Photographer Imogen Cunningham was born in 1883; in that same year, a car first traveled across the Brooklyn Bridge, the deadly Krakatoa volcano exploded over the Sunda Strait, and a train, later immortalized by Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” first departed from Paris to Istanbul.
Throughout her entire life, up until her death in 1976, Cunningham, born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, embodied the essence of a contemporary woman. The photographer wielded the camera as one would a blade — precise and controlled, yet with delicate grace.
Over the course of a 75-year photographic career, Cunningham captured shape, movement and pattern with an intent honed to an edge, and with a sensuality that flirted into the erotic. The mechanic medium integrated Cunningham into a wider community of artists, photographers and intellectuals, with whom she expressed her artistic language in an unyielding clarity. Her photographs have been shown at some of the most prestigious museums in the world, including the Portland Museum of Art, MoMA and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. To this day, Cunningham is regarded as one of the leading American photographers of her time.
Until Feb. 6, 2022, viewers can immerse themselves in Cunningham’s luminous realm at Seattle Art Museum, which exhibits the first retrospective of Cunningham’s work in 35 years, organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. “Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective” presents era-defying works in which bare figures framed by a female photographer were not taboo, but rather art created as a measure of human truth, and portraits — many of them Cunningham’s friends or family — exude a candid warmth, framed by the photographer’s straightforward affection for those in her world.
Cunningham spent her childhood in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood, to which her family relocated from Portland, her place of birth. Cunningham would later attend the University of Washington as an undergraduate in the chemistry department. She applied her technical studies to her photographic training, writing a thesis titled “The Scientific Development of Photography.” As a young photographer, Cunningham already practiced the unconventional — one of her first nudes, a self-portrait, was composed in a discreet corner of the university campus.
After graduation, Cunningham ran her own portrait studio in Seattle between 1910 and 1917. The photographer would roam around Vashon Island, Mount Rainier and other local settings to stage mystic scenes in nature. “A lot of Imogen’s early Pictorialist work was done here in Seattle,” says Carrie Dedon, SAM’s assistant curator of modern and contemporary art, who played a large part in bringing the show to Seattle. “She was leading the international movement at the time. Her works throughout the 1920s had a soft focus and drew on mythological themes.”
Many of these early works convey a bucolic ease. Women with arms outstretched like branches, the wind fluttering through the drapes of their veils, draw allegorical threads to tales of woodland nymphs in rapturous dance. Cunningham’s Pictoralist approach, where the artist’s touch constructs a photographic tableau rather than a literal documentation, unfolds in the muted overtones of works like “The Wind” (1910), as well as her gloomy landscapes upon the Duwamish or beside the mirrored lakes of Mount Rainier.
Cunningham also furthered her exploration of nude studies while working as a commercial photographer in Seattle. Several of her husband, Roi Partridge, represent his bare figure walking up tree-lined hills or leaping midair into a lake. Despite outcry from local media, which went so far as to claim “that a ‘whole gang of moral perverts’” were involved in Cunningham’s corporeal scenes, according to an ARTnews article, nude portraiture continued to be a compelling thematic interest for Cunningham throughout the years.
Toward the 1920s, Cunningham and Partridge would establish themselves in San Francisco, a city that eventually became Cunningham’s lifelong home. While caring for her family of three young children, her perspective was often limited to her immediate home surroundings. Nevertheless, the artist produced some of her most well-regarded works, including “Magnolia Blossom” (1925), during this time. The cupped, quotidian shapes of petals were sites of wonder to Cunningham, who framed her compositions as a reflection of their inner balance.
“Imogen Cunningham pursued photography with a singular passion,” says Meg Partridge, granddaughter to the famed artist. Partridge remembers her eccentric relative fondly, as a brilliant friend rather than an adoring grandmother. As a teenager, Partridge spent summers as a “spotter” at Cunningham’s studio, painting over small imperfections on photographic prints after they were developed.
“I remember painting ‘Magnolia Blossom,’” Partridge says. “And Imogen asked, ‘Meg, are you still working on that magnolia blossom?’ I said yes. And she said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it, it’s just going to MoMA,’” Partridge says, chuckling. “There are prints like that which remind me how absolutely I adore the memory of my time with Imogen.”
Partridge, who has the same distinct, aquiline profile as her grandmother, speaks from a studio at the Imogen Cunningham Trust, which houses an extensive collection of Cunningham’s original negatives and prints. Lopez Island in San Juan County is home to both Partridge and the Cunningham Trust, where Partridge oversees directorial duties.
Although many of the projects at the Cunningham Trust include transferring reproduction rights or loaning artworks out to exhibitions, including the one at SAM, the archives themselves are an invaluable resource for piecing together Cunningham’s life and work across the 20th century.
Bridget Nowlin, director of library services at Cornish College of the Arts, worked with Partridge and the Cunningham Trust to trace some of Cunningham’s works back to the college. “Imogen was an acquaintance of Nellie Cornish,” Nowlin says. Cornish founded the college in 1917. “Nellie knew Imogen’s work, and hired her to come and create a catalog. It’s a small little book.”
The Cornish College photos encompass dimensional, movement-filled scenes of art, music and dance. Nowlin located some of the prints at the Cunningham Trust, resulting in a 2015 exhibition at the college called “A Stitch in Time: Imogen at Cornish.” “I love this idea of walking the same halls as [Imogen] did, as well as of Nellie,” says Nowlin. “Being able to have those prints on exhibition at Cornish was such a treat.”
A few of the pictures from Cunningham’s collection of Cornish College works appear in the SAM retrospective. “Cornish School Trio 2” (1935) features a double exposure of cellists playing furiously at their instruments. The heady dream of their silent concerto is magnified by their ghostly superimpositions.
In the SAM exhibition, each section of the hall traces Cunningham’s career through the phases of her creative cycles. From the hazy aura of her Pictoralist romance to the sharp juxtaposition of shadows and discrete geometries under her modernist style, Cunningham tempered her steely perspective with an unapologetic tenacity. She was also broadly prolific — Cunningham’s oeuvre includes portraits, figure studies, arts scenes, landscapes, abstracts and street shots.
Part of the curatorial intent of SAM is to place Cunningham’s influence in relation to Group f/64, a photographic movement marked by “a modernist, West Coast aesthetic,” Dedon describes. The group included such midcentury American legends such as Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and Edward Weston, whose selected works feature alongside those of Cunningham.
From enthralling landscapes to working-class portraiture to textured still-life studies, “the inclusion of their works is in part about the relationships, but also [Cunningham’s] position within the f/64 group. The direct lines of influence and inspiration, the echoes and differences from one photographer to another,” says Dedon.
The f/64 movement would have a lasting impact on Cunningham’s photographic technique. “She turned a modern eye to her portraits, her street photography, her more experimental and surrealist work,” says Dedon. Still, Cunningham maintained her own creative language, often with an element of sensuality, which lingers throughout her works like an indelible fingerprint. In “The Unmade Bed” (1957), the remnants of erotic activity dwell on creased sheets. Works such as these reveal Cunningham’s progressive and contemporary gaze toward deeply human states of being.
Cunningham also had close relationships with other artists, including dancer Martha Graham and sculptor Ruth Asawa. SAM elaborates on these connections in the exhibition — a video of Graham’s “Lamentation” (1930) loops upon a dim wall, and Asawa’s wire sculptures, birdlike in their architectural essence, suspend in a nearby corner, as if in perpetual flight.
“I knew Ruth as a kid,” remembers Partridge, who is Dorothea Lange’s goddaughter. “Al [Ruth’s husband] and Imogen had the same birthday, so we got together and celebrated their birthdays every single year.”
One of the more vulnerable photographs of Cunningham is a self-portrait, taken in a sliver of storefront mirror on a San Francisco street. “Self-Portrait on Geary Street” (1958) shows the elderly photographer staring into her own reflection with an unfaltering insouciance. A cape drapes over her shoulders, and a patterned cap perches upon her snowy nest of hair. Shadows form clean angles upon the city pavement.
At this point, Cunningham had already made a lasting mark on the world of photography. She had grown into the persona that she had always intended to become. “Self-Portrait on Geary Street” reflects a photographer at her zenith. She is perhaps wiser, and more resolute, than the young woman she once was. But the bare truth of Cunningham’s entire life was this: that she was a feeling creature, and she leveraged her art as a tool for the pure expression of her fullest humanity.