Imogen Cunningham: Texture and Light

As a teenager, Imogen Cunningham was deeply moved when she saw Gertrude Käsebier’s Blessed Art Thou Among Women (1899) and decided immediately 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. After college, Cunningham worked in the studio of Edward E. Curtis and went on to open a portrait studio in Seattle. Relocating to California, she met Edward Weston whose daring Modernism would prove a vital influence over the trajectory of her career in photography. Whereas Cunningham’s earlier work uses the soft focus 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 the ‘Vortograph’, since 1910 and in the 1920s she turned to focus on abstract imagery, making geometric patterns from the objects close at hand.

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. Publishing an article called Photography as a Profession for Women, Cunningham encouraged women to develop their own style in photography. She struggled however to have her work judged as comparable to that made by the 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.”

Cunningham married and had three sons with the Seattle etcher, Roi Partridge. As a mother of three, she was mainly confined to photographing her children and the plants in her garden but finding inspiration in the smallest of details, she sought to expose the visually profound in the mundane. Cunningham repeatedly photographed the agave plant in her garden, creating abstract shapes with triangular black and white shadows. This photograph shows the sturdy agave leaves semi-silhouetted against a background of deep black and stark white. Typical of Cunningham’s work in the period, the image is not fully abstracted, as the curved base of the leaves hints at organic shape.The importance of natural form in Cunningham’s abstract images has led to frequent comparison to the undulating forms of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings. The agave plant photographs were among Cunningham’s ten images exhibited in the seminal Film und Foto (1929) exhibition in Stuttgart, Germany.

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