from its counterparts in a fundamental way. Its subject matter is less immediately recognisable, and its treatment is more disorienting, part of the beguiling, animated effect.

Consider, for example, how scale is deployed. It is impossible to know exactly how big or how small the shell is. Ultimately, this doesn’t matter because the image is purposefully scaleless. Of itself this is noteworthy because it challenges long-established compositional conventions in western art. Generally – in still life painting, for example – it’s possible to tell the size of the things an artist has depicted and their correlation to what is familiar and known in our world. But Olive’s shell has no external referents, no context to anchor and define it. Her handling of it represents an instance where photography, especially modernist photography, with its predilection for various visual distortions, comes into its own.

Then there is the light, or, more specifically, the ambiguous nature of the actual light source. This shell may have been fashioned into a lamp, as suggested by the merest hint of an electric cord that drops out of the shell and out of the lower section of the image. Shell lamps were in vogue during this period, often mounted on Bakelite bases for use on tables and desks in domestic settings. Lamps themselves were of interest to Olive, who designed lampshades that used photographs in repeated patterns as border designs.

And what about space – where does this shell sit within the composition? Even if the photograph is turned sideways, or rotated until it is upside down, it still doesn’t make any sense spatially. The fact that the shell floats in an indeterminate field of light is significant, as it destabilises the viewer’s standard, assumed viewing position. It makes us restless because, despite the simplicity of the composition, not everything can be apprehended at once. In keeping with Olive’s ethos, this restlessness relates to being active – animated – rather than to being agitated, which was never a feature of her work.

The shell shows Olive in an experimental phase of her practice, but it also prompts an unexpected reading. In contrast to other prosaic items Olive photographed around the same time, such as spectacles and cardboard, the shell is less neutral. It is highly charged with symbolic value, traditionally being associated with representations of the feminine. Olive’s treatment of her subject matter does not exclude such a reading. The shell, simultaneously animate and mysterious, is a rare instance in which she engaged both with form and with symbol.

This is an excerpt from Helen Ennis’s biography Olive Cotton: A life in photography, Fourth Estate, 2019. Helen Ennis is Emeritus Professor of the ANU School of Art and Design Centre for Art History and Theory. The Shell is part of the National Gallery of Australia’s collection. See the online catalogue link here.

Listen here to a fabulously insightful conversation about Olive Cotton: A life in photography between author Helen Ennis and journalist Alex Sloan at the official book launch, the National Library of Australia,  November 2019.

More information about her life and artwork can be found via the archives of these public collections:


The Drill Hall Gallery acknowledges the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional custodians of the Canberra region, and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.