Cunningham, Imogen (1883–1976)

views updated

Cunningham, Imogen (1883–1976)

American photographer whose work did not receive widespread critical attention and public recognition until she was well into her 80s. Born Imogen Cunningham in Portland, Oregon, on April 12, 1883; died on June 24, 1976, in San Francisco, California; daughter of Isaac Burns Cunningham (a farmer and businessman) and Susan Elizabeth Burns Cunningham (a homemaker); graduated with honors, University of Washington, Seattle, 1907; married Roi Partridge (an etcher), in 1915 (divorced 1934); children: Gryffyd, Rondall, and Padraic.

Worked in the portrait studio of Edward S. Curtis (1907–09); studied photochemistry in Dresden, Germany (1909–10); set up a portrait studio in Seattle and began to work professionally (1910); moved to Oakland, California (1920); created her extended photographic study of plants and flowers (1921–25); began photographing for Vanity Fair magazine (1931); was a founding member of f/64 Group (1932); moved to San Francisco (1947); taught at California School of Fine Arts (1947–50); named a fellow of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences (1967); published Imogen Cunningham: Photographs (1970); had photo exhibit of her work, Metropolitan Museum of Art (1973); published Imogen!: Imogen Cunningham Photographs, 1910–1973, a second collection of photographs (1974). After Ninety was published posthumously (1977).

Imogen Cunningham, whose career spanned seven decades, beginning around 1906 and ending only with her death in 1976, was among the most accomplished and original photographers of the 20th century. The range of her photographic subjects was vast: she moved easily from studies of plants and landscapes to formal portraits and figures. So closely did her techniques and aesthetic approaches mirror those in the photographic arts at large that her career virtually provides a history of American photography.

Imogen Cunningham was born on April 12, 1883, in Portland, Oregon, one of ten children. Her father Isaac Cunningham had moved to Portland from Texas with his three children following the death of his first wife. He then married Susan Burns (Cunningham) , a widow from Mississippi, and Imogen was the first of six children born of this union. She was named after Cymbeline's daughter, her father's favorite female character in Shakespeare.

Isaac Cunningham was an idealistic, self-educated free thinker; he practiced vegetarianism, studied theosophy, and was fanatically opposed to organized religion. A grocery clerk turned farmer, he dabbled unsuccessfully in communal farming before moving his family to Seattle in 1889 and landing in the wood and coal business. His advanced ideas did not extend, however, to women's liberation. Imogen's mother was almost completely illiterate and worked 14 hours a day cooking, cleaning, and caring for the children. Determined to escape her mother's dismal fate, Imogen actively pursued an alternative life for herself.

In 1901, while a still a high school student, she decided on a career in photography after seeing reproductions of Gertrude Kasebier 's photographs, including the classic "Blessed Art Thou among Women." Although Isaac was skeptical of her career choice, he nonetheless built her a darkroom in the woodshed. Imogen purchased a 4×5 camera and a course of instructions for $15 from a correspondence school, and she began to photograph.

In 1903, Cunningham enrolled at the University of Washington in Seattle with the intention of studying art. At that time, the school had no art curriculum, so she majored in chemistry, wrote her thesis on "The Scientific Development of Photography," and graduated with honors in 1907. Her first job after college was in the Seattle studio of Edward S. Curtis, who at the time was compiling a now famous photographic portfolio of American Indian portraits. While working in Curtis' studio, Cunningham learned commercial platinum printing.

In 1909, she received a national Pi Beta Phi scholarship to study photochemistry at the Technische Hochschule in Dresden, Germany. While there, she developed a technique of coating printing paper, substituting cheap salts of lead for platinum, and published her method in a German technical magazine. Cunningham returned to Seattle a year later in 1910 and opened a successful portrait studio. Of her early professional work little remains, as the heavy glass negatives she used for portraiture were destroyed when she moved to San Francisco. But of her personal work that did survive, it is clear that Cunningham was also seriously exploring more artistic forms of photography. She was deeply influenced by the then-fashionable "pictorialist" movement of the Photo-Secession Group, and her romantic predilections were also revealed in her admiration of pre-Raphaelite poetry and William Morris. Her self-conscious attempts to elevate photography to a fine art are reflected in the images she produced. She was fond of dressing her subjects in costumes and photographing them in soft-focus, dream-like poses as she recreated scenes and characters from literature and poetry. One of her photographs from this period, "Eve Repentant," features a naked Eve placing her hand on Adam's shoulder as he turns away. The photograph was the subject of great controversy after it was published in a Seattle magazine in 1910.

I photograph anything that light falls on.

—Imogen Cunningham

In 1915, Imogen Cunningham married Roi Partridge, an etcher, in Seattle. The nude photographs she took of him that year on Mt. Rainier caused such a public scandal that she removed them from view for more than 50 years. Nine months after their marriage, her first son Gryffyd was born. Twin sons, Rondall and Padraic, followed in 1917, the year the family moved to San Francisco, where Roi began teaching at Mills College. In 1920, the family settled near the campus in Oakland, and Cunningham spent the next few years trying to balance her duties as a mother and faculty wife with her ambitions as a serious photographer. Though she no longer had a formal studio and only occasionally accepted professional commissions, she continued her work. With "one hand in the dishpan, the other in the darkroom," she incorporated her domestic life into her photography by turning her camera on her sons and the strange objects and animals they brought to her. Cunningham was also an enthusiastic gardener, an interest she began to incorporate into her art. Around 1921, she started photographing flora, particularly the plants and flowers in her own garden. Over the next few years, she created the plant studies that are often considered her finest work. Cunningham later remarked that "the reason I really turned to plants was because I couldn't get out of my own backyard when the children were small." These sharply focused, close-up photographs of individual plants and flowers are strongly reminiscent of the work of Georgia O'Keeffe , though Cunningham did not see O'Keeffe's work until years later. From 1923 to 1925, Cunningham made an extended study of magnolia flowers, often considered as including her most arresting images.

Throughout this period she maintained a relationship with her photographer friends, including Edward Weston, whom she had met in 1923. Years later in 1932, Cunningham, along with Weston, Ansel Adams, Paul Strand, and several other West Coast-based photographers organized a photography reform association, the "f/64 Group," to promote a new aesthetic direction in photography. The Group opposed the older Photo-Secession Group whose work dominated photography in the first part of the century and had heavily influenced Cunningham's earlier work. Until this time, artists had used the photographic medium to create soft-focus, painterly images. The f/64 Group wanted instead to use sharp focus and a wide depth of field to create photographs that would offer a window onto the real world. It was a move away from self-conscious romanticism towards an uncompromising, sharply detailed realism. Though the group only existed formally for two years and held but one major exhibit, it had an enormous influence on the future of photography. Cunningham, however, was less philosophically wedded to the ideology of this new approach than were her associates. She had always exhibited an experimental streak, and her innate curiosity and wide-ranging interests would always lead her to eschew any convention or orthodoxy in the pursuit of innovative techniques and unexpected images. She drew on dada and surrealism for inspiration and later experimented with a variety of techniques, most notably the use of double exposure. Her finest example of this technique is perhaps her 1962 portrait of poet and filmmaker James Broughton entitled "The Poet and His Alter Ego." Double images recur throughout her work partly as a result of her keen appreciation of the special relationship subsisting between her twin sons. She often photographed two similar objects side by side—two symmetrical trees, two humans, two plant forms. She also used the technique of "sandwiching" negatives (a technique of exposing two or three layered negatives on an enlarger) to produce interesting double images.

In 1931, Cunningham began taking photographs for the magazine Vanity Fair. Three years later, when the magazine invited her to New York for an assignment, she accepted the offer against her husband's wishes; the disagreement aggravated the couple's growing marital problems, which culminated in a divorce later that year. The two remained on good terms, and Cunningham never remarried.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Cunningham continued to pick up occasional magazine assignments for Vanity Fair and other publications, but it was mainly through her portrait work that she supported herself. By this time, she had developed into a highly accomplished and talented portrait photographer; and today some of her portraits, including a series of photographs of dancer Martha Graham , remain her most well-known and recognizable images.

Never one to obsess over the technical aspects of portraiture, she concentrated on revealing the character of the person she was photographing. She did so in part by interacting freely with her subject throughout the photo session in an effort to break down the self-consciousness of the sitter so that the real person could be captured on film. As she explained, "You must be able to gain an understanding at short notice and at close range of the beauties of character, intellect, and spirit, so as to be able to draw out the best qualities and make them show in the face of the sitter." One observer of Cunningham's unique style of work noted in a 1951 issue of the magazine Modern Photography: "When you've been photographed by Imogen Cunningham, you haven't just had a sitting, you've had an experience."

In 1947, Cunningham moved to a small cottage in San Francisco, a few blocks from the California School of Fine Arts where she taught in the photography department under the directorship of Minor White until 1950. Her income from photography had never amounted to much, and during these years she lived frugally and worked in relative obscurity. It was not until the 1960s—by which time Cunningham was well into her 80s—that her work began to receive widespread critical attention and public recognition. In 1964, the influential photography magazine Aperture devoted an entire issue to her work, and increasingly her photographs were exhibited at the more prestigious galleries. In 1967, she was one of only two women (the other was Martha Graham) to be named fellows of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Two collections of her photographs were published: Imogen Cunningham: Photographs (1970) and Imogen!: Imogen Cunningham Photographs, 1910–1973 (1974). In 1973, to mark her 90th year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art held an exhibit of her photographs. In an article for The New York Times, art critic Hilton Kramer wrote: "Others may have brought a deeper and a more concentrated vision to photography, or a more flamboyant sense of drama, but Miss Cunningham brought a love and appetite for life."

Imogen Cunningham's eccentric appearance—her trademark flowing black capes, brightly beaded hats, and large peace signs—coupled with her straightforward, no-nonsense manner, made her an instantly recognizable figure around San Francisco. She identified with and befriended the bohemian 1960s generation, and they, in turn, transformed her into a cult figure. She was the subject of three films: Two Photographers, Imogen Cunningham and Wynn Bullock (Fred Padula, 1966); Imogen Cunningham: Photographer (John Korty, 1967); and Never Give Up: Imogen Cunningham (Ann Hershey, 1974). Cunningham even acted in James Broughton's 1967 film The Bed.

Throughout her last years, Imogen Cunningham remained disciplined, focused, and optimistic. She always believed that her best photograph would be made tomorrow, and she worked steadily until her death. Concerned with the presentation of her work after her death, in 1974 she established the Imogen Cunningham Trust to preserve her negatives and exhibit and publish her prints. In 1975, at age 92, she began the ambitious project that would be published posthumously as After Ninety (1977). The book contains photographs of aged people like herself who remained vital and actively engaged in life. Imogen Cunningham died on June 24, 1976, in San Francisco, California.

sources and suggested reading:

Cunningham, Imogen. After Ninety. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1977.

——. Imogen Cunningham: Photographs. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1970.

Dater, Judy. Imogen Cunningham: A Portrait. Boston, MA: New York Graphic Company, 1979.

Lorenz, Richard, and Imogen Cunningham. Imogen Cunningham: Flora. Boston, MA: Bulfinch Press, 1996.

The New York Times, June 26, 1976.


Cunningham's papers are in the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art, Washington D.C.; her negatives and a collection of prints are in the Imogen Cunningham Trust, Berkeley, California.

related media:

Imogen Cunningham at 93 (13 min.), Carousel Film and Video, 1972.

Imogen Cunningham: Photographer, directed by John Korty, 1967.

Never Give Up: Imogen Cunningham, (28 min.) directed by Ann Hershey, Phoenix Films and Video, won the American Film Festival blue ribbon award, 1974.

Portrait of Imogen, documentary directed by Meg Partridge, Imogen Cunningham's granddaughter, Pacific Pictures, 1995.

Two Photographers, Imogen Cunningham and Wynn Bullock, Fred Padula, 1966.

Suzanne Smith , freelance writer, Decatur, Georgia

About this article

Cunningham, Imogen (1883–1976)

Updated About content Print Article