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Imogen Cunningham
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San Francisco
One of America’s greatest photographers, Imogen Cunningham is known for her portraits, nudes and studies of plant forms. Over her seven-decade career, she evolved from soft-focus Pictorialist images to the sharp-focus “straight” photography espoused by the innovative Group f.64 in the 1930s. At her death at age 93 she was working on a series of portraits of persons over ninety years old. Born in Portland in 1883, her family relocated to Seattle around 1889. Cunningham majored in chemistry at the University of Washington. She had already developed an interest in photography, inspired by the work of Gertrude Käsebier (1852-1934), and bought her first camera during the academic year 1905-06. After graduation in 1907 she worked for Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952), in whose studio she learned to retouch negatives and print on platinum paper. Granted a fellowship by her college sorority, Cunningham traveled to Dresden, Germany to study photochemistry under Robert Luther (1868-1945) at the Technische Hochschule during academic year 1909-1910. During her journey home, she met with the photographers Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966) in London and Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) and Käsebier in New York City. Back in Seattle, Cunningham opened a portrait photography studio while also making Pictorialist photographs. During 1914 her work was shown in the International Exhibition of Pictorial Photograph in New York City and solo exhibitions at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences and the Portland Art Museum. She married the etcher Roi Partridge (1888-1984) in early 1915; their son Gryffyd was born in December. Her work was shown that year in San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition in the Palace of Liberal Arts and in exhibitions in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Her photograph of Partridge posing in the nude next to a pond caused a local scandal when published in a Seattle newspaper in 1916. The next year while Cunningham was pregnant with twins, Partridge left for a four-month sketching trip to Carmel, California. She moved to San Francisco to be closer to her parents, where Partridge later joined her. Their twin sons were born later that year. Cunningham worked in the photographic studio of Francis Bruguière (1879-1945) during 1918, but was primarily occupied with child-rearing. During their time in San Francisco Cunningham met the painter Maynard Dixon (1875-1946) and photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965). In 1920, Partridge was hired to teach art at Mills College in Oakland and the family moved across the Bay. Around this time Cunningham met the photographer Edward Weston (1886-1958). She resumed commercial portrait photography in 1921 with a series of photographs of the company of the Adolph Bolm Ballet Intime. From the early 1920s Cunningham began making sharply-focused photographs of plant forms, including her famous photographs of magnolia blossoms from 1925. Around this time she began making double-exposure photographs. Her work was included in the 1928 exhibition of the Pictorial Photographic Society at the Legion of Honor. Her friend Weston had been asked to select works by West Coast photographers for the influential 1929 exhibition “Film und Foto” in Stuttgart, Germany, and included ten of Cunningham’s photographs, including several flower images and a nude. In 1931 she photographed the dancer Martha Graham (1894-1991), with two of the works published in Vanity Fair, which then commissioned her to photograph Hollywood celebrities. The de Young Museum mounted a solo exhibition of her work that year followed by a solo exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art in 1932. That year Cunningham, Weston, Ansel Adams (1902-1984) and others formed the Group f.64 to promote “straight” photography, and had their works shown at the groundbreaking “Group f.64” exhibition at the de Young. Cunningham’s work was also included in the A Showing of Hands exhibition at the de Young later that year. Cunningham and Partridge were divorced in 1934. She continued to make portraits of artists and celebrities, including Stieglitz and Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) and to exhibit widely. The curator Beaumont Newhall (1908-1993) included her work in the 1937 exhibition Photography 1839-1937 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Cunningham moved to San Francisco in 1947, where she lived for the rest of her life. She taught at the California School of Fine Arts (later the San Francisco Art Institute) from 1947 to 1950 and again from 1965 to 1967. Cunningham’s works were shown in numerous solo exhibitions over the next decades, including shows at the Chicago Art Institute, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of (Modern) Art, the Smithsonian Museum of History and Technology in Washington and the de Young Museum. She was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1967, received an honorary doctoral degree from the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1968 and received the University of Washington’s Alumnus Summa Laude Degnatus award in 1974. She died in 1976 in San Francisco. (TNB 1/2015) Selected bibliography: Heiting, Manfred, ed. Imogen Cunningham: 1883–1976. Exhibition catalog, with an essay by Richard Lorenz. Cologne: Taschen GmbH, 2001. Lorenz, Richard. Imogen Cunningham: Ideas Without End: A Life in Photographs. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1993.