(19/55) Imogen Cunningham - photographer


I get sick if I spend too much time looking at photographs on the web. I really do. Catch me on a bad day and I swear ( I do that too)! most of what I see is novelty and gimmicks and stereotypical, unblinking, unthinking tripe. 
That's on a bad day. And lately, like I think some of you reading this, I've been having a lot of bad days.

Fortunately this (occasional) series of essays isn't about the here & now in terms of current practice, and being weighed down by current fads but about different approaches to the art & craft of photography. And as such allows for reflection and consideration of past achievements in the history of photography.

And because I'm talking largely about the determination of individual photographers in decades past to create and invent, it's also about personality and individuality. And expressions of what for want of a better word, of what we can agree to call 'spirit'.

Which beings us to the work of Imogen Cunningham (1883 – 1976). A photographer who created large bodies of work across many decades.

Cunningham was atypical in many regards. Although she had owned a camera previously, a chance encounter with  Gertrude Käsebier inspired her to make the practise of photography the basis of a career.
Like many practising photographers in the early years of the 20th century, she acquired a working knowledge of chemistry to enable her to photograph. An essential skill, at a time when pre-mixed chemical solutions for developing and fixing film were not so readily available to practitioners.

Some photographers make their own luck and so it was with Cunningham, who upon graduation went to work for legendary ethnographic photographer  Edward S. Curtis
Several years later, she won a fellowship for foreign study at the Technische Hochschule in Dresden, Germany, where she finished a paper entitled “About the Direct Development of Platinum Paper for Brown Tones,” describing a process to increase printing speed, improve highlights and produce sepia tones. Very impressive both then and now.But remember these efforts and this experience happened at the start of her career in photography. 

After finishing her paper, and on her way back to the US, Imogen met (designed a meeting with?) two of the most distinctive photographer/writers s of the era,  Alvin Langdon Coburn in London, and Alfred Stieglitz in New York.
It's often been said that some people create the circumstances (consciously or unconsciously) for change to occur. Imogen Cunningham clearly made it her business to make contact with leading practitioners. 

Probably due to a desire to fund her creative work an also to be independent, Cunningham began to create bodies of work concentrating on portraiture, working in private homes, her own home or the landscape around Cunningham's cottage.

In 1914, Cunningham's portraits were shown at An International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography in New York. And in print, Wilson's Photographic Magazine published a portfolio of her work.
In 1920, Cunningham and her family moved to San Francisco where her husband taught at a local College.

Looking at her portraits from this period, particularly her nude photographs (below) it's interesting to compare them to other more celebrated nude photographs. Edward Weston for example, made a series of nude photographs many of which were taken within a decade of the Cunningham images below.

For me, while Weston's images are highly accomplished art, they seem less personal. The women in them appear more like objects of regard, with shape and form to be discovered and expressed. 
But they seem less about the actual people. That's not to say that Weston's photographs are not deeply creative and emotionally 'felt' photographs just an observation that Cunningham's photographs, the one's I've seen anyway, seem fresh and playful. Her camera is also a lot (physically) closer to her subjects.

It's also worth noting that where Weston's roving eye demonstrates an erotic sensibility, Cunningham, despite closing the gap between her camera and her sitters, does not, although of course physical distance is not a prerequisite for perceptions of erotic intent.
It's an odd paradox in nude photography, that there are so many different ways that one can 'read' a nude photograph, aside from the more obvious sexuality inherent in any depiction of the unclothed human body.

Edward Weston - Nude, (1936)copyright Edward Weston / respective copyright holders

Edward Weston - Nude (1936)
copyright Edward Weston / respective copyright holders

Edward Weston - Nude (1927)
copyright Edward Weston / respective copyright holders
John Bovington 3 (1929)
copyright Imogen Cunningham/respective copyright holders

Helen 2 (1928)copyright Imogen Cunningham/respective copyright holders

Jackie (1928)
copyright Imogen Cunningham/respective copyright holders

Triangles 2 (1928)
copyright Imogen Cunningham/respective copyright holders

Her and Her Shadow (1931)
copyright Imogen Cunningham/respective copyright holders

Alta (late 1920's)copyright Imogen Cunningham/respective copyright holders

Martha Graham 19 (1931)
copyright Imogen Cunningham/respective copyright holders

 Jose Limon at Mills College (1939)
copyright Imogen Cunningham/respective copyright holders

Nude (1956)
 copyright Imogen Cunningham/respective copyright holders

Cunningham's interest in using the camera to refine and shape the world around her continued to evolve. 
Evolution that was certainly aided by looking at the examples of other photographers.
For example, it's difficult to see how, having met both Alvin Langdon Coburn and Alfred Stieglitz during the 1920's, that Cunningham was unaware of their new work, particularly with regards to the way both photographers were using photography to create dynamic, abstracted images of the modern world. 

Alvin Langdon Coburn - The Octopus, 1912
copyright Alvin Langdon Coburn/respective copyright holders

Alfred Steiglitz - From My Window at An American Place, (1931)

copyright  Alfred Steiglitz/respective copyright holders

Alfred Steiglitz - From My Window at the Shelton, North, (1931)
copyright  Alfred Steiglitz/respective copyright holders

Looking at the photographs both photographers made, it's easy to see the power & influence this work would have had for many emerging young photographers. And yet, Cunningham at least in the work I've had the chance to review, has used the graphic modernism so evident in their work in a different way. To examine the landscapes around her - with a less heroic (but just as appealing) sense of modernism.

Mills College, Ampitheater 2 (c 1920)
copyright Imogen Cunningham/respective copyright holders
Shredded Wheat Factory 3 (1928)
copyright Imogen Cunningham/respective copyright holders

Fageol Ventilators (1934)copyright Imogen Cunningham/respective copyright holders

Gas Tanks, 1927copyright Imogen Cunningham/respective copyright holders

You can see from the photographs Cunningham made (above) how she has used the ready made industrial forms around her to make compelling photographs that are dynamic, bold and every bit the equal of images made by her male contemporaries (below.) 


E.O. Hoppé - Smoke Stacks, Ford Factory, Detroit, Michigan (1926)copyright E.O. Hoppé/respective copyright holders

Charles Sheeler - Criss-Crossed Conveyors, River Rouge Plant, Ford Motor Company (1927)
copyright Charles Sheeler/respective copyright holders

However despite her ingenuity with the human form and geometrical abstracts, there's one form of subject matter that's come to define Imogen Cunningham's contribution to photography. Her work in botanical photography.
During the 1920's she carried out an in-depth study of a variety of flowers including the magnolia flower, agave and callas.

This work (examples below) remains fresh and compelling. Not just because of the simplicity and dynamism of the forms and the interplay of light & shadow (see Robert Mapplethorpe's flower series for a more recent influential body of work.) But also because there are interesting parallels to be drawn between her work and the images produced by the painter Georgia O'Keefe (see colour images below) created during the same period.

Many articles have been written by critics  ( here / here (PDF) in which the flower paintings and photographs produced by the 2 women have been critically evaluated. Whether this reading is due to a surfeit of male art critics is of course open to question, but there has been a tendency to remark on the suggested sexuality inherent in the forms pictured.

Personally, I think one of the reasons theses bodies of work retain their relevance and dynamism, is because of the clarity of the images. And the willingness of both artists see beyond the literal forms in front of them and to capture something altogether more radical. A very modern idea about the transfigurative power of nature and also about the revealing power of natural light. 

As to the question of who influenced who. That's very much an open question - but to my mind not particularly relevant.

A painting is a painting. A photograph is a photograph. Leaving aside the very different sensory experience of black & white versus colour art, the language and tools either practitioner have at their disposal require concerted interpretation & application. 

Probably more to the point is the more valid observation of the unique way both female artists have responded to the natural world. It's an interesting historical footnote that Ansel Adams (who produced very difficult visions of the natural world) and Imogen Cunningham were both members of the F64 group. Though short-lived as a group, Adams and Cunningham often exhibited together. It's a safe bet that Adams bombastic images of the natural world would have seemed a very different proposition to the gallery visitor than the intimate intricate modernism shown in Cunningham's work.

Adams was also connected to Georgia O'Keefe, as both a friend and co-worker. This recent exhibition Georgia_OKeeffe & Ansel Adams (Hawaii pictures) and here provides an interesting glimpse into the sometimes symbiotic relationship between painter and photographer.

Magnolia Blossom (1925)
copyright Imogen Cunningham/respective copyright holders
Magnolia Blossom, Tower of Jewels (1925)
copyright Imogen Cunningham/respective copyright holders
False Hellebore (1926)
copyright Imogen Cunningham/respective copyright holders
 Agave Design 1 composite (c.1920's)
copyright Imogen Cunningham/respective copyright holders

Plant Pattern, (c1920s)copyright Imogen Cunningham/respective copyright holders

Two Callas, (c.1925)copyright Imogen Cunningham/respective copyright holders


Georgia O'Keeffe, Calla Lily Turned Away, (1923)

copyright Georgia O'Keeffe/respective copyright holders

Georgia O'Keefe - Single Calla Lily (Red) (c.1928)copyright Georgia O'Keeffe/respective copyright holders 
As well as working on personal projects Cunningham continued to pursue commercial work. In 1934, Cunningham was invited to New York to work for Vanity Fair magazine, where she continued to work until it stopped publication in 1936.
In the 1940s, Cunningham turned to documentary / street photography, which she executed as a side project while supporting herself with her commercial and studio photography. In 1945, Cunningham was invited by Ansel Adams to join the faculty of the art photography department at the California School of Fine Arts. One of the first notable fine art photographers of her generation to do so. Also on the faculty at that institution were Dorothea Lange and Minor White.
An interesting combination of talents - offering multiple pathways into different forms of photographic practice for the students studying there.
Cunningham continued to take photographs until shortly before her death at age ninety-three on June 24, 1976, in San Francisco, California. Producing at her death one of the most notable and extended bodies of work in photography.

Dream Walking (1968)
copyright Imogen Cunningham/respective copyright holders

Reflection at Sudbury Hill, England (1960)
copyright Imogen Cunningham/respective copyright holders 

Transport, New York City (1956)
copyright Imogen Cunningham/respective copyright holders

A Man Ray Version of Man Ray (1960)
copyright Imogen Cunningham/respective copyright holders 

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