Imogen Cunningham

Imogen Cunningham



Not only is Imogen Cunningham known for her photographs, she is also remembered by her family and friends as an ‘independent spirit’. In the numerous accounts of her life, she is often referred to as “acidic”. Ansel Adams is quoted as to saying, “I used to say that Imogen’s blood was three percent acetic acid. She seemed to have an acid reaction to so many things, and she could be very abrupt. But she had another side too.”


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Imogen’s first images were staged allegorical studies, which she made with artist friends. Characteristics of the photographs were the soft focus, or blurred imagery. An excellent example of this is her image of Ben Butler, 1910. The soft, allegorical image seems timeless. His dark eyes and expression give a sense of mystery. Imogen experimented with other types of photography, however portraiture would always be her first love and became her expertise. Over the years, her portraiture evolved into a different style, which was clearer, crisp imaging. This style was a new movement in response to modernism and the Pictorialists, which Imogen later would promote and even found the f/64 Group. The group was formed to support the new movement of sharp focus photography. An example of her later style of portraiture can be seen in her image of Alfred Stieglitz from 1934. The carefully posed and focused image captures a seemingly serious, but hidden tender personality. Cunningham once said, “photography began for me with people no matter what interest I have given [other things], I have never totally deserted the bigger significance in human life. As document or record of personality I feel that photography isn’t surpassed by any other graphic medium.”

Imogen’s portraits have been seen in Vanity Fair (1932-1934), Sunset and other magazines. She loved taking pictures of artists, such as poets, painters, photographers and writers. Some of her portraits have included Gertrude Stein, Minor White, James Broughton, Martha Graham, August Sander, Man Ray and Theodore Roethke. Portraiture has been the staple of photography in that the human image has challenged and perplexed the photographers since photography’s inception. Imogen Cunningham managed to capture not only her subjects in some of the various photography stylistic movements, but also captured the sitter’s personality through the diverse styles and gives them a timeless aspect.

Within the same year of her marriage, she had her first child, her son Gryffyd, in 1915. Two years later she gave birth to twin boys, Randall and Padraic. 1917 was also the year in which the family moved to San Francisco. Three years later they moved to Oakland. It was during the years of raising her three children that Imogen was mostly confined to the home. However, it did not hinder her progress in photography. While she remained home she initiated a new hobby, gardening. It was in her garden that she not only began to study plant species, but also would later be recognized for her superb photographic images of the species. Mai K. Arbegast, who was a landscape architect and horticultural consultant, once stated that, “with plants she did a lot of looking, her visual perception of growing things was wonderful.” In 1923, 10 of her abstract plant studies were included in the Film and Foto exhibition in Stuttgart, Germany upon the request of Edward Weston. Throughout her lifetime she continued her photographic plant studies. In fact, she even founded the California Horticultural Society in 1933 in response to a terrible freeze. Because Imogen had adopted the style in which clarity was key, her plant images were incredibly detailed, using the modernist style. Many horticulturists and scientists used her images to study plant species. In many respects, her plant images are mirror images of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings.

As she raised her sons she continued in photography by experimenting with double exposures and modernist styles and theories. Her modernist photographic experiments included nude studies (of men and women), still lifes, industrialization and European romantic movements. It was during this period that “photography was hailed as the visual medium most in harmony with the conditions and culture of modern life. Factories, machine tools, assembly lines, multistoried buildings and mechanized vehicles” were the industrialization of America. An example of her work during this period is the Shredded Wheat Water Tower from 1928. In 1932 she was represented in the first expedition of the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco.

It was also during the 1920s and 1930s that Imogen also studied the nude. Approaching the female and male body as she did with the organic plant life, Imogen made the nude images abstract by taking clear, close-up shots. This would transform the bodies into organic forms and geometrical shapes as well as take them out of context. Not only would the perspective change context of the photographs, but Imogen would place emphasis on the play of light and shadow.

A beautiful example of this is Cunningham’s Two Sisters from 1928.

Observing that her “taste lay somewhere between reality and dreamland,” Cunningham knew herself and her style well. The reality is the clarity of the images, and the dreamland could be seen in her abstract perspective.

Imogen and Roi had been married for 19 years when they decided to get a divorce. She returned to San Francisco where she remained until her death. During the 1950s and 1960s Imogen began to photograph people on the streets, such as the poets of the beat generation and flower children in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. Expanding on this idea she made several steamship voyages to Europe in the early 1960s. A new move to optimism had embraced France and photographers. Tired of the devastation of war people began to fall in love again and photographers would document man’s reconciliation with the environment and people. “Artists had seen enough images of devastation and were ready for a more gentle vision. The photographer’s eye on Paris was now one of sentiment, parks and lovers-a romantic view. Poetic fragments of every day life were being celebrated in cafes, bustling streets and overflowing terraces.” Paris Street, 1960 is an example of her during this period.

Among her other accomplishments in photography, Imogen received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1970 and was the first recipient of the Dorothea Lange Award. She produced several books, one of which was of documentation of people over the age of ninety called After Ninety. She also taught at the San Francisco Institute of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). Imogen was not involved with the women’s movement-she believed that any woman could accomplish as much as she had. In a letter to her son Padraic in 1970 she is quoted saying, “the big news in this country now seems to be between men and women. Many of the people indulging in the cross fire try to drag me in…I feel that there is a great difference in business among men and women, for women do all the jobs for less, but among the arts if the are really good, they will get somewhere.” In fact, Imogen withdrew from an exhibit when she found out that it was for women only.

Throughout the text on her images she has been referred to as a brilliant photographer. What is amazing is that, although she took great images and had a degree in chemistry, many of her close associates said that her printing techniques were careless. Dater states that, “Imogen is difficult, if not impossible to sum up. Her life was a complex one, and I am left with strong impressions that have in part been confirmed by the people who speak in this book she was certainly a courageous woman, one with a mind of her own, who worked hard all of her life. The fact that as a young woman she chose to go into chemistry as an avenue to photography, both fields that were traditional male preserves apparently did not seem remarkable to her.” ‘Independent spirit’ she was.