Today one of those rarest of creatures from the olden days: a female photographer. The name Cunningham is well known and at first I believed I would yet again be reviewing the work of a man – until I saw the actual images. The softness and elegance are unmistingly femine and the dreamlike nature of some of her florals and nudes are refreshing and sensitive.
Imogen Cunningham was born on the 12th of April, 1883 in Portland, Oregon as one of ten children. In 1901, at the age of 18, Cunningham bought her first camera, a 4×5 inch view camera. She soon lost interest and sold the camera to a friend. It wasn’t until 1906, while studying at the University of Washington in Seattle, that she was inspired by an encounter with the work of Gertrude Käsebier to take up photography again. With the help of her chemistry professor, Dr. Horace Byers, she began to study the chemistry behind photography; she subsidized her tuition by photographing plants for the botany department.
After graduating in 1907 she went to work with Edward S. Curtis in his Seattle studio. This gave Cunningham the valuable opportunity to learn about the portrait business and the practical side of photography. In 1909, Cunningham won a scholarship from her sorority (Pi Beta Phi) for foreign study and, on advice from her chemistry professor, applied to study with Professor Robert Luther at the Technische Hochschule in Dresden, Germany. In Dresden she concentrated on her studies and didn’t take many photos. In May 1910 she finished her paper, “About the Direct Development of Platinum Paper for Brown Tones”, describing her process to increase printing speed, improve clarity of highlights tones and produce sepia tones.
Once back in Seattle she opened her own studio and won acclaim for portraiture and pictorial work. Most of her studio work of this time consisted of sitters in their own homes, in her living room, or in the woods surrounding Cunningham’s cottage. She became a sought after photographer and exhibited at the Brooklyn Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1913. Her portraits were shown at “An International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography” in New York and a portfolio of her work was published in Wilson’s Photographic Magazine.
The next year she married Roi Partridge, an etcher and artist, who she would come to divorce in 1934. He posed for a series of nude photographs, which were shown by the Seattle Fine Arts Society. They had three children (Gryffyd, Rondal, and Padraic) and in 1920 they left Seattle for San Francisco. There, Cunningham refined her style, taking a greater interest in pattern and detail as seen in her works of bark textures, trees, and zebras. Cunningham became increasingly interested in botanical photography, especially flowers, and between 1923 and 1925 carried out an in-depth study of the magnolia flower. Later in the decade she turned her attention towards industry, creating several series of industrial landscapes throughout Los Angeles and Oakland.
In the 1940s Cunningham turned to documentary street photography which she did as a side project while supporting herself with her commercial and studio photography. In 1945, Cunningham was invited by Ansel Adams to accept a position as faculty at the first fine art photography department at the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA).
Cunningham continued to take pictures until shortly before her death at age 93 on June 24, 1976 in San Francisco, California.
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