In 1905 or thereabouts, while she was studying chemistry in Seattle, Imogen Cunningham purchased her first camera and started by developing her photos in a homemade way. Before long she became the assistant of Edward S. Curtis, the famous photographer of American Indians, and discovered pictorialist photography in Camera Work, Alfred Stieglitz’s magazine. In the autumn of 1909, she went to Dresden to undertake research into the improvement of photosensitive paper. Back in Seattle in 1910, she opened a studio and specialized in portraits with blurred outlines, as were then being produced by Clarence H. White and Edward Steichen, as well as allegorical scenes (Eve Repentant, 1910). At that time she was fully involved in the pictorialist movement of the Photo-Secession Group, and handled negatives and printing paper. Under the influence of the photographers Gertrude Käsebier, and Anne Brigman, she became keenly involved in nude photography, which she helped to revolutionize. Bodies were shown in a naturalist way, for their formal beauty, and woman was not presented as an object of desire but as a matrix-like place (Two Sisters series, 1928). For her male nudes, also frozen in nature, the engraver Roi Partridge, whom she had married in 1915, acted as her model—those photographs still shocked her contemporaries. In 1917 she settled with her family in California where she rubbed shoulders with Dorothea Lange and Edward Weston, the leading figure of “live photography”. While receiving her first portrait commissions, she practiced experimental photography. In tandem with luminous abstractions, she worked on botanical motifs (Magnolia Blossom and Tower of Jewels, 1925). These images earned her comparison with the movement headed by Albert Renger-Patzsch, photographic leader of the German New Objectivity tendency, and its American equivalent, Precisionism. In this spirit, from 1928 on, she photographed America’s industrial landscapes.
At the end of the 1920s, having become a leading photographer on the international scene, she was introduced to modernist circles, and in particular the exhibition Film und Foto (Stuttgart, 1929), by Weston, who was full of praise for her work. The year 1931 saw the start of her productive collaboration with the dancer Martha Graham, photos of whom were published in Vanity Fair, an experience which gave her a chance to further develop the techniques of photomontage and superimposition. In the 1930s, she photographed celebrities, without any retouching and in a more natural way than in a studio. Together with Ansel E. Adams and E. Weston, she thus found herself drawn into the f/64 group adventure which was advocating “live photography”. She tried her hand at urban documentary photography in New York, and then took part in the boom of photojournalism by traveling in the American west to photograph sawmills and oil refineries. After the war, she taught at the California School of Arts, where her colleague, Lisette Model, opened the doors to New York circles for her: the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) commissioned prints from her, and for her 73rd birthday, the Limelight Gallery offered her her first solo show, in 1956. In New York, she rediscovered the documentary vein with what she called “street documents” (Boy in New York, 1956), but in Europe, too, where she took a large number of pictures and encountered photographers like Man Ray, of whom she would produce several portraits in 1961. That visit revived her liking for experimental photography and, until the end of her life, she produced solarizations, inversions, double exposures, and superpositions of negatives. The 1960s were also years of protest and she photographed many pacifist marches and meetings. In 1970, she obtained a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation to print her old negatives. She enjoyed fame at the end of her life: in 1973 there were major exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Witkin Gallery in New York. She continued taking photographs until her death, all the while archiving her work. Her last series, After Ninety, a set of portraits of elderly people, was published posthumously in 1977. Her Photographs were exhibited in 1984 at the des femmes gallery in Paris. Cunningham was a feminist, without being militant. Her outstandingly rich career, a combination of technique and poetry, justified the short manifesto text which she wrote in 1913, Photography as a Profession for Women, by showing that a woman could become a very great photographer.
© 2013 Des femmes – Antoinette Fouque
Imogen Cunningham, (born April 12, 1883, Portland, Oregon, U.S.—died June 24, 1976, San Francisco, California), American photographer who is best known for her portraits and her images of plant life.
Cunningham studied at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she developed an interest in photography. Her earliest prints were made in the tradition of Pictorialism, a style of photography that imitated academic painting from the turn of the century. After studying photography at the Technische Hochschule in Dresden, Germany, from 1909 to 1910, Cunningham opened a portrait studio in Seattle in 1910 and soon established a solid reputation. Her commercial portraiture was straightforward, but she continued to produce soft-focused allegorical prints. She married etcher Roi Partridge in 1915, and the couple moved to San Francisco in 1917.
By the early 1920s Cunningham began to change her style, creating close-up, sharply detailed studies of plant life and other natural forms. Her experiments with form allied her with other Modernist photographers at the time, and in 1932 Cunningham joined the association of West Coast photographers known as Group f.64. Like other members of the group, she rejected the soft-focused sentimental subjects that were then popular in favour of images such as Two Callas (c. 1929), which conveys a sensuous delight in nature.
In the early 1930s, Cunningham worked briefly for Vanity Fair and produced images of entertainers and celebrities. After the breakup of Group f.64, she ran a portrait gallery and taught at several California art schools. A retrospective monograph, Imogen! Imogen Cunningham Photographs, 1910–1973, was published in 1974, and her final photographs were published in After Ninety in 1977.