Imogen was the daughter of Isaac Cunningham, a self-educated, idealistic, but often struggling individualist, who followed one of those utopian faiths that made people move West. Imogen was born in Oregon and grew up in Washington. In her childhood Imogen probably knew many financial hardships. She learned early that “you can’t expect things to be smooth and easy and beautiful. You just have to work, find your way out, and do anything you can yourself.” After some study of drawing and painting as a child, Imogen became fascinated with photography. In 1901, at age 18, she purchased a 4 x 5” view camera by mail order and taught herself. Soon she decided to study photography seriously. “My father didn’t think much of me being a photographer,” she once said. “But he didn’t stand in my way.”
The nearest college, The University of Washington, offered no art classes, but a degree in chemistry was a practical solution for a young photographer. Imogen enrolled in 1903 and earned her tuition by making lantern slides for the botany department, and later she worked for Edward Curtis in his downtown Seattle studio, printing his images of the North American Indians. In 1906, among her first art photographs of still lifes and portraits of friends and family members, Imogen posed herself nude in the grass, in a secluded part of the university campus. Shortly after graduation, in 1909, Imogen received a $500 grant from her sorority that enabled her to study photographic chemistry in Dresden. Her thesis, which she wrote in German, advocated the versatility of using of hand-coated printing papers. She described a new method of making platinum photographs, using lead chemistry and brown-toning them. Her formulas are still useful today.
After a year in Dresden Imogen returned, by way of Paris, London, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. She postponed her long train ride home to stay in New York a few extra days, in order to meet Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz was impressed by the young photographer and introduced her to Gertrude Käsebier, a co-founder of his Photo-Secession group and the first woman to establish a commercial photography studio. Fortified by their praise, Imogen immediately started her own portrait studio in Seattle. Its success gave her great prominence among the other artists of the region. She wrote a paper for her sorority’s journal titled “Photography as a Profession for Women.” Supported by her income from making portraits of Seattle society, Imogen began to create art photographs as well, usually allegorical tableaux with friends posing as subjects, in the painterly, romantic “pictorial” style dominant at that time. In 1914 she received her first solo exhibition, at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, New York; and a second one that year at the Portland Art Museum, Oregon. In 1915, Imogen married Roi Partridge, an accomplished etcher. Their first son, Gryffyd, was born that year, and then in 1917, Imogen gave birth to twin boys, Rondal and Padraic. In 1918 Imogen decided to relocate the family to California, and Roi accepted an offer to teach in San Francisco. When they moved, Imogen had to destroy most of her glass plate negatives and she carried only a small collection of her early prints with her. In 1920 Roi started teaching at Mills College in Oakland, and they moved again.
Dedicated to her responsibilities as a mother, Imogen closed her portrait studio. To satisfy her need for making photographs, she turned her cameras instead to her family. And in a precious hour each afternoon, when her boys were napping, she would make portraits of the flowers in her garden. During the 1920s, developments for Imogen herself were remarkable — and the future of photography was changed. In 1921 her visualization suddenly refined her work, changing her camera focus from long to near, seeking out details and patterns and forms. In portraits, her previous pictorialist style was replaced by an emphasis upon clarity, precision, and persona. By 1923 she was breaking new ground altogether. Her images of seemingly straightforward natural phenomena were also, at the same time, strange nonrepresentational abstractions. She began to experiment with double exposures and multiple, montage printing.
In the 1920s Imogen’s circle of protégés expanded, to include friendships with Maynard Dixon and Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston and his associates Johan Hagemeyer and Margrethe Mather. She discovered that the distillation of plant forms was also finding expression in the botanical photographs of Albert Renger-Patzsch, Ernst Fuhrmann and Karl Blossfeldt.
In his book Imogen Cunningham (Taschen, 2001), Richard Lorenz makes this key observation:
“Believing that the camera perceived natural objects more clearly than the eye, Renger-Patzsch isolated a characteristic fragment from the whole, thereby underscoring its essential elements. Unlike Weston’s innate transcendentalism, Cunningham’s stoic descriptiveness made her a better candidate for producing superior examples of unsentimental botanical imagery as well as Precisionist images….the American equivalent of the New Objectivity that sought to reveal with increasing clarity the material properties and geometric volumes…. Cunningham’s work of the late 1920s presents a strong case for her position as the most independently sophisticated and experimental photographer at work on the West Coast.”
Imogen’s collaboration with Edward Weston led to their forming the purist movement Group f/64, which insisted on sharply-defined images and tonal gradation. In 1932 they exhibited their new works, with Consuelo Kanaga and Sonya Noskowiak, as “Group f/64,” at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Dr. Lorenz continues:
“By 1932 Cunningham and Weston were internationally acclaimed professional photographers…. But Cunningham’s interests were always too eclectic, her attitude too flexible, to be constricted by the rigidity of Group f/64 definitions, whose style of realism and general choice of subject matter she later considered a regional West Coast style. Historically categorized as a kindred echo of Weston, the guiding spirit of the short-lived group, Cunningham became rather his antithesis. As a pioneering adventurer, she had the innate curiosity to experiment beyond signature, safe subjects. She exploited serendipity, cropping an image when she felt it necessary, saving from the darkroom sink a rejected print which had become more interesting from accidental solarization, and sandwiching negatives or shooting double exposures when she pleased. Shades of Dada and Surrealism run through her work, and the conceptual dogma of the pure print with which she had momentarily associated herself was, by then, a foregone consideration.” In 1934 Imogen and her husband divorced. Her sons were nearing adulthood, so Imogen was able to accept a position with Vanity Fair magazine. While at its headquarters in a month-long trip to New York, she revisited and photographed Alfred Stieglitz in his gallery, and explored the streets of the city, making her first “stolen pictures,” a term she used to describe her street photography. This early documentary imagery became a new direction for Imogen that she explored throughout her lifetime.
These works are empathetic, sensitive portraits rather than photojournalistic records; Imogen did not like to invade privacy or make judgments. “I have no ambition, never did have any ambition, to be a reporter,” she said. “That is something different. I still feel that my interest in photography has something to do with the aesthetic, and that there should be a little beauty in everything.” In her several years with Vanity Fair, Imogen made photographs of politicians, movie stars, artists and writers — President Hoover, Somerset Maugham, Cary Grant, Gertrude Stein among them.
Assignments followed with other magazines including US Camera, LIFE, Sunset, House and Garden and Fortune.
During the 1930s, Imogen’s art photographs were well and widely exhibited, including solo shows at the Dallas Art Museum, the Crocker Gallery in Sacramento, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In the early 1940s, she sold her house in Oakland and shared a studio and darkroom, until she settled into what would be her final address, 1331 Green Street, San Francisco.
Imogen produced some of her finest portraits in the 1950s, a diverse array of street photography, and images of artists and writers — penetrating studies that disclose the physical and emotional dimensions of her subjects. One example is her pensive image of Morris Graves, acclaimed as a masterpiece. In 1954 Imogen was invited to exhibit work in the inaugural show of Helen Gee’s Limelight gallery-coffee house, in Greenwich Village — the first gallery to show and sell photographs exclusively. In 1956 Gee gave Imogen a solo exhibition, and Imogen again visited New York and added substantially to her street photographs of the city with a diversity of images that are especially remarkable given her age, 73. In 1959, Imogen applied for a Guggenheim Foundation grant to photograph certain writers in their environments; but her proposal was denied. Fortunately, she was at the same time rewarded by the acquisition, arranged by Minor White, of a large group of her works by George Eastman House. Imogen set out for Europe on an itinerary that included Berlin, Munich, Paris and London. The next year she returned — this time to Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Poland, and France; photographing the streets and people, all the while. Her multiple-exposure portrait of Man Ray in his Paris studio seemed to reignite her fascination for darkroom manipulations. Many of her last works, throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, were new experiments and explorations.
Imogen reapplied for a Guggenheim grant in 1970. This time, she was successful. While inventorying her life’s work, she had rediscovered a cache of her earliest glass-plate negatives, including the nudes of her husband in 1915 on Mount Rainier. Shrewdly, she made reprinting these the purpose of her application:
“Since I have worked almost constantly at professional photography since 1910, I would like to have the opportunity to give up the professional side of my work for a year and devote my time to printing my creative work.” For this, Imogen received a grant of $5000. “The only extra money I ever had.” In 1975, Imogen created a Trust, to manage, promote and sell her photographs during her lifetime and thereafter. Her dealer, Lee Witkin, raised the question of how works should be signed if not personally printed by her. Imogen decided to have a seal designed. “I have ordered and got a Chinese chop. Yao Shen wrote it for me and Benny Chi took it to Hong Kong and had it made. I wanted to have it say ‘To Hell with you, this print is as good as if Imogen had made it.’ But it turns out that is too long.”
In 1976 Imogen was profiled in a CBS television documentary, and appeared as a guest on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. She received two solo exhibitions, at Stanford University and in San Francisco.
Shortly before publication of her book, After Ninety, on June 23 she passed away at the age of 93.