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Imogen Cunningham

American Photographer

Imogen Cunningham Photo
Movements and Styles: Pictorialism, Straight Photography, Group f/64

Born: April 12, 1883 - Portland, Oregon

Died: June 24, 1976 - San Francisco, California

"My interest in photography has something to do with the aesthetic, and that there should be a little beauty in everything."

Summary of Imogen Cunningham

Be the subject her naked lover or a botanical succulent, Imogen Cunningham made juicy photographs. Whether presenting the sensual human body or the interior stamen of a flower, the overall message is not that of sex for the sake of shocking the viewer, but rather to acknowledge the sensual and energetic pulse that runs through all of life, a similar intention to that of her contemporary, Georgia O'Keefe. Cunningham's work as a photographer insightfully spans an entire century, moving through all developments in Modern Photography. Starting with total immersion into academic and highly scientific experimentation, Cunningham then moved fashionably to explore theatrical portraiture and Pictorialism. She further explored her love of plants using the techniques of Straight Photography having made lifelong friendships with the likes of Ansel Adams and Edward Western. In later life, Cunningham had a sojourn in Street Photography, and all the while oscillated back to old interests as well as trying her hand at new ones. This is a career dedicated to getting to the heart of things, to living at the intense centre of the swirl, and to accepting that the swirl always keeps turning, taking Cunningham on a journey through science, art, and social concern, and all the way back again.

Key Ideas

Cunningham was true to specifications of the medium of photography, for at the outset of its invention one of its primary uses was as a scientific tool to document botanical specimens. Cunningham wrote two academic papers early in her career and in this sense, had much in common with the German photographer, Karl Blossfeldt. Blossfeldt famously wrote the seminal work, Art Forms in Nature (1928). Both photographers were drawn to the phenomenal detail within a plant's natural structure and in turn successfully represented such in their imagery.
Cunningham also experimented with Pictorialism, taking elaborately staged portraits that suggested the presence of spiritual forces, that which the eye could not see without help of the camera. Women veiled and dressed as Madonnas featured in a similar mode to pictures by Julia Margaret Cameron, as well as in work by her direct influence, Gertrude Kasebier. Here the values and language of fine art were employed (soft focus and painterly qualities), not for the purpose to have the work recognized, but more to experiment with the parameters of fixed identity.
As part of the movement to tighten focus and carefully select framing, Cunningham is also associated with Straight Photography. Like Alfred Stieglitz in this respect, she moved organically from one mode of taking pictures to the other. She was part of Group f/64 alongside Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston. Like her colleagues her work developed with the onset of industrialization and urbanization, and she playfully experimented with Street Photography.
The parallel between the interests and imagery of Imogen Cunningham and Georgia O'Keefe is uncanny. In particular they shared a repeated focus for two subjects - flowers and hands. Not only did they both depict flowers, they were both drawn to the absolute epicenter of the bloom. The subject of hands the two also shared with another contemporary, Tina Modotti, who made a focused series of the hands of puppeteers. Later, Louise Bourgeois also repeatedly depicted hands.
Detail of <i>Succulent</i> (1920)

Imogen Cunningham was prolific, she took photographs every day of her life. So dedicated to her work was she that when an unexpected visitor would drop by, she would hurriedly order her grandchildren to cover every available surface with photographic papers and prints so she could answer the door with "Mrs. So-and-so, I am so glad you came. But as you can see - I have no place for you to sit today!"

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