American photographer Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976) crafted a beautiful variety of work consisting of portraits, still life botanicals, industrial landscapes and street scenes. She photographed in multiple styles: a soft-focus beginning in pictorialism to a sharp, definite modernism take on the world and then back around to experimental double exposure images. Within each body of work, it is clear that her distinct female perspective on the world set her apart at this time in photographic history.
Imogen’s journey into photography started in 1901 at the young age of 18 when she purchased a 4x5” large format camera at just 15 dollars through a mail-order correspondence school. She grew up in Washington State with quite a few financial hardships in her family, yet went on to pursue a chemistry degree at the nearest college, The University of Washington. Fortunately, Imogen was able to photograph plants for the botany department in order to subsidize her tuition. With this combination of her love for both chemistry and photography, she later on was awarded the Pi Beta Phi Graduate Fellowship to study photographic chemistry at the Technische Hochschule in Dresden, Germany where she wrote her paper, “About the Direct Development of Platinum Paper for Brown Tones”.
Afterwards, Imogen went on to be one of the first professional female photographers to open her own portrait studio in Seattle, Washington. With the steady income from photographing Seattle society, she was able to delve into the art world with her pictorial images of figures that she loosely created, rather than just captured. Within Imogen’s photograph The Dream, the viewer is mesmerized by the soft-focus, ethereal glow of the woman that holds vast mystery in her off-camera gaze. In 1914, the success of these images brought Imogen to her first solo exhibitions at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences in New York and the Portland Art Museum in Oregon. Imogen fell in love with a Seattle etcher by the name of Roi Partridge and went on to marry him in 1915. A famous and controversial set of images shot by Imogen consisted of Roi in the nude on Mt. Rainer, as seen in The Bather. After published in a Seattle Newspaper, these images were deemed controversial by the public due to the shock of a female photographing a male nude, rather than the seemingly ‘traditional’ method of a male photographing a female nude.
In the next few years Imogen gave birth to her three sons Gryffyd, Padraic and Rondal. The entire family moved to California and Imogen managed to keep her love of photography alive by documenting her kids and the plants she grew in her garden while Roi was at work. Her Magnolia Blossom series showcased the flower in an isolated, delicate way, almost as if to reflect Imogen’s own isolation at the time. Studying the form of objects in stark contrast with the backgrounds they were placed in, all while illuminated in natural light, made it feel as if they were taking shape of entirely different forms.
With America being in the midst of the Great Depression at around 1932, Imogen joined a group of photographers, which included Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, John Paul Edwards, Sonya Noskowiak, Henry Swift, and Willard Van Dyke, who wanted to capture the reality of their current times with “pure or straight photography” rather than the loosely interpreted pictorial forms of the past. They called themselves Group f/64, a reference to the aperture on a camera that produces the sharpest image possible at that time. When asked in a 1975 interview with Louise Katzman and Paul Karlstrom why Imogen thought the group had such a lasting influence, she replied bluntly, “Unexplainable. Absolutely. We weren't all geniuses, believe me. I think if you asked to see the whole show that's at the San Francisco Museum, you'd realize it wasn't all great stuff. Not by any means. Nobody was avid about it...” Imogen photographed these highly-detailed industrial landscapes, such as Fageol Ventilators, but at the core of it she was a spirit of adventure and soon took to leaving the group to experiment with different styles. To quote Imogen herself, "Ansel once said to somebody that I was versatile, but what he really meant was that I jump around...I'm never satisfied staying in one spot very long, I couldn't stay with the mountains and I couldn't stay with the trees and I couldn't stay with the rivers. But I can always stay with people, because they really are different." (source)
Imogen photographed a memorable series of dancer Martha Graham with an abundance of natural light and experimentation within the frame. Martha Graham 2 is an especially influential piece as this image uses double exposure in an innovative, shockingly disproportionate way. Vanity Fair saw these images of Martha and assigned Imogen to photograph movie stars and important figures of the time. In one of her last interviews, Imogen told Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show in 1976, “They [Vanity Fair] asked me what I would like to photograph. I said, Ugly men.” Imogen was drawn to humans and their unique forms, always seeming to understand the familiar difficulties that come with photographing humans.
Imogen’s long lasting friendship with American landscape photographer Ansel Adams is something to take note of due to how different these two personalities truly were. Imogen would often poke fun at Ansel for his move towards commercialism rather than pursuing a purely artistic approach to his work. In Ansel’s interview with Judy Dater, he mentions that he had his Yosemite snow scenes printed on Hills Brothers coffee cans in 1968. Imogen happened to send him one of those coffee cans filled with a marijuana plant growing in it, showing her lovingly humorous distaste for her friend’s caving into commercial work.
As she traveled and photographed to her very last day, Imogen developed a body of work revolving around what one would call street photography, yet she preferred to call them “stolen pictures”. These pictures reflect little moments captured rather than a strict photojournalistic approach. The viewer is able to empathize with the images of these strangers, to really feel as if they are a part of the scene being photographed. Within Portrait of Imogen a 1988 American short documentary film by Meg Partridge, Imogen stated “I don’t hunt for anything, I don’t hunt for things, I just wait until something strikes me.”
Imogen was a prolific photographer whose career spanned over 70 years. Over those momentous years, she aimed to see the world in a new way and never tried to follow the crowd. She was a witty, moment stealing master of her time who successfully paved the way for current and future female photographers.
Written by Emilee Prado
Images Copyright: Imogen Cunningham Trust