Originally trained in chemistry, the career of Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976) spanned several decades and shifts in photographic styles. She began photographing in the Pictorialist manner, before moving to abstraction in the 1920s. With her main focus on texture and light, she became a member of Edward Weston and Ansel Adams’ f/64 group in 1932, championing photography as an art form. From the 1940s, Cunningham turned to documentary street photography and portraits, further creating iconic imagery.
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Imogen Cunningham was born on 12 April 1883 in Portland, Oregon, as the fifth of ten children to parents from Missouri. As a child her parents encouraged her artistic talent by allowing her to attend summer art lessons. As a teenager, Cunningham was deeply moved when she saw Gertrude Käsebier’s Blessed Art Thou Among Women (1899) and decided that she wanted to be a photographer. Whilst studying chemistry at the University of Washington she taught herself photography with a mail-order course from the American School of Art and Photography. Assisted by her chemistry professor, she began to study the chemistry of photography and subsidised her tuition by photographing the plants in the botany department. Cunningham graduated in 1907 with her thesis entitled The Scientific Development of Photography.
After college Cunningham worked in the studio of Edward E. Curtis and in 1909 she won a fellowship to study at the Technische Hochschule in Dresden, Germany, from her university sorority. Returning to the United States, Cunningham opened a portrait studio in Seattle where she worked in the Pictorialist style, photographing sitters in domestic settings or in the forest near her cottage. In 1914 her first solo exhibition was held at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences and the following year she married the Seattle etcher, Roi Partridge, with whom she had three sons. Early in her career, Cunningham began experimenting with nude studies at a time when Victorian conservatism still governed what were considered to be appropriate subjects in photography.
Move to Abstraction
In 1920 the family moved to California where Cunningham met Edward Weston. Whereas Cunningham’s earlier work shows the influence of early twentieth-century Pictorialism, during the 1920s she started working in the geometric style of straight photography with the sharp linearity and vivid light of European Modernism. Cunningham had held a correspondence with Alvin Langdon Coburn, the first photographer to make entirely abstract photographs, which he called Vortographs, since 1910 and she began to focus on abstract imagery to make geometric patterns. As the mother of three young children, she was mainly confined to photographing her children and the plants in her garden and sought to expose the visually profound in the mundane. Cunningham became particularly interested in photographing flowers and abstracting the shapes of the petals and leaves. She undertook a prolonged study of the magnolia flower between 1923 and 1925. The importance of natural form in Cunningham’s abstract images has led to them being compared to the undulating forms in Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings.
In 1932 Cunningham joined Weston and Ansel Adams in their Group f/64, the members of which thought that “photography, as an art-form, must develop along lines defined by the actualities and limitations of the photographic medium, and must always remain independent of ideological conventions of art and aesthetics that are reminiscent of a period and culture antedating the growth of the medium itself”. Dismissing Pictorialism, f/64 proposed that the appearance of the photograph was more important than the subject matter. Cunningham found influence in Weston’s and Adams’ philosophic interest in natural forms but sought her own style. Whilst Weston was concerned mainly with form, Cunningham focused on texture and light. She published an article called Photography as a Profession for Women in which she encouraged women to develop their own style in photography. Cunningham struggled however to have her work considered as comparable to male members of the group. She felt patronised and frustrated when Adams said that “her prints could have been produced only by a woman, which does not imply they lack vigour. All her photographs brim with a restrained strength typical of keen decisive feminine energy.”
Having divorced Partridge in 1934, in the 1940s Cunningham turned to street photography while continuing to undertake commissions for portraits. In 1945 Adams invited her to be a faculty member for the art photography department at the California School of Fine Arts, along with Dorothea Lange and Minor White. At this time Cunningham met Lisette Model, a photographer for Harper’s Bazaar, who would have a resounding influence over her later portraiture. In the 1960s Cunningham documented the hippy culture of the Bay area and looked at the everyday lives of people involved in counterculture. Cunningham’s last project, After Ninety, is an insightful, poignant study of nonagenarians undertaken when Cunningham herself was in her ninth decade. She photographed her ex-husband, Roi Partridge, Ansel Adams, a woman covered in tattoos who had been a carnival performer, nuns and convalescents for the project. Cunningham died on 23 June 1976 at the age of 96 in San Francisco whilst working on this project.