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Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976)Imogen Cunningham

Documentary, Portraiture

Biography: Imogen Cunningham began to take photographs in 1901 while she was a student at the University of Washington. She was attracted to photography by the work of Gertrude Kasebier, an internationally known pictorialist. "I kept thinking all the time ‘1 wish I could be as good as Gertrude Kasebier’" Her career began with a part time job in the Seattle studio of Edward S. Curtis, more famous for his remarkable documentation of the North American Indian than for the portrait work from which he made his living. There she learned to make platinum prints in both quantity and quality.

She won a scholarship for foreign study and attended photographic courses at the Technische Hochschule in Dresden Germany, in 1909. The school had recently revived its photographic department under the direction of Robert Luther, a photo scientist of international fame. While abroad she visited Alvin Langdon Coburn in London and upon her return to America in 1910, Alfred Stieglitz. From both she gained great inspiration.

On returning home she opened a studio in Seattle, and soon won national recognition not only for her portraits but for her pictorial work. A portfolio of these pictures was published in Wilson’s Photographic Magazine in March, 1914. There she stated a philosophy which has guided her ever since: "One must be able to gain an understanding at short notice and close range of the beauties of character, intellect, and spirit so as to be able to draw out the best qualities and make them show in the outer aspect of the sitter. To do this one must not have a too pronounced notion of what constitutes beauty in the external and, above all, must not worship it. To worship beauty for its own sake is narrow, and one surely cannot derive from it that esthetic pleasure which comes from finding beauty in the commonest things."

She married the etcher, Roi Partridge; three sons were born, and the family moved to San Francisco. There she became a friend of Edward Weston. When Weston was asked to nominate the work of outstanding American photographers for inclusion in the Deutsche Werkbund’s great international exhibition "Film and Foto" in Stuttgart, 1929, he chose eight examples of Imogen Cunningham’s work. They were handsome platinum prints of plants seen closely to emphasize their form. All of them are part of the George Eastman House Collection.

She joined the band of enthusiastic photographers founded by Ansel Adams and Willard Van Dyke in 1934 under the name of "Group f/64." Histories of photography refer to the f/64 Group as an organized reform movement. It was not. It was a casual, informal group of friends who met together from time to time in a photography gallery. They met to talk about photography and to show their prints to each other and to the public. In the fall of 1932, Ansel Adams and Willard Van Dyke proposed that they become better organized to implement the spread of their ideas, and Van Dyke suggested the name. "f/64" was chosen because the members of the group were dedicated to the honest, sharply defined image, and the lens opening, f/64, provides the ultimate in resolution and depth of field. Adams felt that the membership should be limited to "those workers who are striving to define photography as an art form by a simple and direct presentation through purely photographic methods." Imogen recalled later that the adoption of the name and the criterion for membership did nothing to formalize the group. "There were no officers, no regular meetings, no dues."

For years she worked on assignments for magazines, conducted a portrait studio, and even taught at the California School of Fine Arts. During the coming years she photographed James Cagney ("such a nice, red-haired kid, he reminded me of my own boys"); Cary Grant in the alley behind the little apartment house where he lived; Joan Blondell ("She had on a lot of those fake eyelashes, and I made her take them off, and you know, she’d worn the fake ones so long, she didn’t have any of her own at all—I was an awful purist in those days"). She photographed Wallace Beery at the Burbank Airport right after he landed his Bellanca. He was wearing dirty flannel slacks, a grease-stained leather jacket, an enormous, flashing diamond ring, and his old patent leather evening pumps. "He had a terrible toothache, but he was very obliging." She photographed Upton Sinclair, who was campaigning for governor of California on the EPIC ("End Poverty in California") platform, the day before the general strike in 1934. He came into his hotel room so tired from a day of speaking that he collapsed on the bed to rest while she set up her camera. She photographed Herbert Hoover, he preferred a print where he was holding the collar of his big German shepherd dog, but he was being booed on the streets of San Francisco, and he was so controversial a figure that Vanity Fair decided against publishing him.

In the mid-thirties, Imogen and Roi were divorced. She continued living in Oakland until 1947 when she moved to her home in San Francisco. She had made her living as a portrait photographer, and she had also photographed people just for fun. She had a particular affinity with painters, writers, and other photographers, and her best portraits are usually those of creative people.

In a conversation between Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, and Imogen Cunningham (recorded in U. S. Camera Magazine, August, 1955), the question of the danger of categorization came up. Dorothea Lange complained that she was put into a niche called "documentary photographer." She pointed out that Ansel Adams was typed as a landscape photographer. "And as far as Imogen is concerned, because she enjoyed photographing plant forms..." Imogen interrupted: "Oh people have forgotten that, Dorothea. They’ve forgotten that I ever did plant forms. You know, I’ve tried my best to sell people on the idea that I photograph anything that can be exposed to light." Her best photograph, she always felt, would be made tomorrow.

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