Randwick Ritz, Sydney:

Sunday May 05

Tuesday May 07

Lido Cinemas, Melbourne:

Sunday May 12

Tuesday May 14

Rating: G
Duration: 47 minutes
Country: Australia
Language: English
Cast: Olive Cotton, Ross McInerney
Director: Kathryn Millard



Layers photographs, landscapes and stories to construct a sharply focused portrait of photographer Olive Cotton and the images and philosophies that shaped her life and work.”– ACMI, Melbourne

Kathryn Millard’s film mirrors Cotton’s elegant photos” – Sydney Morning Herald

In the 1930s and 1940s, Olive Cotton helped run a photographic studio in Sydney with her childhood friend and first husband Max Dupain. During that time, her own work was exhibited locally and internationally. After World War II, she remarried and moved to Koorawatha in central NSW where she lived without water and electricity while struggling to survive and raise a family. Too poor to print her photographs, the negatives were stored in a sea chest until the 1960s, when friends and family helped her build a darkroom in Cowra. She spent much of the rest of her life printing from her archives. Cotton amassed an amazing photographic collection during her 60-year career: she is one of Australia’s most revered photographers and a key figure in the development of contemporary photography in this country.

Introduced by Kathryn Millard and Sandy Edwards at Ritz Cinemas and Barbara Hall at Lido Cinemas.

I would not like to be labelled a romanticist, a pictorialist, modernist or and other ‘ist’… I want to feel free to photograph anything that interests me in whatever way I like.” – Olive Cotton

With her camera, Cotton always draws our attention to the effects light creates as it moves across form, highlighting the ways that photographs can capture and make sense of the fleeting experience of time and of being in the world.” – National Gallery of Australia

Her romantic heart is reflected in her capacity to find the exotic in the ordinary; her willingness to experiment can be found in the play of light and shadow; her love of nature is indicated in her intimate depictions of the natural world.” – Alison Stieven-Taylor, Australian Book Review

By Anne Rutherford
To make a film about ‘one of Australia's most significant modernist photographers’ (1) would be a challenge to any filmmaker: how to do justice, cinematically, to someone with such an acute sensitivity to the gradations and nuances of light and such an exquisite sense of composition? And how to draw out the significance of an artist whose work has been the subject of several major retrospectives and is collected in the National Gallery of Australia, but whose life story, as critic Martin Edmond writes, bears none of the heroic qualities that animate the myths of the great artist. Photographer Olive Cotton’s work of over sixty years stems from astute, patient observation, often over long periods and, at the time of Light Years’ release in 1991, she is in her 80s, quiet, shy, and has lived most of her adult life on an isolated farm in regional New South Wales.

For Millard, it was imperative to show Olive Cotton as a working photographer, to see her walking the property outside Cowra with her Rollieflex camera that was ‘like an extension of her’, and to stage the film around Cotton showing and talking about her images.(2) Throughout the film the photos serve as prompts to evoke memories for Olive, as she discusses key photos, such as her famous Teacup Ballet and Shasta Daisies, and her enduring fascination with light: ‘light brings a subject to life … That’s the main thing about all my photographs, the light no matter what it’s of. That’s what draws me to take a photograph.’(3)

A key scene in Light Years brings Olive together with her first husband, photographer Max Dupain, as they view and discuss Olive’s prints and how she accomplished the complex tonality and layering of light and shadow in images such as Orchestrations in Light. In another scene, National Gallery of Australia curator, Helen Ennis, whose acclaimed biography of Cotton has contributed greatly to our contemporary appreciation of her pioneering work, reviews with Cotton some of her most significant work. Ennis has written of Cotton’s extensive ‘previsualisation’ before she exposed a negative, and her enduring engagement with the technical and aesthetic aspects of photography and printmaking.

Millard sees film as ‘a medium of place’, and the documentary “emplaces” Cotton in the environment that generated much of her work: the property where she had lived for forty years with her second husband. The director says, ‘there’s a river of images running through this place’, and the film layers images, stories and landscapes. At times editor Tony Stevens sets up a kind of mirroring device to reveal correspondences between Olive’s exquisitely composed photographs and the place where they were taken. A photo of birds flying into the wind to roost on a dead tree is juxtaposed with footage of a flock of galahs similarly perched (on the same tree?) and then flying away; a stand of winter-bared poplars photographed from an extreme low angle so that they reach in toward each other is echoed in live footage of poplars framed and shot in the same way. With this associative montage, Olive’s images are grounded in her relationship with the landscape that she walks over constantly with her lens.

Cinematographer John Whitteron gives viewers a sense of Cotton’s photographic attunement to the natural world around her, as his own camera explores the quality of light and colour in this natural world. The team used AGFA film stock because they wanted the warm colour cast and the deep blacks it could produce from landscape and monochrome photographic prints. The images are accompanied at times by a score by contemporary Australian composer, Richard Vella – his first film score – that produces an interesting, slightly disjunctive counterpoint to the pastoral elements of some of the footage.
You can tell a lot about a documentary maker by the kind of interaction they elicit from their subject. There's a gentleness and restraint in the way Millard approaches Olive Cotton (helped by the small crew), giving her space to speak in her quiet, contemplative way: a rapport built over a number of years of getting to know the artist as the development of the film went through many iterations. In the 1980s, the Women's Film Fund partnered with the National Film and Sound Archive to fund interviews with underrepresented women in public life and this scheme gave Millard her first opportunity to work with Cotton. The sound recordings from this project also formed the basis of a program Millard made for ABC Radio, called Orchestrations in Light. Eventually, the director was able to make Light Years with funding from the Australian Film Commission and some sponsorship from AGFA. Throughout these years, Millard says, Olive was enthusiastic and felt enormous pleasure to see her work once more in the public eye. Light Years is an intimate encounter with an artist at a particular moment of her life, and a valuable record of the photographer and her work for the future.

  1. Helen Ennis, A Life in Photographs. Sydney: HarperCollins Publishers, 2019, cover.
  2. All quotes from Millard are from a personal interview with the author in January 2024, with permission from the filmmaker.
  3. Cited in Helen Ennis, ‘Olive Cotton’, in Know My Name publication, National Gallery of Australia, 2020.

Light Years was restored by the National Film and Sound Archive who transferred the original negative. Macquarie University provided technical assistance. Cutting Edge post-production house colour-graded the files and produced digital masters. The restoration was funded by the National Gallery of America, Washington (in conjunction with The New Woman Behind the Camera exhibition) and Charlie Productions.

Director, Writer: Kathryn Millard; Production Company: Lexicon Films, Produced in Association with the Australian Film Commission; Producers Kathryn Millard, Patricia L’Huede; Photography: John Whitteron; Editor: Tony Stevens; Composer: Richard Vella; Sound Designers: John Dennison, Tony Vaccher; Sound Recordist: Leo Sullivan;  Stills Photographer: Sandy Edwards.

With: Olive Cotton, Gillian Jones (Narrator)

Australia | 1990| 47 mins | 1080p DCP | Colour | English | UC15+

Cinema Reborn acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land on which we live, learn and work. We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s continuing connection to land, waters and culture. We pay our respects to Elders past and present and extend this respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.