Rosie's life lines reel in Olive Cotton people's choice prize

Michael Cook's close-up portrait Memories has been voted the public's favourite in the Olive Cotton Award People's Choice Award, with visitors describing it as a "profound" and "powerful" image.


The well-known Sunshine Coast photographer was thrilled with the news and indicated he would be giving the $250 winner's prize to Rosie, the subject of his black and white portrait.

Visitors to the Tweed Regional Gallery & Margaret Olley Art Centre said the detailed portrait effectively captured Rosie's character by starkly depicting what a number of voters described as her "life lines".

Cook described Rosie as a beautiful person who kindly introduced him to bush tucker and is everyone's favourite grandmother in her community.

"I wanted to capture her beauty physically and within. I think the photograph allows the viewer to not only see a lifetime of memories but to actually feel who she is beyond appearance," he said.

The People's Choice Award, funded by the Friends of the Tweed Regional Gallery & Margaret Olley Art Centre Inc, helped wrap up this year's Olive Cotton Award for photographic portraiture.

Hundreds of visitors to the exhibition took the opportunity to vote for their favourite work from the 72 finalists, which were on display at the Tweed Regional Gallery until 8 October.

Voting was close, with the portrait Trevor Jamieson by Brett Canet-Gibson of WA just 30 votes behind.

The biennial competition reinforced its claim as Australia's top photographic portraiture prize by attracting record entries this year. Entrants ranged from many high-profile photographers to a strong field of emerging artists, including the Olive Cotton Award's youngest finalist, 12-year-old local Ari Messina.

The end of this year's exhibition also brought to a close a 'selfie' competition to promote the new social media pages for the Tweed Regional Gallery & Margaret Olley Art Centre.

Sherry Mackay won a Tweed Regional Gallery prize pack, featuring Margaret Olley merchandise, for snapping herself with her favourite portrait, featuring actor and comedian Bill Bailey.

Sarah K8 @cloudcatcher15 chose Anita Modok's portrait, in absentia: Judy Cassab's bedroom, for her selfie on Instagram and won a $100 food and drinks voucher from the Gallery Cafe. She said the colours, composition and texture are "absolutely divine".

"I could totally move in and make it my own room!!" she said.

Local photographer, 12, becomes youngest Olive Cotton finalist

The list of finalists for the Olive Cotton Award in 2017 features many of the biggest names in Australian portrait photography, but it has also continued the emergence of a talented young local.

In 2014, Ari Messina was a winner in Tweed Regional Gallery's Les Peterkin prize for portraits for local primary school children.

Fast forward just three years and Messina, now aged 12, has become the youngest finalist for the Olive Cotton Award, which has been touted as Australia's leading prize in portrait photography.

His piece, Dark Side of a Girl, hangs among the other 71 finalists for 2017, on exhibition in Tweed Regional Gallery until Sunday 8 October.

Ari Messina, right.

Ari Messina, right.

Messina said his selection as a finalist was a "really big surprise".

"I wasn't expecting it to be a finalist. I was shocked at first but it felt so good," he said. "At the time I took it, I didn't have any intention to enter it in the Olive Cotton Awards, but after I looked at it on the computer, my mum and I knew it would be good to enter."

Messina said he was exposed to photography from a very early age because his grandfather and uncle are both photographers.

"Being immersed in it really got me to enjoy taking photos," he said.

Messina says he does not have any particularly ambitions with his photography. "Right now I am just enjoying taking photos and learning how to use my camera."

Ari Messina's  Dark Side of a Girl

Ari Messina's Dark Side of a Girl

2017 Olive Cotton Award Winner Justine Varga provides insight into her controversial win

Justine Varga has said that she could feel tension in the room when she was announced the winner of the 2017 Olive Cotton Award.

The prestigious prize for photographic portraiture was awarded to Ms Varga, despite the image not depicting a face, and a camera wasn’t used.  The judge, Dr Shaun Lakin, gave generous reasoning for his decision, which seemed to relax the crowd at the award ceremony. But the fallout was immediate. The Sydney Morning Herald ran a front page story titled 'Olive Cotton Award: Photographic portrait prize awarded to image without a face', and later, 'Justine Varga's Olive Cotton prize: questions of art over a grandmother's prizewinning scrawl'. Even The Times UK weighed in: "In fact, there’s little human about the work’s sqiggles and smears".

Here, Ms Varga provides BAM with her perspective.

BAM.  Please tell us your thoughts on why the piece is a portrait.
Varga.  “I thought the judge for this year’s Olive Cotton Award, Shaun Lakin, was very eloquent in explaining why he thought my photograph was indeed a portrait and I can do no better than quote his words:

‘The winning photograph is a really extraordinary photographic portrait, but one that withholds from us the physical appearance of its subject. Instead of showing us what the subject looks like, it uses her handwriting and her saliva to build a very moving portrait not just of a person — in this case, the artist’s elderly grandmother — but also of a relationship between two extraordinary women.
So, I know that Justine Varga’s photograph Maternal Line will confound a few of you, and no doubt some people will be dismayed that a photograph that does not actually ‘show’ its subject can win Australia’s most important photographic portrait prize. But the basic facts are that this work is, more than most — in fact I would say above all — of the photographs in this exhibition, profoundly photographic. Not just in the way that it relies on photography’s historical processes — film and the darkroom — but also in the way that it engages with the idea of the photograph as a trace of its subject. Our emotion and psychic relationship to photographs of loved ones is often based on the fact that they stood or sat there in front of the camera — that their body left its imprint or image on the photographic print. This is part of photography’s power. Think especially of a photograph of a parent who has died — their body was there, and the photograph is evidence of this.
Here, we have the most basic photographic trace — an elderly woman writing directly onto the photographic plate, and making marks with her saliva, creating a portrait which has been exquisitely printed to a monumental scale. While it looks abstract, it is, as the artist says in her statement, profoundly realistic.
In the end, the thing that ‘got’ me about this photograph was the way that it engaged me emotionally — in the direct experience of it. Again, you really need to stand before the print, which is so beautiful, and so melancholic in its way. To be able to witness and share a moment of significant emotional and cultural exchange between two women at such different points in their lives, both of whom have equally created this photograph.’

Justine Varga (b.1984) Maternal Line 2017, chromogenic hand printed photograph from 5 x 4 inch negative. Courtesy of the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery, Adelaide. Tweed Regional Gallery collection. © The artist

Justine Varga (b.1984) Maternal Line 2017, chromogenic hand printed photograph from 5 x 4 inch negative. Courtesy of the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery, Adelaide. Tweed Regional Gallery collection. © The artist

How did you come to the idea of creating this piece?
Varga.  "The form of my work is often determined by the circumstances in which I am living and working. At the moment I am spending a lot of time living with my grandmother and so I get to closely observe her. I try and make my photography an extension of my life, not something that is separate from it. Photography is something that is always with me. In fact, I can safely say that my entire way of being centres around it. In this instance, I brought a piece of photographic film, a negative, into my grandmother’s home and had her leave her own inscriptions on it. Her actions on the piece of film, so redolent of her character, of her love of doing things, of her way of always keeping busy, allowed me to conjure out of a piece of light-sensitive film a powerful portrait of the kind of person she is. I also chose this action because I wanted the marks that she made onto the negative surface to be automatic — I didn’t want her to get in the way of herself by feeling like she had to perform and make a work of art. As within all of my photography, there was only one attempt at this work. This is because my photography is about the action it is recording and not what looks most aesthetically pleasing. It simply is what it is. But the idea behind the portrait goes even further than gesture alone. With the trace of her hand and a touch of her saliva she is manifest within and as the photograph. In other words, there is no separation between her and the photographic object. When she is no longer of this world I will still always have her with me. If you close your eyes and imagine a loved one, I can almost guarantee that the impression you will find won’t be crisp and clear — it will be muffled and somewhat muted, just a memory of a gesture or the sound of a laugh, yet somehow you know it is them. My photography evokes this kind of sensation and I can’t express how close I feel to my grandmother when I view Maternal Line. Through it, I am nearer to her than any of the many lens-based photographs I have of her.

What is your feeling and reaction to the controversy?
Varga.  "I don’t court controversy but do insist on making the kind of work I feel is necessary. I think everyone benefits if the community is thinking about and debating issues — What is a portrait? What is a photograph? — as long as that debate takes place in a considered manner.

Is this sort of wide experimentation a frequent part of your process?
Varga.  "I am always seeking to direct my work into new areas. And really, this stems from a deep love for the photographic medium — I want to explore what a photograph is and what it is capable of retaining. As making photographs is my full time occupation, I would hate to know what each and every work was going to be and look like before it is finished — how incredibly boring! So, yes, experimentation of various kinds is fundamental to my work. This means sometimes I use a camera and sometimes I don’t, but with either method I am always pushing my concepts, along with the photographic materials and equipment I use, to an extreme. For an example, the negative from which the print of Maternal Line derives is incredibly over-exposed — it has been handled in the most uncouth manner. I have used a photographic process to collaborate with my subject in an effort to capture her more intensely than I otherwise might have been able to do. The resultant work that is currently on display at Tweed Regional Gallery, hung among my peers, for whom I have such enormous respect, is a culmination of all my experimentation with the medium to date."

Varga's large-scale work in homage to her grandmother won the $20,000 overall prize for the 2017 Olive Cotton Award, announced in an official opening and presentation ceremony at Tweed Regional Gallery, Murwillumbah on Saturday July 22. 


2017 Olive Cotton Award Winner Announced

Sydney photographer Justine Varga's large-scale work in homage to her grandmother has won the $20,000 overall prize for the 2017 Olive Cotton Award.

This year's judge, Dr Shaune Lakin, Senior Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA), took a number of hours to make his final selection, saying Varga's entry is "a very moving portrait of the artist's relationship with and love for her grandmother".

Varga's work, Maternal Line, was selected from the work of 72 finalists, including emerging and established photographers from throughout Australia.

Winning photographer Justine Varga and 2017 judge Dr Shaune Lakin with overall prizewinner,  Maternal Lines .

Winning photographer Justine Varga and 2017 judge Dr Shaune Lakin with overall prizewinner, Maternal Lines.

Lakin described Maternal Line as "a series of scrawls made by the artist's grandmother directly onto a piece of film [which] has been printed at monumental scale".

"While Justine's work is very contemporary, she's also deeply interested in the history of photography.  It's a very complex photographic portrait ... it made me think a lot about the act of the making a portrait - about what it means today to make a photograph of someone else, even if in the end it doesn't reveal what they look like," he said.

The Papapetrou Family, a striking portrait by Sydney photographer Anne Zahalka, caught the eye of both Lakin and the Gallery's Director, Susi Muddiman OAM. The theatrical and highly constructed portrait - depicting celebrated photographer Polixeni Papapetrou and The Age art critic Robert Nelson - was snapped up as the 2017 Director's Choice Acquisition for the Gallery, using funds from the Friends of the Gallery. It was also one of five Highly Commended works chosen by the Judge.

Anne Zahalka,  The Papapetrou Family  2017, dye sublimation on chromalux metal

Anne Zahalka, The Papapetrou Family 2017, dye sublimation on chromalux metal

Lakin also Highly Commended:

  •  Jed & Sam2016 by Warwick Baker from Melbourne (type C print) - an intimate and moving double portrait taken in the couple's bedroom.
  •  Ghost2017 by Tina Fiveash from Sydney (digital print) - a poignant and thought provoking image of a woman in the desert.
Tina Fiveash,  Ghost  2017, digital print

Tina Fiveash, Ghost 2017, digital print

  •  My ghost2017 by Polixeni Papapetrou from Melbourne (screen print on gold metallic foil and linen) - a haunting and beautiful portrait of the artist's daughter Olympia.
  •  Timmily  2017by Rod McNicol from Melbourne (digital print) - a striking portrait in McNicol's ongoing documentary of the 'variegated' inhabitants of his home in inner city Melbourne.

Visitors to the exhibition can vote for their 'people's choice', with a $250 prize for the most popular finalist, funded by the Friends of the Gallery.

A record 492 entries were received this year for the biennial award, which is funded by Olive Cotton's family in memory of Cotton, who was one of Australia's leading 20th century photographers.  Lakin is a keen proponent of Cotton's work and was curator of the exhibition Max & Olive: The photographic life of Olive Cotton and Max Dupain which was toured by the NGA in 2016-17.

A full list of finalists is available on the Gallery's website.

The Olive Cotton Award exhibition will run until Sunday 8 October. The Gallery is open Wednesdays to Sundays from 10am to 5pm (closed Mondays and Tuesdays). Entry to view the exhibition is free.

2017 Olive Cotton Award Finalists on display

The 72 finalists in this year's Olive Cotton Award for photographic portraits, opening at Tweed Regional Gallery today, are a "snapshot of our times", according to Award Coordinator Anouk Beck.

James Brickwood,  British Comedian

James Brickwood, British Comedian

Ms Beck said the 2017 judge, Shaune Lakin, chose a shortlist of finalists that examined many contemporary issues and reflected the ideas, techniques and styles of the overall record pool of entries.

"Entrants have explored themes of masculinity, cultural diversity and immigration, transgender transformation, family and mortality," she said.

"The portraits range from theatrically-posed tableaux to moments advantageously snatched."

A total of 492 entries were received for the 2017 award, continuing a steady increase in submissions for the Gallery's biennial competition. All 72 finalists will be on exhibition at Tweed Regional Gallery until Sunday 8 October.

Twelve-year-old Tweed Shire resident Ari Messina is among the finalists, along with a number of well-known photographers including Michael Cook, Polixeni Papapetrou, Stephen Dupont, Anne Zahalka and Julie Rrap.

They are vying for a $20,000 prize for the overall winner, to be announced at the opening function and awards announcement on Saturday from 5pm.

Stephen DuPont,  Up in the Sky

Stephen DuPont, Up in the Sky

This year's Olive Cotton Award has again attracted a wide spectrum of photographic styles. Some have embraced an historic wet plate printing technique, while others challenge the whole concept of a portrait - at a time when technology is transforming photographic portraiture.

Dr Lakin, the National Gallery of Australia's Senior Curator Photography, said "we shared about 24 billion selfies in 2015, and who knows how many photographs of friends sitting opposite the dinner table or of children doing this or that are among the more than one trillion photographs we will take and share this year."

"All of this has had a huge impact, not just on the social practice of photographic portraiture but on its form. Think, for example, about the way that the digital selfie phenomenon has produced a new portrait pose, one that views the face from above and highlights forehead, raised eyebrow and pouty lips."

For further information, visit the Tweed Regional Gallery website or phone the Gallery on (02) 6670 2790.

Tweed Regional Gallery & Margaret Olley Art Centre is open Wednesday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm.

Record number of entries received for the $20,000 Olive Cotton Award

Tweed Regional Gallery's biennial competition for portrait photography, the Olive Cotton Award, continues to grow in popularity, with a record number of entries in 2017. The 2015 winner was BAM's staff photographer, Natalie Grono.

The prestigious photographic portraiture prize attracts a diverse field of contenders. A total of 489 entries have been received for this year's national award, held to honour the memory of one of Australia's leading 20th century photographers, Olive Cotton.

The winner of the previous Olive Cotton Award in 2015 … Natalie Grono, Pandemonium's Shadow 2015, pigment injet print.

The winner of the previous Olive Cotton Award in 2015 … Natalie Grono, Pandemonium's Shadow 2015, pigment injet print.

Well-known and emerging photographers from throughout Australia have submitted new works for the competition, with more than 70 entries shortlisted for exhibition.

 This year's awards judge, the National Gallery of Australia's esteemed Senior Curator of Photography, Dr Shaune Lakin, said his task of selecting a shortlist was particularly challenging because of the high calibre of the entries.

The shortlisted photographs will go on public display at the Gallery from Friday 21 July, with an official opening of the exhibition on Saturday 22 July at 5.30pm. Members of the public are welcome to attend the free opening ceremony and awards presentation.

A $20,000 prize is up for grabs for the overall winning entry, which will be announced by Dr Lakin during the opening ceremony and will be acquired to join the Gallery's permanent collection.

Gallery Director Susi Muddiman will also select additional works for acquisition, utilising a generous $4,000 fund allocated by Friends of the Tweed Regional Gallery and Margaret Olley Art Centre Inc.

All other works in the exhibition will be available for sale.

Visitors to the exhibition may also vote for their 'people's choice', with a $250 prize for the most popular finalist.

A full list of finalists is available on the Gallery's website, here.

The Olive Cotton Award exhibition will run until Sunday 8 October. The Gallery is open Wednesdays to Sundays from 10am to 5pm (closed Mondays and Tuesdays). Entry is free to view the exhibition.