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Imogen Cunningham – Photographer Essay

Imogen Cunningham was born in Oregon in 1883. She learnt chemistry at the University of Washington. While studying at the University of Washington in 1901, Imogen Cunningham started her photography work. She purchased her first camera in 1901 t a price of $15. Among her first photos was a naked self-portrait captured in 1906 at lone location at the University of Washington using a 4 by 5 inch camera (http://www.cs.washington.edu/building/art/ImogenCunningham/).

 Her photographic career is historically the longest ever. Gertrude Kasebier’s work, who was a globally-renown pictorialist, fascinated Cunningham in 1906. Cunningham’s chemistry lecturer, Dr. Horace Byers, assisted her comprehend photographic chemistry. She complemented her education fees by undertaking plant photography on behalf of the botany section. A Seattle Edward S. Curtis’ studio part-time work assignment after completing university propelled Cunningham’s career forwards. Curtis was involved in documenting American Indian cultures. It is at Edward’s studio that Cunningham learnt of the practicality of photography as well as the intricacies of portraiture.

Cunningham earned an overseas study scholarship and hence went for photographic lessons in 1909 at Dresden’s Technische Hochschule in Germany. Cunningham developed a paper “Describing the Process to Increase Printing Speed, Improve Clarity of Highlights Tones and Produce Sepia Tones” in 1910.  En-route to America, the photographer called on Alvin Langdon Coburn in London as well as Alfred_Stieglitz in New York. She was immensely inspired by the two personalities (http://www.photo-seminars.com/Fame/imogen.htm).

Imogen soon focused her concentration on the naked and also her rear garden’s indigenous plant structures. The outcomes, consisting of an astonishing creation including bold, modern forms, proved extremely impressive. Cunningham’s works were characterized by a non-scientific visual accuracy representing the textures and lines of subjects as elucidated by own gesticulation and natural illumination. Cunningham’s 1920s refreshing but formal and responsive floral figures ultimately proved to be her greatly prominent images.

In 1910, Cunningham established a studio within Seattle after which she acquired national appreciation for her pictorials as well as portraits. Majority of her work compromised of subjects at their residences, her sitting room or in the forest near her home. A collection of these photos appeared on Wilson’s March 1914 Photographic Magazine.

She acquired the status of being among pioneer specialized female photographers. Cunningham urged other females to unite with her through her 1913 article with the heading, ‘Photography as a Profession for Women’ Photographic Magazine. Cunningham’s works went on display in 1913 at the Brooklyn Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her portraits were exhibited at New York’s 1914 “An International Exhibition of pictorial photography”


Hence forth Cunningham adopted a viewpoint to which she always adhered. Cunningham held the conviction that a photographer ought to quickly and in close proximity comprehend the magnificence of intellect, spirit and character in order to figure out the finest quality and depict them in the external features of the subject. To achieve this, photographers should not have a strikingly conspicuous definition of external beauty nor should they worship beauty. Worshipping beauty per se is constitutes narrowness; a person cannot obtain the aesthetic delight that originates from discovering beauty within ordinary objects (Scott, 2002, p. 197).

Cunningham married Roi Partridge, an artist cum etcher in 1915; the couple got three lads and later relocated to San Francisco in 1917. Partridge’s nude photos were exhibited by the “Seattle Fine Arts Society”.

She encountered other photographers and artists in San Francisco, one among them being Edward Weston. She befriended Edward Weston in san Francisco, who when required to nominate exceptional American photographers’ works at the Stuttgart’s 1929 “Film and Photo” exhibition, chose eight of her work’s examples. These works were pretty platinum plant prints viewed closely thus emphasizing their structure. All are included in the George Eastman House Collection. Edwards’s endorsement of her works made Birmingham grow to be more attracted to human structures, especially hands. Such interest resulted in her engagement by Vanity Fair to photograph icons with no fake glamour or make-up (Scott, 2002, p.205).

Cunningham improved her technique in San Francisco by being keener on patterns and features as depicted in her trees, zebra and texture works. She became progressively enthused by botanical camera work, particularly flowers. From 1923-1925, Cunningham undertook a detailed examination of the magnolia bloom. Afterwards, she refocused on industry, developing a number of industrial scenery in Oakland and Los Angeles.

In 1934, Cunningham joined the “Group f/64”, a group of photography enthusiasts formed by William Van Dyke and Ansel Adams. The unsentimental, simple approach Cunningham had mustered earlier propelled her to join the group. “Group f/64” constituted a relaxed, informal assembly of pals who occasionally met at a photographic gallery.

The members convened to discuss photography and display their works among themselves and to public members. Vanity Fair invited Cunningham in 1934 to operate in New York. She worked with the journal until it wound up operations in 1936. Imogen also possessed an instinctive comprehension regarding portraiture. Her actual artistic heritage was protected by her joining of the “f/64” group in 1934. She collaborated with Ansel Adams and Edward Weston to pioneer the revival of west coast photography (http://www.photographywest.com/pages/cunningham_bio.html).

William Van Dyke and Ansel Adams in 1932 concurred that they better organize their group in order to promulgate their initiatives.  Adams was of the view that group membership be restricted to persons who were struggling to identify photography as an art form by way of direct and plain production through wholesome photographic modes.  Cunningham was later to state that the membership criterion did not contribute to formalizing the grouping since officers, regular gatherings and dues were inexistent. .

Cunningham did magazine assignments for a number of years, ran a photographic studio and tutored at the California School of Fine Arts. Following the publication of a number of Imogen’s dancer Martha graham’s photos at the start of the 1930s, Cunningham was employed by the publication to take pictures of numerous celebrities as well as prevailing political icons.

Later Cunningham took pictures of James Cagney, Cary Grant behind his residential apartment and Joan Blondell. Imogan also took pictures of Wallace Beery at Burbank Airport minutes after landing. Beery, experiencing a toothache was dressed in soiled flannel pants, patent skin pumps and an oil-stained leather coat and a huge diamond finger ring. Upton Sinclair, while on California governor’s “End Poverty in California- EPIC” campaign trail, was also photographed by Cunningham. Sinclair was exhausted from the day’s campaign activities and was photographed in a hotel room.

Cunningham took Herbert Hoover’s photos while the man held his German shepherd dog’s collar. Hoover’s character was so contentious in San Francisco that Vanity Fair opted not to publish his photos (Scott, 2002, p.234).

Imogen divorced Roi in the mid 1930s. Cunningham remained in Oakland up to 1947 at which point she relocated to San Francisco. Cunningham had lived on portrait photography, though she had also took peoples photos as form of entertaining. Cunningham especially was fond of painters, fellow photographers and writers. Her finest portraits involved creative persons. Imogen, Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams 1955 dialogue brought to the fore the threat of classification. Dorothea Lange lamented that the niche in which she belonged was referred to as “documentary photographer”. It was suggested that Imogen enjoyed plant form photography at which point Cunningham responded that she photographed any objects that could be exposed to light. Imogen was of the view that her finest photography was yet to be made


The 1940s saw Imogen turn to documentary road shooting as a part-time project as she sustained herself with studio and commercial photography. Ansel Adams invited Cunningham in 1945 to a faculty position at the pioneer Fine Art shooting department of California School of Fine Arts (CSFA) an offer which she accepted.  Imogen’s florals, portraits and nudes gained her a lot of fame. She did photography until she died in 1976 aged   ninety three.

Imogen Cunningham.Retrievedon10thApril2009from http://www.cs.washington.edu/building/art/ImogenCunningham/

Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976). Retrieved on 10th April 2009 from http://www.photo-seminars.com/Fame/imogen.htm

Imogen Cunningham bibliography. Retrieved on 10th April 2009 from http://www.photographywest.com/pages/cunningham_bio.html

Scott, A. (2002). Yosemite: Art of an American icon. Museum of the American West.  p. 197.

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