Imogen Cunningham

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Imogen Cunningham
April 12, 1883 – June 24, 1976

Imo as she was know was a San Fran­cisco trea­sure and icon long before she died in 1976.

Cunningham was born in Port­land, Oregon. In 1901, at the age of 18, Cunningham bought her first camera, a 4×5 inch view camera, from the Amer­ican School of Art in Scranton, Penn­syl­vania. She soon lost interest and sold the camera to a friend. It wasn’t until 1906, while studying at the Univer­sity of Wash­ington in Seattle, that she was inspired by an encounter with the work of Gertrude Käse­bier to take up photog­raphy again. With the help of her chem­istry professor, Dr. Horace Byers, she began to study the chem­istry behind photog­raphy; she subsi­dized her tuition by photographing plants for the botany depart­ment.

After grad­u­ating in 1907 she went to work with Edward S. Curtis in his Seattle studio. This gave Cunningham the valu­able oppor­tu­nity to learn about the portrait busi­ness and the prac­tical side of photog­raphy.

In 1909, Cunningham won a schol­ar­ship from her sorority (Pi Beta Phi) for foreign study and, on advice from her chem­istry professor, applied to study with Professor Robert Luther at the Tech­nische Hochs­hule in Dresden, Germany.

In Dresden she concen­trated on her studies and didn’t take many photos. In May 1910 she finished her paper, “About the Direct Devel­op­ment of Plat­inum Paper for Brown Tones”, describing her process to increase printing speed, improve clarity of high­lights tones and produce sepia tones. On her way back to Seattle she met Alvin Langdon Coburn in London, and Alfred Stieglitz and Gertrude Kase­bier in New York.

Once back in Seattle she opened her own studio and won acclaim for portrai­ture and picto­rial work. Most of her studio work of this time consisted of sitters in their own homes, in her living room, or in the woods surrounding Cunningham’s cottage. She became a sought after photog­ra­pher and exhib­ited at the Brooklyn Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1913.

In 1914 Cunningham’s portraits were shown at “An Inter­na­tional Exhi­bi­tion of Picto­rial Photog­raphy” in New York and a port­folio of her work was published in Wilson’s Photo­graphic Maga­zine.

The next year she married Roi Partridge, an etcher and artist. He posed for a series of nude photographs, which were shown by the Seattle Fine Arts Society. Although crit­i­cally praised, wider society didn’t approve of such images and Cunningham didn’t revisit the pictures for another 55 years.

Between 1915 and 1920 Cunningham continued her work and had three chil­dren (Gryffyd, Rondal, and Padraic) with Roi. Then in 1920 they left Seattle for San Fran­cisco where Roi taught at Mills College.

In San Fran­cisco, Cunningham refined her style, taking a greater interest in pattern and detail as seen in her works of bark textures, trees, and zebras. Cunningham became increas­ingly inter­ested in botan­ical photog­raphy, espe­cially flowers, and between 1923 and 1925 carried out an in-depth study of the magnolia flower. Later in the decade she turned her atten­tion towards industry, creating several series of indus­trial land­scapes throughout Los Angeles and Oakland.

In 1929, Edward Weston nomi­nated 10 of Cunningham’s photos (8 botan­ical, 1 indus­trial and 1 nude) for inclu­sion in the “Film und Foto” exhi­bi­tion in Stuttgart. Cunningham once again changed direc­tion to become more inter­ested in the human form, partic­u­larly hands (and a further fasci­na­tion with the hands of artists and musi­cians). This interest led to her employ­ment by Vanity Fair, photographing stars without make-up or false glamour. In 1932, with this unsen­ti­mental, straight­for­ward approach in mind, Cunningham became one of the co-founders of the Group f/​64, which aimed to “define photog­raphy as an art form by a simple and direct presen­ta­tion through purely photo­graphic methods”.

In 1934 Cunningham was invited to do some work in New York for Vanity Fair. Her husband wanted her to wait until he could travel with her but she refused and they later divorced. She continued her work with Vanity Fair until it stopped publi­ca­tion in 1936.
In the 1940s Cunningham turned to docu­men­tary street photog­raphy which she did as a side project while supporting herself with her commer­cial and studio photog­raphy. In 1945, Cunningham was invited by Ansel Adams to accept a posi­tion as faculty at the first fine art photog­raphy depart­ment at the Cali­fornia School of Fine Arts (CSFA). Dorothea Lange and Minor White joined as well.[1]
Cunningham continued to take pictures until shortly before her death at age 93 on June 24, 1976 in San Fran­cisco, Cali­fornia.


For more infor­ma­tion or to purchase estate prints visit the Imogen Cunningham Trust