Imogen Cunningham occupies a singular position in the history of American art of the twentieth century. For seventy years she explored, with innovation and a new perspective, all the major traditions associated with the medium as fine art.
"I photograph anything that can be exposed to light". - Imogen Cunningham
Her love of form and abstraction, and for the clear, revealing eye of the camera, gave her an extraordinary artistic vision that never faltered during a career that spanned more than seventy years.
One of the first professional female photographers in America, Imogen Cunningham is best known for her botanical photography, portraits, nudes, and industrial landscapes.
Imogen CunninghamInnovative Twentieth Century Women Photographer
Imogen Cunningham made seemingly simple photographs from elements in her Northern California nieghborhood. During the 1920s and 1930s, informed by the straight photography ethos that inspired Edward Weston and other members of Group f.64, of which she was a charter member, Cunningham created minimalist, geometrically styled close-ups of plants that are visually arresting.
The photographer’s earlier allegiance to soft-focus portraits and allegorical woodland themes are nowhere evident in these sharply observed plant forms, which are truly modern. The beautifully orchestrated prints reveal Cunningham’s desire to apprehend the essence of each plant’s form. And, like a portrait, the isolation and context-free presentation allows the artist to capture the plants’ personalities and distinguishing characteristics.
Early Life & EducationGrowing up in Oregon & Seattle
Imogen Cunningham was born in Portland, Oregon in 1883 and grew up in Seattle, Washington. With a stong interest in photography she pursued and received a degree in chemistry from The University of Washington in Seattle in 1907.
Imogen joined the Edward Curtis Studio in Seattle as an assistant, absorbing all that she could. She learned the business of running a portrait studio while also being encouraged to gain more knowledge about the platinum printing process by the printer at the studio, Adolph Kuhn. With Kuhn's encouragement, Imogen traveled to Dresden Germany in 1909 to study photographic chemistry with Robert Luther at Technische Hochschule.
"My best picture is the one I'll take tomorrow." - Imogen Cunningham
Early Portraiture WorkStudio Photographer on Capitol Hill, Seattle, Washington
Consistent with the practice of Edward Curtis, Imogen opened a portrait studio to support herself while she pursued her own photographic passions. Her studio was unique in that Imogen created expressive portraiture and took pride in offering a more naturalistic approach than the otherwise rigid poses and sterotype formats routinely created on the premises of many commercial studios.
FamilyManaging Family and Work in San Fransisco
In 1917 Imogen was living in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, etcher Roi Partridge, and her three sons. Her worked adapted to this new role as a working mother, but she was still never far from her camera. Now her seach for beauty was closer to home and botanicals and her family became her focus.
“I never stopped photographing. There were a couple of years when I didn’t have a darkroom, but that didn’t stop me from photographing.” – Imogen Cunningham
BotanicalsFinding Beauty in the Abstract Qualities of Nature
From the early 1920s she began to take close-up, sharply detailed studies of plant life and other natural forms, including a multi-year, in-depth study of the Magnolia flower and Calla Lillies, two common plants in her Bay Area neighborhood. Transitioning from the pictoralist style of a decade earlier, her work became more sharply detailed with a strong focus on light and form.
This period of intense study produced some of the most recognizaable photographs of Imogen Cunningham's career.
“My interest in photography has something to do with the aesthetic, and that there should be a little beauty in everything.” - Imogen Cunningham
Group f.64A New Modernist Approach to Photography
In 1932, a loosely knit group of West Coast photographers formed the Group f.64. Among the charter members were Imogen Cunningham, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Sonya Noskowiak. They rejected the sentimental soft-focus subjects in favor of greater sharpness, detail and representation of the image itself.
With a rich tapestry of photographic interests among these colleagues and friends, they worked to push photography as distinguished from other art forms, unique in its' own capabilities and expression. This included grand landscapes from Ansel Adams, intimate still lifes from Edward Westin and striking nudes and plant form work from Imogen Cunningham.
In addition to the charter member, the group also recognized many other popular West Coast photographers including Henry Swift, John Paul Edwards, Alma Levenson, Brett Westin, Consuelo Kanaga, and Preston Holder. Among the many successes of the Group f.64 were the exhibition of several photographic shows and the increased notice and attention to a new modernist approach to photography.
California PortraiturePhotographing Artists in their Environment
Throughout her career, Imogen Cunnigham undertook a diverserve range of portraiture. From intimate personal work to commerical assignments she always worked to capture the essence and personality of her subjects.
Here personal work often included photographers (Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, Alfred Stieglitz, Minor White) dancers (Jose Limon, Merce Cunningham) and writers (Gertude Stein, Sherwood Anderson).
Of special note is her stunning series of portraits with Frida Kahlo in 1931, Edward Weston and Margrethe Mather in 1922, Martha Graham in 1931, culminating with a stunning series of Ruth Asawa and her transformative wire sculptures that lasted over two decades.
In addition to her personal photographic pursuits, Imogen Cunningham accepted select commercial assignments, included an ongoing relationship with Vanity Fair. Self describe as "The First and Last Word on Modernism," Imogen Cunningham was a natural choice to capture and promote Vanity Fair's vision. She photographed such personalities as Spency Tracy, Cary Grant, James Gagney and others.
“The formula for doing a good job in photography is to think like a poet.
Meg Partridge & the Imogen Cunningham Trust
My passion and early exposure to photography began as a teenage assistant spotting prints for Imogen. In the process I experienced her work ethic from days that began early and often ended late. This and her search for beauty, were traits that I would value my whole life.
"I remember once when I was spotting prints in her studio home, and Imo was so funny. I'd be working on a print and she'd say, 'Oh, don't worry about that, it's just going to the Museum of Modern Art.'" - Imogen Cunningham
In the 1980s, filmmaking became my passion. It began with Portrait of Imogen, released in 1988. An Acadamy Award nominated documentary that was inspired by a series of interviews that Imogen made with my father late in her life. I remember listening to these interviews and knew I had to make this film. This lead to two subsequent films on my photographic family. A Visual Life documenting the extraodinary work of my godmother Dorothea Lange and Outta My light, an exploration of the eight decades of photography by my father Rondal Partridge.
This close relationship with Imogen combined with an extensive working knowledge of all aspect of the family archive inspired me to take on the roll of Director of the Trust, continuing to share Imogen Cunningham's magnificient work with others.