Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976) was an innovative American photographer. She was best known for her detailed, sharply focused photographs of plants as well as her revealing portraits. Cunningham took many well-known portraits of celebrities and artists, especially while working for Vanity Fair in the 1930s.
Imogen Cunningham was born in Portland, Oregon, on April 12, 1883. She was the daughter of Isaac and Susan Elizabeth (nee Johnson) Cunningham. When she was a child, her family moved first to Port Angeles, Washington, then in 1889, to Seattle, where Cunningham's father ran a wood and coal retail business. One of ten children, Cunningham was named after a character in William Shakespeare's Cymbeline. The favorite child of Isaac Cunningham, she was educated at home by her father before enrolling in school at the age of eight. Cunningham was said to be interested in photography since childhood and was given art lessons, a luxury her family could barely afford.
Aquired First Camera
Cunningham graduated from Broadway High School in Seattle, and entered the University of Washington in 1903. She paid for her own education by working as a secretary to a professor and making lantern slides for a botany class. Cunningham studied chemistry because a professor told her that this subject would be an excellent background for photography. Her interest in photography deepened when saw the work of Gertrude Kasebier, a professional photographer who Cunningham greatly admired. In 1906, Cunningham acquired her first camera, and took a portrait of herself in the nude. Her father built a darkroom in the family's woodshed.
In 1907, Cunningham graduated from the University of Washington. She wrote a senior thesis entitled "The Scientific Development of Photography," which examined the work of a local photographer, Edward Curtis. From 1907 until 1909, she worked as a professional photo-technician for his studio. Cunningham spent much of her time printing and retouching his negatives of Native Americans. She also learned the platinum printing process from A.F. Muhr, who worked at the Curtis studio.
Studied in Germany
Cunningham studied printmaking and its technical aspects in Germany on a scholarship from her college sorority and a loan from the Washington Women's Club. She attended Dresden's Technische Hochschule under the tutelage of Robert Luther from 1909 until 1910. Her coursework included art history and life drawing, but she focused on platinum printing. Cunningham also wrote a thesis entitled "About Self-Production of Platinum Prints for Brown Tones." Important to her development as a photographer, was the International Photographic Exhibition. This exhibit featured both American and European photographers, and gave her an opportunity see the development of different styles.
After Cunningham's studies were completed, she traveled through Europe and returned to the United States at the end of 1910. On her way home, she met Gertrude Kasebier, the woman who inspired her to become a photographer. In New York she met another important photographer, Alfred Stieglitz. In Imogen Cunningham: A Life in Photography, Richard Lorenz quoted a letter of Cunningham's about that experience: "I was greatly impressed and rather afraid of him. I did not express myself in a way that anyone could possibly remember and I felt Stieglitz was very sharp but not very chummy. I also looked up Gertrude Kasebier, who was most cordial."
Opened First Studio
Before 1910 was over, Cunningham had returned to Seattle and set up her own portrait studio. She also became active in the local art scene. Cunningham was a charter member and only photographer in the Seattle Fine Arts Society. Her most interesting work was not done in her commercial enterprise. For five years, from 1910 until 1915, Cunningham took romantic photos of several artist friends who maintained studios nearby. The photos were inspired by some favorite writings, especially William Morris and mythology. Most were taken in a soft focus. An early review, quoted by Lorenz in Imogen Cunningham: A Life in Photography, praised her work: "In addition to a thorough technical knowledge of her art, she has a fine imaginative feeling and a sense for the fitness of things which characterizes the true artist, whatever be the means of expression." Other critics found the pictures derivative. Still, in 1914, she was given her first solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences.
On February 11, 1915, Cunningham married Roi Partridge, a Seattle etcher, photographer, and print specialist. They eventually had three children, Gryffyd (born in 1915), and Rondal and Padraic (twins born in 1917). Cunningham caused a local scandal in 1915 when she published nude photographs of her husband, taken on Mount Rainer. The couple had adjoining studios. They moved to San Francisco in 1917, at Cunningham's insistence. Partridge was often gone on sketching expeditions, leaving Cunningham in charge of their business affairs and children. In her first years in San Francisco, Cunningham did not often work professionally. She collaborated with Francis Bruguiere for a brief period in 1918, but devoted most of her attention to the three children. Her pictures were focused on herself and her family.
Blossomed as an Artist
Cunningham's most creative period came in the 1920s and 1930s, when she was recognized as an innovator. She still had young children and her husband was teaching at Mills College, so she did not open a studio. Cunningham did not have many commissions, but she did take a portrait of the Adolph Bolm Ballet Intime, in 1921. Most of her work was done from home, where her style changed drastically. Her pictures became tightly focused, and her subjects were often found in nature. She took pictures of trees and tree trunks, studies of zebras on a trip to the zoo, snakes brought to her by her sons, and magnolia blossoms and calla lilies grown in her garden. One of the best know of this period is 1925's "Magnolia Blossom." Cunningham's photographs of flowers were not unlike the famous paintings of Georgia O'Keefe. Though the two artists worked at about the same time, Cunningham claimed that she was not aware of O'Keefe's work until many years later.
Cunningham continued to take portraits of those around her. In 1923, she began experimenting with double exposures. These pictures often featured meaningful settings and metaphors. Cunningham also experimented with pure light abstractions. As Lorenz writes in Imogen Cunningham: A Life in Photography: "By the end of the 1920s, Cunningham was undoubtedly the most sophisticated and experimental photographer at work on the West Coast." This position was cemented by Cunningham's involvement with the f./64 group and their realistic approach. This group (named for an extremely small lens opening) was founded in 1930. Members included Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and other notable West Coast photographers. The group was known for its sharp focused photos and un-retouched images. These pictures featured more detail and a greater depth of field.
Worked for Vanity Fair
Since the 1910s, Cunningham had been fond of the photographs featured in the magazine, Vanity Fair. By the late 1920s, Cunningham began submitting photographs for publication, but all were rejected. In late 1931, Cunningham's persistence paid off when she took portraits of the dancer, Martha Graham. This led to more work from the magazine. Cunningham was sent on assignment to take pictures of film stars in Los Angeles. Of this experience, Margery Mann in Imogen Cunningham: Photographs wrote, "Imogen turned the glamorous inhabitants of the higher world into human beings."
Much of Cunningham's works from this point forward were portraits, which used setting to enhance the textual definition. They were seen as being psychologically insightful. One of her most famous portraits was that taken of Morris Graves in 1950. This photograph is in many museum collections. Reviewing a book of Cunningham's portraits, Gretchen Garner of Booklist wrote, "The problem with Cunningham is her versatility. She is not easy to categorize as a portraitist, for she had no formulas and responded to each subject freshly. Consistent are her genuine interest in each person's uniqueness, her strong sense of design, and her ability to use light dramatically." Along similar lines, Raymond Bial of Library Journal wrote, "Cunninghams's refreshingly informal approach results in a collection of open, honest portraits of the notable people of her time. Along with the quiet dignity that pervades her work, there is an abiding sense of humanity and a touch of whimsy."
In 1934, Cunningham was offered a job in New York by Vanity Fair. Despite her husband's protests, she took the job. He filed for divorce soon after. Cunningham experimented with taking pictures on the street in New York, calling them "stolen pictures." She photographed many famous people, including the Mexican artist, Frieda Kahlo. Cunningham's work also appeared in other major American magazines. In 1937, she was included in her first big exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, in "Photography, 1839-1937." Cunningham still regarded the Bay Area as her home and, in 1946, she bought a cottage in San Francisco.
In 1946-1947, Cunningham taught photography at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Though she believed in teaching photography to one's self, Cunningham taught at many institutions of higher learning in the Bay Area and was mentor to many student photographers. In 1947, she opened a home-based studio.
By the 1950s, Cunningham's work was reaching a wider audience and earning her more recognition. This began with a 1956 exhibition in the Limelight, a new gallery devoted to photography. From this point forward, Cunningham was regularly featured in prestigious exhibitions. She was also the subject of several documentary films. She frequently traveled to Europe. Cunningham still challenged herself as an artist. In the 1960s, she began experimenting with Polaroid cameras. She published her first monograph, in the 1964 issue of Aperture, which included Polaroid cameras. Cunningham published her first book in 1967, the same year she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Awarded Guggenheim Fellowship
In 1970, when she was 87 years old, Cunningham was granted a Guggenheim Fellowship. She used the money to print and organize her work. Three years later, at the age of 90, Cunningham had two major exhibitions in New York City. In a New York Times review, Hilton Kramer wrote, "Empathy rather than esthetic invention has been her forte, guiding her eye and her lens to her most powerful images." In 1975, Cunningham took the extraordinary step of creating a trust so that her work would be preserved, exhibited, and promoted. She did not need to worry. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Cunningham's work was exhibited in the United States and throughout the world. Her photographs appeared in prestigious museums and galleries across the U.S., including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
At the age of 92, Cunningham began what would be her last book, After Ninety. The book featured portraits of the elderly, many of whom were her friends. The project was cut short by her death in San Francisco on June 23, 1976. After Ninety was published posthumously in 1977, and from 1978 until 1981 an exhibit, based on the book, traveled throughout the United States. Of her career, Lorenz wrote in Imogen Cunningham: Selected Texts and Bibliography, "Very few photographers have encompassed the longevity, thematic diversity, and sublime vision manifested by Imogen Cunningham."
Further Reading on Imogen Cunningham
The Continuum Dictionary of Women's Biography. edited by Jennifer S. Uglow, Continuum, 1989.
The Dictionary of Art. edited by Jane Turner, Grove, 1996.
Imogen Cunningham: Selected Texts and Bibliography. edited by Amy Rule. G.K. Hall & Co., 1992.
International Center of Photography: Encyclopedia of Photography, Pound Press, 1993.
Lorenz, Richard, Imogen Cunningham: Ideas Without End, Chronicle Books, 1993.
Lorenz, Richard, Imogen Cunningham: Portraiture, Bulfinch Press, 1997.
Mann, Margery, Imogen Cunningham: Photographs, University of Washington Press, 1970.
Slatkin, Wendy, Women Artists in History: From Antiquity to the 20th Century, Prentice-Hall, 1985.
Booklist, February 15, 1998.
Library Journal, August 1998.
New York Times, May 6, 1973.