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Imogen Cunningham Photo

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."
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"[My] taste lay somewhere between reality and dreamland."
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"I don't think there's any such thing as teaching people photography, other than influencing them a little. People have to be their own learners."
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"I turn people into human beings by not making them into gods."
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"I don't talk about success. I don't know what it is. Wait until I'm dead."
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"To worship beauty for its own sake is narrow and one surely cannot derive from it that aesthetic pleasure which comes from finding beauty in the commonest things."
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"I've tried my best to sell people on the idea that I photograph anything that can be exposed to light."
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"The fascinating thing about portraiture is that nobody is alike."
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"Which of my photographs is my favorite? The one I'm going to take tomorrow."
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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.


  • 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.

Biography of Imogen Cunningham

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!"

Important Art by Imogen Cunningham

Wood Beyond the World (1912)

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).

Magnolia Blossom (1925)

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.

Triangles (1928)

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.

Influences and Connections

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Imogen Cunningham
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Useful Resources on Imogen Cunningham

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Content compiled and written by Kristen Osborne-Bartucca

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Rebecca Baillie

"Imogen Cunningham Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Kristen Osborne-Bartucca
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Rebecca Baillie
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First published on 27 Jan 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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