Impervious horrors of a leeward shore (arpad) wrote,
Impervious horrors of a leeward shore

Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976)

Imogen Cunningham (left) ;-) . One of the major photographers of the last century. A strong personality. Mother of three.

Imogen Cunningham was born on April 12, 1883, in Portland, Oregon. She began taking photographs in 1901, when she enrolled in a correspondence course in photography while she was a student at the University of Washington.

Her career began with a part time job in the Seattle studio of Edward S. Curtis, more famous for his remarkable documentation of the North American Indian than for the portrait work from which he made his living. There she learned to make platinum prints in both quantity and quality. Her earliest prints were in the tradition of Romantic Pictorialism, a style of photography that imitated academic painting of the turn of the century.

She won a scholarship for foreign study and attended photographic courses at the Technische Hochschule in Dresden Germany, in 1909. The school had recently revived its photographic department under the direction of Robert Luther, a photo scientist of international fame. While abroad she visited Alvin Langdon Coburn in London and upon her return to America in 1910, Alfred Stieglitz. From both she gained great inspiration.

After studying photographic chemistry in Dresden, she opened a portrait gallery in Seattle, Washington, and soon established a national reputation. A portfolio of these pictures was published in Wilson’s Photographic Magazine in March, 1914. There she stated a philosophy which has guided her ever since: "One must be able to gain an understanding at short notice and close range of the beauties of character, intellect, and spirit so as to be able to draw out the best qualities and make them show in the outer aspect of the sitter. To do this one must not have a too pronounced notion of what constitutes beauty in the external and, above all, must not worship it. To worship beauty for its own sake is narrow, and one surely cannot derive from it that esthetic pleasure which comes from finding beauty in the commonest things."

Her work was highly regarded, the press was generous, and her professional status assured until the birth of one son, and a twin pregnancy, early in her marriage to Roi Partridge, an etcher, forced her to close the studio and move to San Francisco.

Cunningham had often said that she could photograph anything exposed to light, and this ability led her to photograph the plants she tended while she cared for her three very young sons. She photographed the guests she entertained as a faculty wife, the professors, the students, the visiting performance artists and musicians, and her friends. A honing of her individual style was on-going. Shortly after the move to California, she made a change in style from the more traditional, romantic, soft-focus approach to sharp focus, ìstraightî photography, in which the camera becomes a direct window into reality. Although her private correspondence, now in the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution, reflects her serious difficulties during these years with the transition from a successful young professional to a house-bound wife, many of these photographs are regarded as some of her most important work.

In San Francisco she became a friend of Edward Weston; through his recommendation, 10 of her plant photographs were included in the "Film und Foto" exhibition (1929), sponsored by the Deutsche Werkbund, an association of German designers and architects. All of these prints are now part of the George Eastman House Collection.

In 1932 Cunningham joined the association of West Coast photographers which had been founded by Ansel Adams and Willard Van Dyke in 1934 under the name of Group f/64. They met to talk about photography and to show their prints to each other and to the public. In the fall of 1932, Ansel Adams and Willard Van Dyke proposed that they become better organized to implement the spread of their ideas, and Van Dyke suggested the name "f/64," it was chosen because the members of the group were dedicated to the honest, sharply defined image, and the lens opening, f/64, provides the ultimate in resolution and depth of field. Adams felt that the membership should be limited to "those workers who are striving to define photography as an art form by a simple and direct presentation through purely photographic methods." Like other members of the group, she rejected the soft-focused photography then popular in favour of sharply focused prints, such as "Two Callas" (c. 1929), that conveyed a sensuous delight in nature.

After the breakup of Group f/64, Cunningham ran a portrait gallery and taught at the San Francisco Art Institute. A retrospective monograph, Imogen! Imogen Cunningham Photographs, 1910-1973, appeared in 1974, and her final photographs were published in After Ninety in 1977. She died on June 24th, 1976 in San Francisco.

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