Imogen Cunningham - Biography and Legacy
San Francisco, California
Biography of Imogen Cunningham
Imogen Cunningham, named after the heroine of Shakespeare's Cymbeline, was born on April 12, 1883 in Portland, Oregon to most unconventional parents: her father, Isaac Burns Cunningham, was a spiritualist, theosophist, freethinker, and vegetarian, and her mother was a Missouri Methodist who came West to be his wife. When Cunningham was 3 years old, her family joined the Puget Sound Co-operative Colony, a communal living experiment. She did not recall much about this experience other than her kindergarten lessons and the beautiful natural surroundings in which they lived.
Cunningham described herself as an "ill-tempered" child and felt as though she didn't really fit in: "I was always absolutely on my own, going somewhere being interested in something, and no one in my family was interested in the same things." She was artistically inclined from a young age; a copy of Dante's Inferno with its beguilingly terrifying illustrations fascinated her, and she frequently drew with graphite and took painting lessons with a neighbor.
The family left the collective living Co-op in 1891. Cunningham enrolled in school in Seattle and by high school age had become very attracted to photography. Responding quickly to his daughter's new passion, her father built her a darkroom in a shed at the back of their Queen Anne home, and Cunningham sent away for a photography correspondence course that arrived along with a wooden 4x5 camera.
Early Training and Work
Cunningham attended the University of Washington and having encountered the pictorial delights of Gertrude Kasebier, decided resolutely that she wanted to pursue her own career in photography. She worked closely with her chemistry teacher and was dedicated to acquiring a full understanding of the science behind her art. Cunningham wrote a dissertation at the time called "Modern Processes of Photography". By this point she had already expressed an interest in photographing people as well, saying, "people [as subjects] began to interest me very early. I don't know why. Perhaps because there is this interest because in people there are no duplicates. ... If you see a sunrise it happens another day, too, but people are always different; they are different every second." Still though, she subsidized her burgeoning artistic career by photographing plants for the botany department within the University.
After she graduated in 1907, Cunningham went to work with Edward S. Curtis in his photography studio. Two years later she was awarded the Pi Beta Phi (an international women's fraternity) award to study abroad, and this took her to the Technische Hochshule in Dresden, Germany where she studied with Professor Robert Luther. On the way to Germany, she stopped in London to visit many of the major art galleries. Once in Germany, she delighted in researching printing speed, highlights and tone, and sepia tones. She was the only woman in the lab but remembered, "the people who taught were very nice. I'm sure they thought I was a bit of a freak, but that didn't seem to make much difference." Her culminating paper was entitled, "About the Direct Development of Platinum Paper for Brown Tones."
Cunningham made a detour to New York on her way home, meeting with Alfred Stieglitz and Kasebier. She found Stieglitz very kind but she was not interested in staying in New York, admitting she was somewhat afraid of the city. Upon her return to Seattle - with only $12 in her pocket - she found a space and opened her own portrait studio. Cunningham photographed many cultural luminaries in her studio, including Frida Kahlo, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and Man Ray.
Cunningham married fellow artist and teacher, Roi Partridge in 1915. She famously took an intimate and playful series of nude photographs of her new husband frolicking in the forest; these pictures were immediately considered scandalous because the man was the nude and the woman was the artist. Cunningham laughed at the scorn from the critics and wrote, "a terrific tirade on my stuff as being very vulgar, [but] it didn't make a single bit of difference in my business. Nobody thought worse of me." The couple had three sons together over the following 5 years and moved to San Francisco. Once settled into a new home, and successfully juggling motherhood and taking photographs, both Cunningham and Partridge also taught at Mills College. Cunningham's principle subjects at the time were flowers, industrial landscapes, and animals. Thus in 1929, Edward Weston nominated ten of her photos - most of them the botanicals - for a notable exhibition, "Film und Foto," in Stuttgart.
Not long after this noteworthy exhibition, Cunningham's work changed direction again and gravitated towards the human form, and especially to heads and the treatment of such. Indeed, throughout the artist's career there is an ongoing oscillation between the subject of flowers and plants, and that of people. During the early 1930s, Cunningham and Weston, Ansel Adams, Willard Van Dyke and Henry Swift formed the groundbreaking Group f/64, which advocated sharp focus, a "pure" photography free of manipulation or affect. The group only had one official exhibition in 1932, but its members were very close and they would talk about "nothing but photography, not always about Group f/64. Photographers always take everybody else apart who is photographing."
Though this was the time of the Great Depression, Cunningham "didn't feel any effects" because, as she writes, "we were already so poor that it didn't matter, and we had a fixed salary." As a pinnacle year for the artist, also in 1932, Cunningham began to take photos of movie stars for Vanity Fair magazine. When asked whom she wanted to photograph, she humorously replied, "Ugly men, because they never complain, you know." When the magazine invited her a couple years later to do some more work in New York, her husband insisted she wait for a while until he could go with her; she refused and went anyway, and no doubt also for other reasons, the couple divorced not long after. True to her life long fascination with plants, in 1933 Cunningham founded the California Horticultural Society in response to a disastrous freeze. She continued to work frequently with Vanity Fair until the magazine stopped production in 1936.
Throughout the 1940s, Cunningham experimented with documentary street photography, and supported herself financially through commercial and studio photography. In 1945, Cunningham's friend and fellow photographer, Ansel Adams, asked her to accept a position at the California School of Fine Arts; she would be one of the first faculty members for the new fine art photography department. She accepted and worked there as a professor and mentor for several decades.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Cunningham photographed burgeoning social and cultural movements, including the Beats and the counterculture surrounding these new figures. Though she preferred not to call herself a feminist, she acknowledged that "there is a great difference in business between men and women, for women do all the jobs for less." She also traveled to Europe several times via steamship at this point in her life, and delighted in photographing the romantic streets of Paris. These photos were "the stolen pictures", a liberation in many ways for Cunningham as she described the working process, "I don't hunt for anything, I don't hunt for things, I just wait until something strikes me."
She continued to work and to receive awards (such as a Guggenheim Fellowship) well into the last years of her life. She compiled a remarkable book of her photographs documenting nonagenarians, After Ninety. After all of her work with flowers, forests, and street scenes, which she admitted to growing tired of, Cunningham commented, "I can always stay with people, because they are really different." However, Cunningham didn't mince words about how she felt about the bulk of humanity, telling an interviewer, "I don't know. I don't love the world. I think Jupiter should have hit us. I don't like a lot of people in it, just a few."
A year before Cunningham died she cleverly established the Imogen Cunningham Trust to oversee the preservation, promotion, and distribution of her work. That same year she agreed to be interviewed for the Smithsonian Archive of American Art Oral History Program, and her witty, insightful words about her life and career are indispensible for journalists, art historians, and fans alike interested in the artist's long and impressive oeuvre. When asked how she felt about being considered an "important" person in the history of photography, she laughed and replied, "Well, I don't know. It's very annoying. It might turn out that way in the end, if I don't do anything too dreadful from now on." Cunningham died in 1976 in San Francisco at age 93.
The Legacy of Imogen Cunningham
Cunningham has been called the "Grandmother of Photography" for her seminal role in popularizing the medium in its early years and for successfully moving the practice into the realm of fine art. Curator Celina Lunsford states, "It is Cunningham's modernist artistic legacy that has impacted photography most, but her thirst for experimentation was perpetual." Cunningham is lauded for photographic work in a number of different styles, including Pictoralism, Group f/64, Street Photography, and Portrait Photography. She excelled at every one of these genres and influenced innumerable photographers. Her Pictorialist contemporaries such as Edward Weston and Edward Curtis found inspiration in her soft-focus technique and her ethereal scenes, while those in Group f/64 looked to her frank, strikingly pure images. She also left the legacy to use Pictorialism as a means to explore the boundaries and meaning of a sense of self, a notion that was taken up and expanded upon by sculptor Duane Michaelss, and then with great power, by Francesca Woodman.
Other later 20th century artists such as Diane Arbus and Robert Frank emulated her documentary photographs, retaining and expanding upon what Roland Barthes called the "punctum" of an image, the force of a photograph based on its wounding and personally affecting qualities. Others like Irving Penn and Sebastian Copeland benefited from her studies in platinum printing, otherwise known as platinotype. As a female photographer she made waves by photographing a male nude. This seemingly simple act was quite revolutionary for its time, and contemporary female photographers who take male nudes for their subject such as Abigail Ekue and Vivienne Maricevic are following in Cunningham's footsteps.