Imogen Cunningham's professional career span over seven decades resulting in some of the most outstanding contributions to fine art photography. She is considered one of the most enduring figures in American photography in the 20th century. Even though her first love was portraiture, Imogen Cunningham is most known for her stunning and sensual close-ups of flowers.
She was born in Portland, Oregan, on April 12, 1883, and was the first of six children born to Isaac and Susan Cunningham. At about 1890, the family migrated to Seattle where her father started a small wood and coal business.
After finishing high school in 1903, she entered the University of Washington in Seattle, where she worked as a secretary for her chemistry professor to fund her education. She majored in chemistry and also studied physics, literature, German, and French. One of her first photographs was a 1906 nude self-portrait, taken on an isolated spot on the UW campus with a 4"x5" mail-order camera.
She devoted the latter half of her senior year to studying the work and methods of Edward S. Curtis, the Seattle-based photographer, whose volumes on the "American Indians" were well known in photographic circles. From 1907 to 1909, Imogen apprenticed in the studio of Edward S. Curtis where she learned the techniques of retouching negatives and printing with platinum paper.
In the fall of 1909, funded by a fellowship, Imogen Cunningham travelled to Dresden, Germany to study photochemistry at the Technische Hochschule under the world-renowned professor Robert Luther. The time spent in Germany gave her an opportunity to compare the work of European and American photographers, as well as to study art history and life drawing. But most of her time was spent on technical work, culminating in March 1910 in her thesis for Luther, "On the Self-Production of Platinum Papers for Brown Tones", a study that presented a cheaper alternative to platinum printing.
Upon her return to the States, Imogen Cunningham established her own studio in 1910, becoming one of the very first professional woman photographers. She encouraged other women to join her, publishing an article in 1913 titled "Photography as a Profession for Women". She specialized in portraiture, and took pride in offering a more naturalistic approach than the otherwise rigid poses and stereotypical formats routinely created at commercial studios.
"One must be able to gain an understanding at short notice and 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 outer aspect of the sitter.
To do this one must not have a too pronounced notion of what constitutes beauty in the external and, above all, must not worship it. To worship beauty for its own sake is narrow, and one surely cannot derive from it that aesthetic pleasure which comes from finding beauty in the commonest things."
In addition to her portraiture, during the years 1910 to 1915 Imogen created a substantial body of pictorialist-inspired landscape work. She tested the latitude possible in one negative by producing two prints of the same self-portrait: a light version titled Morning Mist and Sunshine and a darker, moodier variant titled In Moonlight:
On February 11, 1915, Cunningham married Roi Partridge, an artist himself and an artistic collaboration between them flourished. Together, they enjoyed exploring the local nature terrain and especially that of Mount Rainier, where she engaged him as a model in an extended series of the nude in the wilderness. The series includes Roi classically posing Narcissus at the edge of a pond :
The publication of this image created a local scandal and invited so much ridicule that Cunningham retired the negatives for more that fifty years.
She had three children (Gryffyd, Rondal, and Padraic) with Roi. Imogen's first son Gryffyd was born on December 18, 1915 and she soon returned to work, juggling motherhood and profession. During a second and difficult pregnancy in 1917, Imogen Cunningham decided to move south to California to be closer to her family. They settled in San Francisco where Roi taught at Mills College.
Her work in the 1920s contrasts with her earlier pictorialist photographs. Her childhood fascination with the beauty and complexities of nature led her to photograph all kinds of plant life, from simple flower arrangements to elaborate compositions of exotic ferns, magnolias and lilies.
Her floral studies were influenced by stark lines and were mainly of close-ups, as she believed the "paradox of expansion via reduction becomes vivid when one looks at the visual aspect of nature", each level of detail is echoed in the next lager and smaller level of scale.
Between 1923 and 1925, Imogen Cunningham carried out an extended series of magnolia flower studies which became increasingly simplified as she looked to recognise the form within the object.
The results are best represented by the well-known Magnolia Blossom and its counterpart, a detail of the magnolia's core Tower of Jewels.
Stylistically, she empowered her image by isolating her vegetation. What would be lost in a mass is curiously fresh and clear in solitary study. As a result "negative space became as critical to the composition as the design elements", in fact she paralleled the objectivity of the German modernists, her close-up, sensual photographs of house plants, flowers, leaves and pods often resemble animals, birds, fish and human forms.
After exploring her botanical interests by the late 1920s, Imogen Cunningham began to turn from plant to human form and ventured into the exploration of the human body. During this period she added to her photographic work images such as the right eye of friend Portia Hume, the legs of exotic dancer John Bovingdon, and the hands of various artists and musicians engaged in their art medium.
After several of her photographs of dancer Martha Graham were published by Vanity Fair in the early 30s, the magazine employed her to photograph many celebrities and political figures of the time.
From 1932 to 1935 Imogen Cunningham photographed such personalities as Joan Blondell, James Cagney, Ernst Lubitsch, Spencer Tracy, Warner Orland, Frances Dee and Cary Grant.
In 1932, Imogen Cunningham, Ansel Adams, Edward Westin, and others, founded Group f/64, which promoted photography and helped to establish photography as an art form. The name of the group, derived from the smallest aperture available on a large format camera, implies images of the greatest depth of focus and sharpest detail.
In 1934 Cunningham was invited to do some work in New York for Vanity Fair. Her husband wanted her to wait until he could travel with her but she refused and they later divorced. She continued her work with Vanity Fair. until it stopped publication in 1936. During this period, Imogen Cunningham photographed politicians including former president Herbert Hoover, and literary figures such as Somerset Maugham, Jules Romains, John Masefield and Gertrude Stein.
In the 1940s Cunningham turned to documentary street photography which she did as a side project whilst supporting herself with her commercial and studio photography.
In 1947, Cunningham was invited by Ansel Adams to accept a position as faculty at the first fine art photography department at the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA). She was joined by Dorothea Lange and Minor White .
During the 1950s, Imogen Cunningham produced some of her finest portraiture, from decisive moments on the streets to revealing images of artists, poets and writers.
Imogen Cunningham continued to take pictures until shortly before her death at age 93 on June 24, 1976 in San Francisco, California.
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