Photographer of the week: Imogen Cunningham
It’s Tuesday! Time for photographer of the week, continuing Masters of the early 20th century.
A rarity in the male-dominated arena of early 20th century photography, this week’s slot is dedicated to the renowned photographer Imogen Cunningham. Born in Oregon on the 12th April, 1883 Cunningham is probably best known for her images of flowers and her (at the time) controversial nudes.
Cunningham’s first brush with photography was with a 4×5 inch view camera when she was 18. She was so enamoured with it, she soon sold it on to a friend. Fortunately, Cunningham picked up a camera again when she was studying at the University of Washington in Seattle after being inspired by the work of Gertrude Käsebier. She proved to be a natural when it came to botany photography, and even subsidised her tuition costs by photographing for the botany department.
Keen to learn about the technical and practical side of photography, following graduation Cunningham worked with Edward S. Curtis in his studio. She won a scholarship in Dresden, Germany where she took few photos to focus on photography technicalities and write “About the Direct Development of Platinum Paper for Brown Tones”. This paper described processes of increasing printing speed, producing sepia colouring and how to improve the clarity of highlight tones.
Her real breakthrough came with the help of Edward Weston. After seeing her photos, he selected some of her prints to be exhibited for ‘Film und Foto’ in Stuttgart. By this time, Cunningham had become fascinated with the human form and had begun to take photographs of nudes, eventually focusing on the imagery of hands. This led to employment from Vanity Fair; Cunningham’s talents were getting noticed.
A close friend of Edward Weston was Ansel Adams, who also admired Cunningham’s ‘straight photography’ processes. Cunningham became a co-founder of Group f/64. She continued to shoot for Vanity Fair, and in the 1940s turned her hand to street photography – arguably not her most successful work. Ansel Adams offered Cunningham a faculty post at what was to be the very first fine art photography department at the California School of Fine Arts. Cunningham passed away age 93 on June 24, 1976 and remains a much-revered master photographer.
Her sensitive botany photographs hint at romance and vitality, while her quietly beautiful nude shots communicate the true duplicity of human form; fragility beguiles strength.
“By the end of her long career, Imogen Cunningham had become one of the most colorful and revered figures in photography. Stooped and white-haired, with a camera around her neck, she was a familiar sight around San Francisco until her death in 1976 at the age of 93. To young photographers, she seemed the embodiment of the medium’s rich history, and living proof of the important role women have played in it.” (New York Times)