On that cool autumnal Melbourne morning I was early for my destination. I’d trammed up from my digs down in St Kilda to the top end of Swanston Street. Being half an hour or so early, I set to wandering around the university campus there. It was quiet, away from the road; felt cut off there, being very few other souls about. Misty rain was falling and the turning leaves on the trees against the older buildings looked quite special to my eye. Being no weather for camera-smithery, I quickly snapped away with my mobile, checked my watch and headed off to meet Bambi, Olive and Jean.
I’d first encountered Olive back in the nineties when Ozpost issued a set of stamps to commemorate 150 years of photography in Australia. Her ‘Tea Cup Ballet’ was very modernistic for Australia at the time with its emphasis on light and shadow. I’d met her subsequently, on a few occasions, around the traps – and that morning she was sharing the walls with Max. I had no idea the two were associated so closely. And what did she have in common with Jean and Bambi? Well, the great Max – Max Dupain – trained his camera on their beautiful faces and bodies.
If there are any Australians who do not recall the name, most would recognise the lasting image that Dupain produced back in 1937 during his love affair with our beaches – ‘Sunbaker’. He took it on a southern NSW strand at Cuburra, the head and shoulders of his mate, Harold Salvage, lying on a horizon of sand and sky. It’s an image that has come to encapsulate our sun drenched nation. But he took many, many supposedly lesser views, on these beaches as well.
So what was a girl to do? The Depression had hit and young Jean Lorraine had nothing but a shapely body (her looks being described by some as quite plain) and a vivacious, life of the party personality. She was a good time gal but skint. She was not at all tempted by prostitution, as were so many others, to make ends meet. But she was not adverse to showing off her curvaceousness in its full glory. As a consequence she became sought after by artists and photographers. One such was Max.
Collection curator Jill White, who also worked with Max, but in his later years, comments that his take of the nude young model in ‘Jean with Wire Mesh’ ‘…is his most beautiful image. It leaves ‘Sunbaker’ for dead…it is incredibly sensual, masterful in its use of light and shade. To photograph someone with her forehead in full sunlight and the rest of her figure cloaked in shadow is an extraordinary achievement.’ It certainly caught my attention that morning – as well as the others included of Jean. She has been referred to as the camera-smith’s muse for the few years she was in his circle. Other contemporaries of Dupain took copious pictures of her as well, but none caught her spirit as did Max, nor her radiant beauty. Looking at his of her there is no hint as to why these others termed her ‘plain’. They lacked his skill and perhaps the relationship the three, including Olive, developed.
At the Ian Potter Gallery, that crisp Sunday morn, I jotted her name down in the notebook I carry, resolving to take to the ether once I returned to Hobs to see what else I could discover about this muse of his. There wasn’t much, but in 2003 she was tracked down when the Library of NSW mounted an exhibition of the great man’s work, in association with the publication of a volume of his oeuvre.
She was aged 86 back in ’03, but the now Jean Bailey had been a resident of the US since 1947. When asked what she remembered of those youthful times when she posed for Dupain, she told how it was Cotton who had introduced her to the photographer. She had spotted 18 year old Jean flipping through an issue of ‘The Women’s Weekly’.
Jean by Olive
Olive Cotton was born in Sydney in 1911, her father Leo being a professor of geology. He was responsible for introducing her to the passion of her life when he purchased her a Box Brownie on turning eleven. Her young friend, Max, was similarly infatuated. By the onset of the thirties she was a member of several photography clubs and societies, along with her mate. In 1934 they began working together at his Bond Street studio. By now they’d progressed to being lovers – Max’s first marriage being over. Naturally, she also posed for him. She was second fiddle to Max artistically, her main role being in charge of the business side. But on occasions she went out on commissions with Max, taking her camera with her. It was interesting, at the Ian Potter, seeing two images of the same subject juxtaposed on the gallery wall – one by the pro, the other by his assistant clicking away surreptitiously. She more than stands up in comparison with the master. When he experimented, so did she.
Olive by Max
It wasn’t until the war that Cotton come into her own. While the proprietor was away on official duty with his camera, she became responsible for all aspects of studio work. By now she was Max’s wife – but absence didn’t necessarily make the heart grow fonder. Although she continued on in his employ, they separated in ’41, divorcing three years later. In 1946 two important events happened for Olive, who by now was exhibiting her own work. Two volumes of her images were published and she married the new man in her life, Ross McInerney. This marked, for a period, the end of her earning a living with photography. Ross was a man of the land, managing farms about countryside NSW. She left city life for the rural and for the first three years of their marriage the pair lived in a tent. They eventually settled outside of Cowra, producing two children. One, Sally, has become a fine photographer in her own right, later on holding joint exhibitions with her mother. But these times were a long way off. In the 50’s there was no hope of earning a living from the camera, given the couple’s circumstances, so she became a mathematics teacher at the local high school. It wasn’t until 1964 that she returned to her greatest love, opening her own local studio. In the 80s there was a resurgence of interest in her pioneer work, thanks largely to a touring exhibition entitled ‘Australian Women Photographers 1890-1950’. Eventually she was in a position to hold shows in her own right and a film of her life and output, ‘Light Years’, was released in 1991. She passed away in 2003.
When Jean met Max, after they were introduced by Olive, the model had already, despite her tender years, been married and divorced. Decades later, after her tracking down to New York, she reminisced for an interviewer about the times they all spent together. She laughed when she recalled that, although Cotton was in reality somewhat older, Jean assumed she was around her age and told her so – and, as a result, although Jean declared herself to be ‘…as dumb as a stump’, she now had a friend for life. She felt easy and an equal in their company. She never gave any hint of embarrassment in taking off her clothes for their cameras. Other photographers, she explained, although they feigned worldliness, were clearly not comfortable in her naked presence. Perhaps their end product reflected this. She remembered fondly the duo’s love of experimentation with her body – thus producing one classic image and maybe others that should be.
Jean by Max
But the war and the fracturing of the relationship between the childhood friends changed all that. After it life became more frenetic for Max as his business expanded and he had little time for playing around, so to speak, with naked ladies. And besides, Jean was soon off to her new life in America and Olive headed bush.
But that didn’t mean Max ceased contact with beautiful women. In 1952 he shot Bambi. By that year he was the go-to man for society portraiture, including modeling portfolios, churning them out. But his take on Bambi was different – timeless. It’s been described as ‘…striking (in) its use of black, and the penetrating eye contact between subject and lens, (was) very rare for a Dupain portrait. The portrayal suggests an intriguing personality behind the beauty.’ She had all that in spades, did Bambi, as events turned out.
Now some from an older generation may remember Bambi for she went on to give the world a jolly good shaking up – including the staidest of British institutions back then – the monarchy. Born in 1926, by the time she was sixteen Patricia Tuckwell was turning heads everywhere she went. And, at 89, she is still with us. She was also, in her youth, a prodigious musical talent, being a member of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra during her teens. On the side she was also a popular fashion mannequin and soon became one of a number of talented local beauties populating the small screens in our lounge rooms during the formative years of local television. She had a regular gig on HSV7 as a hostess.
At this time her life somewhat parallels Olive’s for she had also fallen in love and married another of our iconic camera-smiths, Athol Shmith. As with Cotton and Dupain, it didn’t last and by the late fifties she too was divorced. But she was now in Max’s orbit, thus his portrait. But Bambi, as she was nick-named in modeling circles, was destined for infamy.
She had long desired to test her wings overseas so, like so many of our shining lights, she headed off, bound for Europe. En route she became waylaid at fog-bound Milan airport. Whilst waiting to be transported to Turin to continue her journey by air, she met and began chatting away to George. She sat next to him on the bus to the latter city’s aerodrome, as well as on a flight to Paris. By the end of that George was in love. Problem was, George was already married, with three kiddies, to Marion. And he also just happened to be in line for the throne of Britain as a relative of the Queen. He even had an earldom. He was, in fact, George Lascelles, 7th Earl of Harewood.
They, though, had so much in common, thought George. She was obviously a brilliant musician and he ran an opera company. Plus she was a stunner – anybody could see that. At 31 she was in her prime. On arrival in the City of Light he took her to the classy Tour d’Argent, for an equally classy meal, before departing the next day for London. But he was so besotted that, within 48 hours, he was back in Paris, wining and dining her. By now Bambi, no wide-eyed innocent in the headlights, was starting to realise what she was getting into. The Earl’s pile was a 104 roomed Georgian mansion in Yorkshire, stuffed full of priceless masterpieces, set on 4,600 acres that supported 3000 pigs and sundry other bucolic endeavours. Bambi did, though, find her new lover to be rather ‘…dishy and funny and intelligent.’ Once she arrived in London George was discreetly in her company as often as possible, eventually setting her up in her own comfortable digs to be at his beck and call. Soon, though, he figured she was more than just a mistress – she was, in fact, the love of his life. He wanted her wholly and solely. He wanted to be wedded to her.
Now, after that pesky business with the heir to the throne pre-war and the more recent goings on between Margaret and that Townsend fellow, he knew the Palace would not be impressed with another scandal. This was especially the case once Marion discovered Bambi’s existence, some three months into the couple’s affair. He spilt the beans, begged for his freedom, but she refused point blank to go quietly. It soon became all too much for the now also besotted Miss Tuckwell and she fled back to Oz, only to relent to her man’s constant pleadings to return, sweetened by an even more luxurious pad (a six-bed roomed townhouse no less) to call her own. As the half-life of their existence continued in public, they resolved to cement their genuine love for each other by producing a child. Mark was born in 1964. Eventually, after her own mother died, Marion relented and she sued for divorce on the grounds of adultery. Predictably, all hell broke loose. Fleet Street made hay with the new royal-linked black sheep and his antipodean temptress. George lost all his prestigious positions and was blacklisted by London society. He considered escaping abroad till the dust settled, but in the end decided to stick it out and eventually the tabloids moved on. Buckingham Palace was singularly unimpressed but imposed no direct demands on him as happened with past upheavals closer to the throne. By 1967 there was perhaps a more permissive attitude in the air at all levels. Some pundits feel the business with George and Bambi set the template for what later occurred with Charles/Diana/Camilla. The couple quietly married, retreated to Yorkshire and got on with their lives. But poor Marion – the next man in her life was the wretched Jeremy Thorpe, leader of the Liberal Party, who soon became entangled in the murder of his alleged gay lover. She couldn’t take a trick.
The royals had a subtle welcoming of the couple back into the good books a decade or so later. After all, the pair freely gave so much of their time to worthwhile charities and British institutions. These days this tale of illicit love has faded into the past, largely forgotten. George died back in 2011.
And of the man who captured not only Bambi, but Olive and Jean as well, for posterity? Well, he continued to have an active life behind the camera lens. He became heavily involved in advertising for a while, before espousing a distaste for certain aspects of the burgeoning new industry. He didn’t try his luck overseas and rarely travelled out of Oz full stop. One of the few occasions was for the opening of the Australian embassy in Paris to photograph it for his good friend Harry Seidler, the architect. He also remarried after Cotton – his son Rex is also now a highly regarded snapper.
Max once wrote, ‘Modern photography must do more than entertain, it must incite thought and by its clear statements of actuality, cultivate a sympathetic understanding of men and women and the life they live and create.’ Another of his classic shots, ‘The Meat Queue’ certainly does that.
But that morning in Yarra City it was his early stuff that affected me the most – the stuff he took at the beach, or in the bush, with Jean and/or Olive in tow. They were free spirits, taking their cameras along to explore a fascination with their surrounds and each other. Those were more innocent times. Dupain lived long enough to record our country as it morphed into something else entirely.
Max Dupain website = http://www.maxdupain.com.au/
Olive Cotton on-line gallery = http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/?artist_id=cotton-olive