Imogen Cunningham

(1883 - 1976) American


Inspired by Gertrude Käsebier's photographs, Imogen Cunningham learned to use a 4x5 view camera via correspondence school. She studied chemistry at the University of Washington and, after graduating, worked in the studio of Edward Sheriff Curtis making commercial platinum prints. Her early work was Pictorialist in style, depicting allegorical figures in soft-focus tableaux. Cunningham met Edward Weston in 1923, and was influenced by the stylistic shift evolving in his work and that of his partner Margrethe Mather. This change indicated a broader reaction in art photography against the romanticism of the Photo-Secession and in favor of such modernist approaches as the New Objectivity of which Cunningham was a pioneer among Americans. She nevertheless retained a subtle romanticism and sensuality in her work. Her widely reproduced series of close-up plant photographs, reminiscent of those by Albert Renger-Patzsch and Karl Blossfeldt, was first shown in the landmark Film und Foto exhibit in Stuttgart in 1929.
The precisionism of American West Coast straight photography reached its zenith from 1932-35 with the f/64 group, an informal association that included Cunningham, Weston, and Ansel Adams, whose members advocated the use of large-format view cameras, small lens apertures, and contact printing. The clarity of vision and strong, uncluttered compositions of Cunningham's photographs of people and plants exemplify this aesthetic, even after she began to use a smaller-format camera in 1945. Her work is characterized by a potent formalism and an interest in design and structure, tempered by a humanizing capacity obvious in her memorable and sympathetic portraits. Cunningham opened a successful studio in Seattle in 1910, and made a living with portrait commissions; her sitters included Martha Graham, Alfred Stieglitz, Frida Kahlo, Herbert Hoover, Gertrude Stein, Edward Weston, Morris Graves, Merce Cunningham, Man Ray, August Sander, and Minor White. Cunningham's work is in major collections; she has been the subject of numerous individual exhibitions and several monographs. She taught and lectured widely, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, and continued to photograph until late in her life.
Lisa Soccio

Handy et al. Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works from the International Center of Photography Collection, New York: Bulfinch Press in association with the International Center of Photography, 1999, p. 213.
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