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Imogen Cunningham | American, 1886 - 1976

Imogen Cunningham was the quintessential American woman photographer of the twentieth century and an artist whose expansive vision created many great icons of photographic history. From her start in photography at the University of Washington in Seattle about 1906 to her death in San Francisco in 1976, she devoted her life to the pursuit of her craft, participating in many of the trends and developments of half of the history of this scientific art. Her best-known signature images were made between 1920 and 1940, an exciting period of modernist imagery in America.

From 1910 to 1917, Cunningham spent her formative years in Seattle where she operated a successful portrait studio and created exquisite pictorialist images. From 1917 to 1920, she lived with her artist husband, Roi Partridge, and her three sons, Gryffyd, Rondal, and Padraic, in San Francisco. In 1920, the family moved to Oakland, California, where Roi began teaching at Mills College, a liberal arts school for women. Although Cunningham was geographically restricted to the West Coast, information about new tendencies in art and photography was hardly inaccessible. She was exposed to avant-garde aesthetic ideology through Alfred Stieglitz's periodical, Camera Work. She was particularly interested in the work of the Italian futurists exhibited at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. Frederic C. Torrey, the San Francisco collector and art dealer, who purchased Marcel Duchamp's cube-futurist masterpiece Nude Descending a Staircase [No. 2] from the Armory Show in 1913, also collected Roi Partridge etchings and was a valuable contact. She also learned about the possibilities for a cube-futurist or "vorticist" photography through her old acquaintance Alvin Langdon Coburn whose seminal article in Photograms of the Year (1916) promoted the cause of modernist photography.

1921 was a distinct turning point for Cunningham. She refined her vision of nature, changing her focus from the long to the near. Her interest in detailed pattern and form became evident in studies of bark texture and contorted tree trunks along the Carmel coast, a writhing snake curled on a gnarled Monterey cypress, and the trumpet-shaped morning glory that grew wild in her backyard. A family visit to the zoo about the same year produced a series of zebra studies, one of which precisely defines the natural black and white abstraction of the patterned belly and loin. Within her portraits of this period, such as a 1922 series of Edward Weston and Margrethe Mather, she formed tightly composed relationships between the sitters within the framework of the plate. The emphasis on clarity, form, definition, and persona displaced her previous use of pictorialist space.

By 1923, Cunningham broke new ground in West Coast photography. Her photographs of lunette sunlight patterns diffused through a leafy tree during a solar eclipse were straightforward documentation of a natural phenomenon but they were also unusual nonrepresentational abstractions, recalling the strange, stellate light studies of Coburn's vortographs. About 1923, possibly in response to Coburn's suggestion to make multiple exposures on one plate, Cunningham composed a double-exposure portrait of her mother, her profile veiled by a still life of a pewter pitcher filled with spoons, the utensils forming virtually a shining headdress. The double image, composed of an un-manipulated double exposure on the same sheet of film or the superimposition of two negatives, fascinated Cunningham and facilitated her creation of visual metaphors. Mirror images, reflections in water or window glass, layered multiple images (created in camera or darkroom), relationships between positive and negative, and the direct photography of similar or twin forms found in nature are significant leitmotifs throughout her work.
Cunningham's concern for purity of image and clarity of detail became increasingly important during the 1920s. She became particularly interested in flora, gathering prime botanical specimens from her backyard and elsewhere. During 1923-25, Cunningham made an extended series of magnolia flower studies which became increasingly simplified as she sought to recognize the form within the object. Cunningham did not always photograph plant materials straightforwardly or in their natural habitats; her arrangements were often created spontaneously in a spirit of fun, albeit with a solid sense of design. Looking for pattern and design, Cunningham often found worthy subjects in random artifacts, such as a drawer-full of buttons, a drain board of dishes, or eggs in eggcups.

Cunningham had a considerable interest in German culture. She purchased or read publications such as the annual Das Deutsche Lichtbild, which profiled botanical photographs by Albert Renger-Patzsch, volumes from Ernst Fuhrmann's Die Welt der Pflanze (1929-31), and Karl Blossfeldt's Urformen der Kunst (1928). The comparable plant images of Cunningham and Renger-Patzsch are most likely ascribed to similar concerns rather than to direct influence since Imogen was well into her exploration of the subject before exposure to her German counterpart. Cunningham's work, probably more than that of any other West Coast photographer, matched the ideal of the German New Objectivity movement of the 1920s - the objective presentation of fact. Unlike California photographer Edward Weston's innate transcendentalism, Cunningham's stoic descriptiveness made her a better candidate for producing superior examples of unsentimental botanical imagery.

One peculiar Cunningham photograph, unique to her work at the time and unique to American photography of the period, is Snake, a 1927 image in which she manipulated a 1921 negative to produce a negative print. Drawing on her previous experience with lantern slides, Cunningham produced Snake by using the earlier negative to make a glass plate positive from which she enlarged the final negative print. Having performed this novel inversion once, however, she curiously did not repeat it at the time, unlike Franz Roh, the German experimental photographer and author who created a strong body of negative imagery in the mid-1920s, and L‡szl— Moholy-Nagy, whose pairing of negative and positive images during the same period intentionally transposed tone-values and separated optical experience from intellectual association.

During the late 1920s, Cunningham flirted with Precisionism, the American equivalent of the New Objectivity that sought to reveal the material properties and geometric volumes of the fabric of industry with compelling clarity. She photographed extensively in Los Angeles in 1928, aggrandizing the oil industry in a striking series of images of oil rigs and tanks at Signal Hill. That same year, she began a series of industrial landscapes around the Nabisco Shredded Wheat Factory in Oakland. Her study of a water tower, unconventionally shot from below, has a sophisticated European modernist sensibility, resembling the camera angles of Alexander Rodchenko. 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.

Edward Weston had been exhilarated by Cunningham's 1926 print of a glacial lily, or false hellebore, which he had seen at the Los Angeles County Museum. Weston wrote her: "I had one thrill and it was your print -- Glacial Lily -- it stopped me at once, I did not note the signature until I had exclaimed to myself -- 'this is fine!' It is the best thing in the show, Imogen, and if you keep up to that standard you will be one of a handful of important photographers in America -- or anywhere. Thank you for giving me rare pleasure." [i] He also reviewed an exhibition of her work at a Carmel gallery two years later and was generous with praise: "She uses her medium, photography, with honesty, ---no tricks, no evasion: a clean cut presentation of the thing itself, the life of whatever is seen through her lens, ---that life within the obvious external form. With unmistakable joy in her work, with the unclouded eyes of a real photographer, knowing what can, and cannot, be done with her medium, she never resorts to technical stunts, nor labels herself a would-be third-rate painter. Imogen Cunningham is a photographer! A rarely fine one." [ii] The Deutscher Werkbund, a German organization which promoted technology and the arts and sporadically organized international expositions, invited Weston to select the West Coast entries for the historic 1929 exhibition Film und Foto, held in Stuttgart, that largely defined the nature of avant-garde photography at the time. Weston asked Cunningham for examples of her flower forms, and ten of her photographs were exhibited at Stuttgart. Included were eight botanical subjects, a nude, and an industrial study.

As if her botanical interests had largely been expressed by the late 1920s, Cunningham now began to turn from plant to human form and ventured into an exploration of body parts. The ears of her twin sons, the right eye of friend Portia Hume, the legs of exotic dancer John Bovingdon, and the feet of her dentist, Paul Maimone, became new props for her photographic agenda. She became fascinated with hands, especially those of artists and musicians. She intricately and intimately wove the art around the artist's hand: sculptors embrace their work, musicians wield their instruments, actors apply make-up. She captured Henry Cowell, an avant-garde composer of dissonant scores and the founder of New Music, performing one of his innovative "tone Clusters" on the piano with clenched fists. Cunningham, like Albert Renger-Patzsch in Germany, had begun to compartmentalize the visual world, each category intrinsically as interesting as the other. In his landmark book Die Welt Ist Schšn (The World Is Beautiful, 1928), Renger-Patzsch signaled the freeing of photography from the traditions of painting: "The secret of a good photograph, one that possesses esthetic quality of a work of art, lies in its realism… Let us leave art to the artists and let us try by means of photography to create photographs which can stand alone because of their photographic quality - without borrowing from art." [iii]

During a dinner party in Santa Barbara in 1931, Cunningham met Martha Graham, the originator of expressionism in modern American dance, whose artistic liberation began after seeing paintings by Wassily Kandinsky in New York in the 1920s. Graham felt comfortable creating gestures and moods in front of Cunningham's lens, and during one afternoon session, ninety Graflex negatives were produced. Two of the images appeared in the American magazine, Vanity Fair, in December 1931.

Vanity Fair advertised itself as the first and last word on modernism, a forum for a modern point of view with a sophisticated outlook on life. It reflected Cunningham's interests in the popular culture. Published by Condz Nast, it was edited by Frank Crowninshield, who believed in breaking barriers. From 1932 to 1935, Cunningham photographed for Vanity Fair such personalities as Joan Blondell, James Cagney, Ernst Lubitsch, Spencer Tracy, Warner Oland, Frances Dee, and Cary Grant. Her renegade use of straightforward photography to penetrate the facade of Hollywood stars by realistically and unglamorously documenting them off the set, prefigures her association in late 1932 with several Bay Area photographers whose mutual ideology led to the formation of Group f.64. The name, derived from the smallest aperture available on a large format camera, implies images of the greatest depth of focus and sharpest detail. The original members were Ansel E. Adams, Imogen Cunningham, John Paul Edwards, Sonya Noskowiak, Henry Swift, Willard Van Dyke, and Edward Weston. Their goal was to produce pure and un-manipulated photographs that utilized the full technical capabilities of the camera and were contact-printed without any retouching on glossy paper. Although Group f.64 had only one exhibition (at San Francisco's M. H. de Young Museum in 1932); its legend has had a lasting effect. As a movement that asserted visual reality, it became a pivotal reference point for straight photography.

Cunningham's interests were always too eclectic, her attitude too flexible, to be constricted by Group f.64 definitions. 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 1932, more indicative of her past decade. At about the same time she exhibited with Group f.64, the multiple image, or double exposure, had become a frequent concern to her. The increased use of this pictorial device by other photographers such as Edward Steichen and Cecil Beaton in the late 1920s possibly encouraged her further experimentation. The images indicated personality dualities, confused the passage of time, defied representational gravity, and perhaps even manifested a fourth dimension. Cunningham incorporated double exposures into her magazine work, contrasting expression and form, time and space.

Vanity Fair invited Cunningham to work in New York City in 1934, but Roi insisted that she defer the trip until they could travel together. Imogen would not wait. Roi could no longer accept her assertive independence, and they were divorced soon after. While in New York in 1934, Cunningham visited Alfred Stieglitz at his gallery, An American Place, and photographed him against his most precious Georgia O'Keeffe painting, Black Iris.

Cunningham continued to work occasionally for Vanity Fair until the magazine folded in 1936. She also fulfilled commissions from Mills College to photograph visiting artists and instructors such as the painters Amzdze Ozenfant and Lyonel Feininger, dancer Josz Limon, and Helena Mayer, a faculty member and Olympic fencer. In 1935 Cunningham's friend from her early years in Seattle, Nellie Cornish, who had founded the Cornish School there, a private institution for the study of drama, music, dance, and art, enlisted her help in the production of a sophisticated catalogue to promote the school. Perhaps the open nature of the school caused her to be even more experimental in her technique as this body of work is defined by a high number of double exposures and photomontages. Three Harps is a tour de force of structured theatricality with strong, bold, and exciting forms.

During the 1930s the Oakland waterfront became a rich source for industrial still lifes, architectural forms, and environmental character studies. Cunningham also traveled broadly within the West, photographing industrial and architectural subjects for her own enjoyment. She documented oil refineries, lumber mills, and feats of government-financed engineering such as Boulder Dam. But by the late 1930s Cunningham had largely given up photographing in her classic modernist style.

By the 1940s Cunningham's interest shifted to documentary street photography while she supported herself with commercial portraiture. She began to work almost exclusively with a smaller format camera, and she continued to create hundreds of exceptional portraits imbued with her unique humanity throughout the next few decades. She actively photographed until just weeks before her death in 1976 at the age of ninety-three.

© Richard Lorenz