April 12, 1883 – Imogen Cunningham:
“I was invited to photograph Hollywood. They asked me what I would like to photograph. I said, Ugly men.”
Regular readers know that this writer holds Photography as one of the greatest of arts. One of the first professional female photographers in the USA in our age, Cunningham is mostly known for her botanical pictures, but she shot formal portraits, nudes, landscapes, and street scenes.
Born in Portland, she was named after a character in William Shakespeare‘s Cymbeline. Her father was a spiritualist, freethinker, and vegetarian. When Cunningham was three years old, her family joined the Puget Sound Co-operative Colony, a utopian communal living experiment.
She attended the University of Washington where she earned money by photographing plants for the Botany department. After graduating, she studied photography in Germany.
On the way back to Seattle, Cunningham visited New York City where she met the great photographer Alfred Stieglitz. But she was not interested in staying in NYC, admitting she was afraid of the city. She returned to Seattle with only $12 and found a space and opened her own portrait studio. Cunningham photographed many cultural icons of the era in that studio, including Frida Kahlo, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and Man Ray. This work was influenced by academic painting from the turn of the century.
Starting in the early 1920s, she began to take close-up, sharply detailed studies of plant life and other natural forms, including a two-year-long, in-depth study of the magnolia flower. She later wrote that she did the pictures of flowers, because she had children and couldn’t leave home, so she shot in her own garden.
Cunningham married artist Roi Partridge in 1915. She took intimate, playful nude photographs of her new husband frolicking in the forest. These pictures were scandalous because in a radical flip, the man was the nude and the woman was the artist. Cunningham wrote:
“There is a terrific tirade on my stuff as being very vulgar, but it didn’t make a single bit of difference in my business. Nobody thought worse of me.”
The couple moved to San Francisco where both Cunningham and Partridge taught at Mills College. Cunningham’s principle subjects at the time were flowers, industrial landscapes, and animals. In 1929, famous photographer Edward Weston nominated ten of her photos, mostly botanicals, for a exhibition in Germany: Film und Foto.
After this noteworthy exhibition, Cunningham’s work changed direction again and she started to shoot the human form. Throughout her career, she moved between taking pictures of flowers and plants, and people.
In 1932, she joined an association of West Coast Modernist photographers known as Group f64. The group included Ansel Adams, Willard Van Dyke, and Weston. This group sidelined sentimental soft-focus subject, taking a straightforward approach to taking pictures, advocating for a “pure” photography free of manipulation or affect. The group only had one official exhibition, in 1932, but its members remained very close.
Cunningham was always interested in human subjects and took pictures of the hands of musicians and artists. This was the time of the Great Depression, yet she wrote:
“…we were already so poor that it didn’t matter.”
Also in 1932, Cunningham began to take photos of movie stars for Vanity Fair magazine. When the magazine invited her a couple years later to do more work in New York City, her husband insisted she wait until he could go with her; she refused and went anyway. The couple divorced not long after. True to her lifelong fascination with plants, in 1933 Cunningham founded the California Horticultural Society in response to a disastrous freeze. She continued to work frequently with Vanity Fair until the magazine stopped production in 1936.
Throughout the 1940s, Cunningham experimented with street photography, but supported herself financially through commercial and studio photography. In 1945, Ansel Adams, asked her to accept a position at the California School of Fine Arts, as one of the first faculty members for the new Fine Art Photography department. She worked there as a professor for two decades.
In the 1950s and 1960s Cunningham photographed new social and cultural movements, including the Beats and the Hippie counterculture. She preferred not to call herself a Feminist, yet she acknowledged:
“There is a great difference in business between men and women, for women do all the jobs for less.”
She traveled to Europe several times via steamship and delighted in photographing the romantic streets of Paris. She called these photos “the stolen pictures”, a liberation in many ways for Cunningham. She described the working process:
“I don’t hunt for anything, I don’t hunt for things, I just wait until something strikes me.”
She continued to work and to receive awards into the last years of her life. She compiled a remarkable book of her photographs documenting nonagenarians, After Ninety. After her work shooting flowers, forests, and street scenes, which she admitted to growing tired of, Cunningham commented:
“I can always stay with people, because they are really different.”
Still, Cunningham wasn’t shy about how she felt about humanity:
“I don’t know. I don’t love the world. I think Jupiter should have hit us. I don’t like a lot of people in it, just a few.”
She cleverly established the Imogen Cunningham Trust to oversee the preservation, promotion, and distribution of her work. Before she was gone, she was interviewed for the Smithsonian Archive of American Art Oral History Program, where her witty, insightful words about her life and career inspire Art historians, and fans interested in her long and impressive oeuvre. When asked how she felt about being considered an “important” person in the world of photography, she replied:
“Well, I don’t know. It’s very annoying. It might turn out that way in the end, if I don’t do anything too dreadful from now on.”
Cunningham put her camera away for good in 1976 in San Francisco, gone at 93 years old.
Cunningham is called the “Grandmother of Photography” for successfully moving picture taking into the classification of Fine Art. Her modernist legacy impacted photography, and her experimentation was perpetual. She worked in different styles, including Pictoralism, Street Photography, and Portrait Photography. She excelled at every one of these genres and influenced future photographers. Weston, Edward Curtis and Duane Michaels found inspiration in her soft-focus technique and her ethereal scenes. Diane Arbus and Robert Frank emulated her documentary photographs, Irving Penn was inspired by her studies in platinum printing. As a female photographer she made waves by photographing a male nude. This seemingly simple act was quite revolutionary for its time.