On Photography the work of Imogen Cunningham
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On Photography: Imogen Cunningham, 1883-1976

“Which of my photographs is my favorite? The one I’m going to take tomorrow.” – Imogen Cunningham

Beginnings

Imogen Cunningham bought her first camera, a 4×5 view camera, from the American School of Art, mail order. The year was 1901. She was 19 years old. While at the University of Washington in Seattle she discovered the work of Gertrude Käsebier, which rekindled her interest in photography. She began to study the chemistry of photography with the help of her chemistry professor, Horace Byers. She photographed plants for the botany department to earn extra money. Her love of plants and making portraits of them became a lifelong pursuit. She earned her degree in chemistry writing the thesis “Modern Processes in Photography.”

Her career began as she worked with Edward Curtis, a Seattle portraitist. She worked with him in his studio and on his documentary project The North American Indian. It was with Curtis that she learned the techniques of platinum printing.

Dresden

On Photography Imogen Cunningham by Arnold Newman
Imogen Cunningham by Arnold Newman

Cunningham was encouraged to study photographic processes in Germany. She studied with Professor Robert Luther at the Technische Hochschule in Dresden. She was not making many photographs during the time it took to write her paper “Aboth the Direct Development of Platinum Paper for Brown Tones.” It describes her improvements in the paper sensitivity as well as improvements in highlight details and sepia toning. On her return trip to Seattle, a stop in New York found her meeting Alfred Stieglitz and Gertrude Käsebier.

Back in Seattle

Imogen opened her own studio and began making both portraits and pictorial photographs. She most often photographed people in their homes, in her living room or in the forest around her home. Her first exhibition was at the Brooklyn Academy of Arts and Sciences and her next was in New York. The years were 1913 and 1914. A portfolio of her work was published in Wilsons Photographic Magazine.

Early works

Cunningham married Roi Partridge who was an artist. She made a series of nudes of him, that while beautiful and praised by critics, were too controversial for the time. She ultimately revisited this body of work 55 years later.

Imogen and Roi moved to San Francisco in 1920 where Roi taught at Mills College. Cunningham refined her work and developed her style taking interest in pattern and detail photographing trees, their bark and zebras. Her interest in botanical photography continued. She did an involved study of the magnolia flower over two years. Next, she turned her vision to industrial landscape photography in Los Angeles and Oakland.

Film und Foto — Stuttgart

Edward Weston selected eight of Imogen’s botanical photographs along with a nude and an industrial landscape for the exhibition Film und Foto. Cunningham changed her focus once again becoming interested in the human form and specifically, hands of artists and musicians It was 1929. This 3-minute video is of Imogen discussing her work and photography.

This video is excerpted from the 1988 academy award nominated best documentary short subject by Meg Partridge.

Vanity Fair

Her work with artists led to work at Vanity Fair where she photographed celebrities without makeup or false glamour. This aesthetic found Cunningham becoming a founding member of Group f/64 whose aim was to “define photography as an art form by a simple and direct presentation through purely photographic methods.”

Street

In the 1950s and 60s, Imogen concentrated on photographing poets of the beat generation, flower children in the Haight-Ashbury district and people on the streets of San Francisco. She voyaged on ships to Europe several times during the 60s. She was impressed by the post-war optimism.

“Artists had seen enough images of devastation and were ready for a more gentle vision. The photographer’s eye on Paris was now one of sentiment, parks and lovers-a romantic view. Poetic fragments of every day life were being celebrated in cafes, bustling streets and overflowing terraces.”

A final quote

 “Imogen is difficult, if not impossible to sum up. Her life was a complex one, and I am left with strong impressions that have in part been confirmed by the people who speak in this book she was certainly a courageous woman, one with a mind of her own, who worked hard all of her life. The fact that as a young woman she chose to go into chemistry as an avenue to photography, both fields that were traditional male preserves apparently did not seem remarkable to her.” – Judy Dater, photographer, feminist

Thanks to Lumiere Gallery in Atlanta and the International Photography Hall of Fame.

Read more mini-biographies of influential photographers on Photofocus.

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