OTEM BFFs: Cotton Codinha and Frances Denny

Aside from being best friends for decades, Cotton Codinha and Frances Denny have unknowingly been creative co-collaborators since sixth grade. Growing up, this meant acting as co-stars in school plays; today it has evolved into a creatively inspiring friendship.  

This, in part, has to do with career overlap: Cotton is currently ELLE Magazine’s Beauty and Fitness Editor while Frances is an artist and photographer whose work has appeared in the likes of Architectural Digest and most recently The New York Times (she also happens to be the woman behind OTEM’s photography). These two best friends have gotten the unique – and enviable – opportunity to support one another in what they do: Frances shot Cotton for a recent story she penned in ELLE’s September 2016 Issue; this past fall, Cotton dropped everything to help Frances on an assignment for The New Yorker.

Below, we have edited a conversation about their friendship, ongoing creative partnership, and how trust figures into their relationship. Read on!

 

ON THE EARLY YEARS...

COTTON CODINHA: We both went to the same very small school from when we were really young – I think there were less than thirty people in our grade. We eventually started doing plays together in sixth grade. What was the first play we ever did together? Cinderella? No, it was The Birds [by Aristophanes, not Hitchcock! ].

FRANCES DENNY: Did we play witches?

CC: No, we were both birds in the chorus.

FD: Anyway, we started doing all these plays together, and sort of became this duo. The director kept casting us together in things – like we played the evil stepsisters in Cinderella.

CC: We were almost getting typecast.

FD: We basically spent all of our time together, especially after school.

CC: We lived a solid rollerblade away. But we lived close enough that our parents would feel comfortable letting us go over to each other’s houses on our own.

 

ON THEIR ONGOING COLLABORATION...

By Frances F. Denny "Lovie Dovie" from the series Pink Crush (2015)

By Frances F. Denny "Lovie Dovie" from the series Pink Crush (2015)

FD: Yeah, so thinking about this interview, Cotton has started collecting photos. And it’s made me realize that ever since I started taking photos I’ve been taking photos of Cotton. And there’s a thread to them.

CC: It’s so funny, growing up, one of the things we would do is have photo-shoots –heavily inspired by Delias.

FD: And we dyed our hair with Kool-Aid! I want to say we invented it but we probably didn’t.

CC: Oh my god we once dyed Frances’ hair bright orange!

FD: It was not cute.

CC: We would try on all of our bat mitzvah dresses and use props to take photos.

FD: It’s just so funny to think about – it’s something we’ve been doing for such a long time.

CC: It’s also interesting because I don’t like having my picture taken. Frances is one of the only people I feel comfortable doing that with. Part of it is trusting that the person sees you the way you want to be seen. I trust that Frances knows what I look like. And I also trust her to tell me if I am doing something weird.

FD: I also think we have something unique because we’ve been doing it for so long.

CC: I just kind of know what you want, to a certain extent.

FD: Exactly. There’s something unspoken and I don’t even have to tell you what we’re doing, and you sort of just get it. For example, in September The New Yorker asked me to take a photo of this new restaurant, Le Coucou – it’s this beautiful French restaurant – and I had like 36 hours notice. And the morning of the shoot – this was the middle of Fashion Week also – I call Cotton – and I had this idea that I wanted to take the photo to the next level – not just be a photo of a restaurant. And I was like, “Cotton, I know it’s Fashion Week, but is there any way you can come by, I want to put a figure in the composition.” I want it to feel like a 1920s Paris scene. And Cotton SHOWED UP. I thought she would be exhausted from Fashion Week, – and, well I guess she was exhausted from Fashion Week – but she shows up with this gorgeous cocktail dress slung over her shoulder, and these incredible stiletto heels. It was exactly how I would have styled her, but I didn’t have to say a thing. She just knew.

Frances F. Denny, Le Coucou, photographed for The New Yorker

Frances F. Denny, Le Coucou, photographed for The New Yorker

 

ON HOW THEY INFLUENCE AND SUPPORT EACH OTHER...

CC: CC: Frances absolutely influences me. I love talking through ideas with her — half-cooked or not. It’s interesting, when you find someone who you respect but is also a safe space. And keep in mind we’ve been doing this – bouncing around hare-brained ideas – since we were four.

FD: So true, and I think that’s the thing about our friendship, that’s what the photography is – it’s so we can try things out. I can do that with you and I don’t have to explain too much, and you’re not going to be like, “That’s stupid.” We can just try. When you’re trying something creative out, whether it’s with writing or the camera, you have to be careful whom you show that to because it’s kind of vulnerable. New ideas are vulnerable.

CC: I think part of it is because we came from the same small space of shared and supported ideas. When we were in plays they would make space for both of us to be dual stars. We were both celebrated in our own ways and it’s never felt competitive.

 

THE SAME QUESTIONS WE ASK EVERYONE...

1.     Soundtrack to your friendship?

  • No Doubt, Tragic Kingdom
  • Alanis Morissette, Jagged Little Pill
  • Sophie B. Hawkins, As I Lay Me Down and OBVIOUSLY Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover
  • Goo Goo Dolls, Iris
  • Cherry Cola, Savage Garden (but really only listening on a loop when rollerblading)
  • Puff Daddy, It’s All About the Benjamins—just for the Lil Kim verse (that FFD can still rap perfectly from memory)
  • Janet Jackson, All for You—but REALLY all of Velvet Rope
  • RENT soundtrack
  • Anything played on JAMN 94.5 in the 90's

2.    Required reading for your friendship?

  • Everything by Jane Austen and Ann Patchett
  • Dicey’s Song
  • Summer Sisters, Judy Blume
  • A Midsummer Nights Dream—we were cast as best friends Helena and Hermione in our school's play
  • A Break with Charity
  • Anything in CTC's book club

So much of our friendship has been spent sharing opposite ends of a broken-in couch, reading in alternatively shady and sunny spots in varyingly bucolic or spare surroundings, flipping pages and wedging our toes under the other ones back—passing paperbacks endlessly back and forth. Some of them terrible (the summer of Summer Sisters, anyone), some of them wonderful (Tess of the D’Urbervilles—I HATED it, FFD LOVED it), some of them required reading (Annie John)—the pile is too big to catalogue but makes for a shared vocabulary that almost forms it’s own language. A much, much abbreviated list of not the most beloved, but just a few that existed.

3.     If your friendship were shot “on location,” where would it be filmed?

Rollerblading, or playing Pickle or Sharks and Minnows by the pool in Brookline, MA, photo shoots in Central Park and in any other remotely sylvan enclave, eating copious foodstuffs while ogling boys in a cafe in Paris, tandem-jumping hay bales on horseback in Northern California.

4.     Motto to your friendship?

I don't know if it’s a motto so much as an unflagging belief in the magic of the other one—and the deep comfort of being understood.

5.     The key to your friendship is ____________.

A key suggests unlocking something, a third element that we need to parse our relationship—but for me, our friendship very much is that element, the rosetta stone, the rulebook that helps the rest of the world make a little more sense. There are very few touchstones that you really have in life that make you feel like yourself, like home really (that most transitional and ephemeral of terms) and Frances is one of maybe the three people alive who do that for me.

FFD:    When we were 13 or 14, Cotton and I would call each other after school and on the count of three would open the new Delia’s catalogue at the same time (no cheating) so that we could discuss all the outfits together. I knew her house phone number by heart, plus the second line, plus her # once she got her own line (much to my envy). On school nights I would routinely dial one number after the next if I couldn’t reach her right away. Being out of touch for an hour was exasperating. During the years we lived in different cities, we visited one anothers’ roachy apartments, met one another’s boyfriends—and it was always just picking up a thread that is always there running between us.

There really is a comfort in knowing someone so deeply for your whole life, and for being known deeply yourself—for instance, I know that Cotton is a grouch in the morning, is always down to order the pasta, always has a haircut I will inevitably attempt to copy, and has a stash of really good party dresses.

Looking through my attempts to capture Cotton in two-dimensions through the years is like reading a chronicle of our friendship. The pictures are of both of us, even when they are just of her. There is something unspoken that passes between us when I photograph her—it’s like she knows what I’m looking for because what I’m looking for is just—her, and sometimes, us.