Granddaughter recalls public, private side of photographer Imogen Cunningham

August 9, 2009
Granddaughter recalls public, private side of photographer Imogen Cunningham

One hundred and four years ago, a University of Washington undergrad purchased a 4 x 5-inch camera and developed photographs in the family’s woodshed, which her father had converted into a makeshift darkroom.

This young woman, Imogen Cunningham, went on to become one of the first female professional photographers and a contributor to the development of photography as an art form on the West Coast.


At the time, there was no photography instruction at the UW (or at many universities), so Cunningham majored in chemistry then traveled to Dresden, Germany, to study photography.

Returning to Seattle, she worked at the studio of Edward Curtis — a famed photographer of the American West — before opening her own successful portrait studio.

At the Seattle Art Museum, an exhibition of Cunningham’s images from the museum’s collection articulates the artist’s wide range in style and subject matter, from her early Pictorialism — dreamy, soft focused portraits — to sharply focused modernism.

Cunningham’s granddaughter, Meg Partridge, a photographer and filmmaker, has lived on Lopez Island since 2000. Partridge’s 1988 documentary short, “Portrait of Imogen,” was nominated for an Academy Award.

She says the SAM collection offers an “important perspective” on her grandmother’s work because “it shows a wide range and it has intriguing, not terribly well-known images. Not just the iconic images like the (Frida) Kahlo portrait and the magnolia blossom, but the things she herself was interested in, like double exposures and portraits of friends.”

Recently, at her island home, Partridge spoke of her perceptions of Cunningham as a grandmother, a photographer and a savvy creator of her own image and career.

Q: Although your grandmother spent most of her working years in Northern California, where you grew up, the SAM exhibition offers glimpses of her strong relationship with the Northwest.

There are two nude photos of her husband on Mount Rainier (quite shocking at the time!) and a few images from her portrait studio on First Hill.

She also returned numerous times to photograph the artist Morris Graves. How would you describe your grandmother’s connection to this area?

A: Growing up, I had a good sense of Imogen’s history, where she came from and what she was doing. There was, perhaps, a frontier quality here at the turn of the century. It may have been a place that wasn’t as caught up in conventions as a more established urban setting might be.

Q: The SAM exhibit evokes Imogen’s adventurous spirit, seen in her experiments with technique and subject matter. Where do you think her sense of daring came from?

A: I think she was raised with a sense of ability — you could do whatever you wanted to do if you worked hard. Her father was very progressive in his thinking about women and supported whatever she wanted to do, which was impressive in that day.

She was determined to become a photographer at an early age and she never veered off the path. Photography was not only her livelihood, it was her life.

Q: What were your childhood perceptions of your grandmother?

A: Imogen used to come over pretty often. My dad (Rondal Partridge) is a photographer, and they would have discussions about technique and process, so I always used to love hanging around my father’s workroom and hearing what that was all about.

But Imogen didn’t have much time for kids unless they were part of her world in an active way. When I was a teenager, 14, 15 years old, she hired me to spot her prints for her, removing tiny little white dots on the print, so I had the pleasure of spending time with her.

Q: As an adult, you found some audiotape of your father interviewing Imogen. Using this tape and your grandmother’s photographs, you produced the short documentary that was nominated for an Academy Award. What did you learn about her as a person or as an artist during that process?

A: It was nice that it was audio, with no visuals, because she was such a personality, you would be just totally entertained by this wild woman and barely get to talk to her in any depth about her work.

The fact that she was talking to my dad in these audiotapes was very special because she was delving into stuff that she wouldn’t speak casually to anyone about. Not only about why she was doing what she did, but technically how: she would refer to lenses, exposure time.

And she was candid about what she felt was successful and about her failures. Speaking about a project she was hired to work on with Dorothea Lange, photographing a cooperative sawmill, she said something like, “Well, it was not my strength,” something she wouldn’t have said at a gallery opening.

I had only known her when she was in her 70s, 80s, 90s. She was always this old woman who took photographs, but to dive into her early history, my family history, was really interesting.

Although I’d spent time with her as a teenager, going back through her history and archives with an adult perspective, I saw what it took to be a single woman in San Francisco, supporting kids and doing the work. It was not a folly that she really needed to work as a portraitist.

Q: She took photographs of herself throughout her life and seemed to have a witty sense of how she might be perceived in an image. What can you say about her control over her image or her career?

A: Her self-portraits really show her sense of humor, and she was smart about her career. She actively published her work in magazines and newspapers. She had a good eye but she was a great editor. She knew how to edit her work, so what the world sees is an impressive selection of work.

In California, she broke most of her early portrait negatives over a garbage can. The ones she saved were the ones she did for herself. She pursued her work and when she nailed it, she was happy.


About the author

Meg Partridge