Sally McInerney and mother Olive Cotton in joint exhibition

Cloud Road 2004 Photo: Sally McInerney Sally McInerney and her mother Olive Cotton 1992 [detail]. Photo: Robert McFarlane, courtesy of Josef Lebovic Gallery.

The maternal bond is an unshakeable one but do mothers and daughters share an artistic vein, too?

Award-winning photographer Sally McInerney has a strong pedigree as the daughter of Olive Cotton, a pioneer of modernist photography in the 1930s who was briefly married to Max Dupain and worked with him at his trail-blazing Sydney studio.

And now for the first time, an exhibition of about 40 photographs by both mother and daughter has been curated and McInerney says she’s surprised by the ”echoes” between the works, which have become apparent as they sit side by side.

Is it in the genes? ”It’s nature and nurture,” says McInerney. ”But with art it’s got a lot to do with family discussions and interests, the way children growing up with musician parents will be quite familiar with music and the thought of picking up an instrument is quite natural to them.”

Cotton died in 2003, but Sally (her daughter by Ross McInerney), says a mutual interest in light and the natural landscape is not so much in the blood, but in the family history. ”As a family, we were all interested in photography and cameras, and my mother’s camera was a feature of the household in the way in some families that a great big plasma screen might be. It was just part of normal life.”

Growing up on a remote rural property near Cowra, the camera and nature were very apparent pillars of their world, McInerney says. ”We had a fairly isolated life, there were no immediate neighbours for instance, so the camera for me was like a little friend that I’d take out with me. It was almost like having a silent companion, and you could share the excitement of a certain thing you’d seen with a camera – I still feel like that, actually.”

Common threads throughout the exhibition are the contemplation of nature and light, despite working through different mediums with Cotton’s beloved Rolleiflex and McInerney’s colour, digital works.

Cotton’s most famous work, Tea Cup Ballet, taken in 1935, is a simple but arresting play on light, and travelled to the London Salon of Photography at the time. Her work later re-emerged in Australia in 1985 with a retrospective, and later a commemorative stamp in 1991.

Of this particular image, McInerney says she thinks about its ”humble origins”, from when her mother was working at the Dupain studio in a ”female role” and replaced a grubby tea set used to serve clients with a new one from Woolworths, and was playing around with the set and studio lighting in a quiet moment. ”I think of all that, as well as, ‘oh yes, isn’t it a great composition?”’ says McInerney. ”It’s all in there for me, it’s an accumulation of thoughts.”

Olive Cotton & Sally McInerney, Mother & Daughter: A Conversation, is at the Damien Minton Gallery until May 24. 

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