Imogen Cunningham

American Photographer

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.


The Life of Imogen Cunningham

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!"

Progression of Art


Wood Beyond the World

In a sun-dappled forest two women in flowing drapery move as if in a trance across the mossy ground. Slim but tall trees frame the image, and the women occupy most of the photograph's picture plane. The figure in the foreground is veiled, with her head - at once fully covered by gauze like fabric - tilted to gaze across her right shoulder with one arm loose and gracefully trailing behind her. The figure in the background is even more ecstatic, her are arms lifted in the air as in a pose of surrender or praise, her head tilted nearly all the way back and her eyes closed in pleasure and reverie. The pose reminds one of Gian Lorenzo Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647-1652) and without doubt has strong religious overtones.

The Wood Beyond the World is a good example of Cunningham's experiments with the Pictorialist style, which utilized labor-intensive photographic processes in order to create a work derived from the photographer's sensibility rather then from the traditional point-and-shoot method. Pictorialists saw the photographer as a poet and as a craftsman, and the camera as not just a mechanical device but rather as a means of aesthetic expression on par with painting and sculpture. Cunningham staged this image, which was intended to loosely reference the 1894 fantasy novel of the same name written by William Morris and illustrated by Edward Burne-Jones. Her scene is not taken directly from the novel so ample space is left to illustrate the artist's own imagination. For critic, Judith Fryer Davidov, the image is all about "woman=nature" and it "plays with contrasts between stability and movement".

Every detail at work here contributes to the mood of bacchanalian mystery: the women's garb, their bodily gestures, the cropping of the photo to elide anything but the sense of a wood outside of time and space, and the capturing of the sunlight hitting the women's faces and bodies all adds to a scene of inscrutable and almost erotic mystery. Unlike her later work, the photograph is in soft focus, which adds to the timeless, dreamy, and lyrical mood. Cunningham explored Pictorialism expansively at this moment in her career and produced other significant works including Veiled Woman (1910), Ben Butler (1910), The Supplicant (1910), and The Dream (1910).

Gelatin silver print


Magnolia Blossom

By the mid-1920s Cunningham was spending most of her time at home looking after her three young children. She was entranced by the blooms in her California garden and as the best means to continue working whilst being a mother, began photographing these flowers at exquisitely close range. Magnolia Blossom, one of her most iconic works from this period, is a close-up of the flower illuminated by glowing natural light. Though she was, as critic Hilton Kramer noted, "still disposed to envelop her subjects in the kind of light that softens and poeticizes every form...there is nonetheless a more consciously articulated concreteness in [the botanical] pictures." The pistil and stamen, exquisitely detailed and precise, stand at attention in the center of gently curving petals, which appear softer and more fragile. The interplay between the flower's parts is mesmerizing, and it does not come as a surprise to learn that horticulturalists and scientists used - and still use - her botanical photographs in their work. The Magnolia, along with the Calla Lilly, were blooms both repeatedly photographed by Cunningham.

It also does not surprise that Cunningham's botanicals have garnered her comparisons with Georgia O'Keefe, the esteemed modernist painter of bold, erotic blooms. Magnolia Blossom certainly gives off a sensuous, erotic vibe in its juxtaposition of the hard and soft parts of the flower, as well as its extremely close-up, intimate framing, but there is also ambivalence and artifice. One critic deemed this "consciously articulated concreteness" conducive to the photograph looking like "a Hollywood stage set." Indeed, the obfuscation of the stem or any other connection to context makes this flower almost not-a-flower. Emilee Prado wrote that the work "showcased the flower in an isolated, delicate way," perhaps as a commentary on Cunningham's own isolation at home, or more likely, contemplation on her own fertility and reproductive capacity at this time. The flower stands as a metaphor for many things and thus it makes sense that it is taken out of context of any rooted or garden setting. Though this work predates the founding of Group f/64, Kramer's comment on the "concreteness" of the work suggests what is to come. Here she consciously frames the flower to evoke the aforementioned artifice and sensuousness, but she also limits both of those compared to her Pictorialist works.

Gelatin silver print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York



Whereas the title of this photograph might suggest an abstract composition, this is unequivocally a woman's body, photographed in intimate, close-up fashion. Cunningham centers the image on the woman's seated torso, her upper body curved and her arm gently stretched downward past her thigh. There is negative space formed between arm, leg, stomach, and breast; shadows and light interplay across the soft curves of the female form. Isolated from other parts of the body, including the head, feet, and hands, like Cunningham's tightly framed flower bloom, the body becomes more than just a body. It is now suggestive of a landscape or a collage, and speaks more of light and shadow than it does of sexuality.

The naked female body is a staple of Western art but here we have a female photographer exploring it for its aesthetic possibilities; its eroticism, which is certainly manifest, is not prurient and is decidedly not for the male gaze. Cunningham's interest is the body out of context: her shot is clear and close-up; the International Photography Hall of Fame notes that this viewpoint "would transform the bodies into organic forms and geometrical shapes as well as take them out of context". Furthermore, a scholar from the Museum of Contemporary Photography adds that in Triangles "Cunningham's composition transforms the female body into an arrangement of geometric forms in an interplay of angles and rounded curves. The image is a study of light, shape, and pattern, but it retains a certain warmth and sensuality beyond its formal emphasis." Cunningham keeps her focus soft and clearly favors a tinge of abstraction, but she also moves closer to the Straight Photography of Group f/64 treating the female nude in a straightforward manner like her flowers. She is no longer at this moment in her career, dressing her naked women subjects in veils and wandering idly in an ethereal wood.

Gelatin silver print - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


Colletia Cruciata 7

With not only a tendency to photograph flowers, Cunningham was also particularly attracted to succulent plants. These were photographed within the Straight Photography parameters with sharp focus and very particular framing. Many of the succulents appear as though they could be found on the deepest seabed as well at the top of the highest mountain. They also look as much manmade as they do natural, and in this sense seem to merge many different aspects of life. Indeed, Cunningham's fellow botanist photographer, Karl Blossfeldt said, "the plant must be valued as a totally artistic and architectural structure". Colletia Cruciata 7 is particularly interesting in this respect as it seems to grow like a built tower or a flying machine as much as an ordinary plant.

Also interesting about the succulents that Cunningham photographed - by contrast to many of her more delicate petal based blooms - is that they have an aggressive quality to the fabric of their design. Here especially, the plant has distinct spikes and whilst other versions of Cunningham's flower photographs give a distinct lure of a soft and protective vagina, here there is the suggestion of a vagina dentate (a toothed vagina) and the warning that pursued pleasure could also be a source of great pain. Cunningham's exploration of succulents therefore highlights that her journey into the depiction of plant life is not one done principally for the sake of decorative beauty, but first and foremost as an investigation of the complex paradoxes of life.


Martha Graham

In the 1930s and 1940s Cunningham photographed some of Hollywood's and the art world's most beloved luminaries, including a prolific series of the dancer Martha Graham. The series features Graham in innumerable poses, but in this work Graham is shot simply from the neck up. She juts her elbows out and places her palms on her face - one on her right temple, the other with fingers splayed covering her left eye and cheekbone. Both eyes are shut, as are her lips. Dark hair tumbles down and rests on her shoulders. Graham is silhouetted against an inky black background, and stage lighting seems to tilt slightly upward from the right to illuminate parts of her forehead, cheek, nose, chin, and forearms. Where the light does not hit is a lush power soft, velvety, shadowy gray. Here Cunningham highlights her recurrent interest in hands. She photographed hands at work throughout her career. Interestingly the digits often resemble the off shoots of plant leaves, representative of the much valuable parts of an interconnected whole. Cunningham's way of repeating hands across the picture plane, and also entwining real hands with those of mannequins, aligns her work even with Surrealism.

Of her portraiture Cunningham stated, "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 [their] best qualities..." Even without Graham's body in the photograph, it is clear she is an exquisitely skilled performer. Her pose, her facial expression, and the lighting are deeply felt but artificial. Cunningham is showing Graham as she is, as the dancer and the icon; there is the sense that though she is posing, Graham will move at any second and create an entirely new image with her body. Cunningham's technique adds to this in that she is no longer using soft focus to create an ethereal mood; rather, she is demonstrating what she and her peers in Group f/64 were interested in - Straight" Photography, unembellished and unfettered by extraneous ideas or affects. The image is captured through a large-format view camera with the smallest aperture in order to produce high contrast, sharply detailed photographs without any graininess. Cunningham aptly summed them up by commenting that the group was "for reality. That was what we talked about too. Not being phony, you know."

Gelatin silver print - 1931


Paris Street

Cunningham's sojourn in Paris in later life yielded some of her most captivating street photography. Here she photographs a nattily dressed couple from behind, playfully leaning over what appears to be a bridge. The man and woman occupy the center of the image, and a large tree looms up from somewhere down below and fills most of the background with its branches and leaves. Though the viewer cannot see their faces, the couple's casual and uninhibited poses strongly suggest that they enjoying their moment together. The light hits the scene straight on, thus precluding any moody, deep shadows. There is a sense of Charlie Chaplin comedy at work, as though the couple may tumble over the bridge and then reemerge, or the man may cheekily reveal his girlfriend's knickers. It is paradoxically not a static image and seems that much could happen in an instant.

Cunningham's charming image typified those coming out of Paris a decade or two after WWII's end. The parisian photographer's eye was no longer drawn to ruined buildings or spectral soldiers but, as the International Photography Hall of Fame explains, was now enthralled by "sentiment, parks, and lovers - a romantic view. Poetic fragments of everyday life were being celebrated in cafes, bustling streets, and overflowing terraces." Cunningham did not set these scenes up but captured them with her Rolleiflex. She called them her "stolen pictures". Journalist Steve Meltzer wrote that Cunningham had told him, "Once a woman who does street work said to me, 'I've never photographed anyone I haven't asked first.' I said to her, 'Suppose Cartier-Bresson asked the man who jumped in the puddle to do it again - it never would have been the same. Start stealing!"

Gelatin silver print



This photograph brings the highly satisfying sense of a career coming full circle, perhaps the highest accolade of cosmic symmetry that any artist/human could ever wish for. Indeed, here we have Cunningham making Pictorialist work again. The painter Morris Graves was a frequent sitter for Cunningham, but Pentimento is a special work. The bearded Graves appears in a part natural, part fantasy setting. Filling most of the foreground, he is seen only from his unclothed upper torso to his head, his right arm extending gracefully out in front of him (his left arm is mostly obscured). His gaze is contemplative, his head tilted in the direction of his reach. He seems to be in a silent and still forest pool, which is surrounded by dense and ethereal trees. Leaves and slender branches frame him below and to the left of his body. Most of the forest background is dimly lit, but a bright light comes from the left and illuminates Graves's brow, shoulders, and hand. The light across the hand is particularly magical, and suggestive that photography acts just as it set out to be, "the pencil of nature".

The title of the work provides insight into Cunningham's technique, as "pentimento" is an art historical term referring to an element in a painting or drawing that was once painted over but now resurfaces. Indeed, here, not only does the subject re-surface but also an old interest in terms of technique for Cunningham. Here Graves is superimposed over the sylvan scene, and as the scholar for the MCP notes, "the fanciful qualities of the depiction reflect Graves's interest in mysticism as a means to engage with the natural world." Though the photograph seems to suggest Cunningham's Pictoralist work from decades prior, it has been said to be more of an accurate meditation on the reclusive character of Graves himself, the skill as a portrait photographer for which Cunningham was known for. Aperture wrote that she "quickly discards artifice and vanity" when her sitter is before her, "and gets right to the very core of a person's being. A Cunningham portrait is far more than a record of a personality; it captures inseparably the internal and external individual. Often it bares the soul." Cunningham was one of the few people Graves allowed at his property near Eureka, California, which he called "The Lake" and posted a sign reading "No visitors today, tomorrow, or the day after" at the entrance. Her ability to capture his cerebral, solitary self in a moving and authentic fashion is an astonishing coda to a career already teeming with triumphs.

Gelatin silver print

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.

Mature Period

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.

Late Period

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.

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