Imogen Cunningham was born in Portland, Oregon in 1883. Her father, Isaac Burns Cunningham, named Imogen after the heroine of Shakespeare's Cymbeline. He encouraged her to read before she entered school and paid for art lessons every summer.
Imogen Cunningham grew up in Seattle, Washington and attended the University of Washington in Seattle, majoring in chemistry after she was advised by her professor that she should have a scientific background if she wanted to be a photographer. To pay her expenses she worked as a secretary to her chemistry professor and made slides for the botanists. Imogen Cunningham's thesis when she graduated from the University of Washington with a major in chemistry was titled “Modern Processes of Photography.”
After graduation Imogen worked in the Seattle portrait studio of Edward S. Curtis, the photographer who produced the twenty volumes of “The North American Indian.” Here she learned the techniques of platinum printing. In 1909 Imogen's college sorority, Pi Beta Phi, awarded her a grant to study photographic chemistry in Dresden. Her thesis, published in Germany, “Uber Selbstherstellung von Platinpapieren fur braune Tone,” translates to “About Self-Production of Platinum Papers for Brown Tones.” In this paper she urged the use of hand-coated paper for platinum prints, as much more convenient and easier to handle than commercial paper.
Returning from Germany, Imogen opened a portrait studio in Seattle. There, she was the only photographer who was a charter member of the Society of Seattle Artists. Imogen Cunningham exhibited frequently in Seattle, often soft focus photographs of romantic tableaux she and her friends staged. Imogen Cunningham published "Photography as a Profession for Women,” an article urging women to take up careers in the professions. not to outdo men, but to try to do something for themselves.
In 1914, her first one-person exhibition was held at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences.
Imogen Cunningham married Seattle etcher, Roi Partridge. Their son, Gryffyd, was born. She closed her studio and moved with Roi to California where their twin sons, Rondal and Padraic, were born. With three young sons and life as a faculty wife, her photography was largely confined to photographing her children and the plants in her garden.
Imogen Cunningham accepted her first commercial assignment after the birth of the twins to photograph the Adolph Bohm Ballet Intime. She also began to make her first sharp focus plant photographs. Imogen Cunningham was included in the Pictorial Photographic Society Exhibition at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. Imogen made her first double-exposure photograph, a photograph of her hard-working mother with a crown of silver spoons.
Ten of her photographs were exhibited in the prestigious Film and Foto ExhibItion in Stuttgart, Germany. Imogen Cunningham also had a local exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum. Imogen Cunningham had an exhibition at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco. Imogen met and photographed the dancer, Martha Graham. After the Graham photographs were published in the December issue of Vanity Fair the editors asked her to take assignments photographing Hollywood personalities. As an original member of Group f.64 she participated in the exhibition at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco and had a one-person exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum.
Imogen and Roi were divorced. Imogen Cunningham was invited to New York to work for Vanity Fair but she soon returned to California. Imogen Cunningham traveled with Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor to document a lumber co-operative, beginning a life-long series of what might now be called street photography. Imogen Cunningham worked again in Seattle and had a one-person exhibition at the Dallas Art Museum. A one-person exhibition of her work was shown at the E. B. Crocker Art Gallery in Sacramento, California. Imogen Cunningham began to photograph in color. Her photographs were included in the Photographers Exhibition at Golden Gate International Exposition, Treasure Island, San Francisco.
During the war years she sold her house in Oakland and used a friend's studio and darkroom in San Francisco, preparing for a permanent studio in San Francisco. Imogen established a studio in her home on Green Street in San Francisco. During the next thirteen years her work was exhibited across the country and she continued her street photography work when she was not making portraits. Imogen taught intermittently at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. The International Museum of Photography, at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, purchased a major retrospective collection of her work. Imogen used the money to travel and photograph in both Western and Eastern Europe. Imogen experimented with Polaroid film. The Library of Congress purchased a collection of her work and the photographic publisher, Aperture, published a monograph of her work.
Imogen Cunningham was elected a Fellow of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences. Imogen Cunningham was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree by the California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland. Imogen Cunningham was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to print from her early negatives. The University of Washington Press published her first book, “Imogen Cunningham: Photographs.” A major exhibition was held at the Witkin Gallery in New York City. The Smithsonian Institution purchased a major collection of her work.
Imogen passed away on June 23, 1976, at the age of 93.