Imogen Cunningham is renowned as one of the greatest American women photographers. In 1901, having sent away $15 for her first camera, she commenced what would become the longest photographic career in the history of the medium.. Cunningham soon turned her attention to both the nude as well as native plant forms in her back garden. The results were staggering; an amazing body of work comprised of bold, contemporary forms. These works are characterized by a visual precision that is not scientific, but which presents the lines and textures of her subjects articulated by natural light and their own gestures. Her refreshing, yet formal and sensitive floral images from the 1920’s ultimately became her most acclaimed images. Cunningham also had an intuitive command of portraiture but her real artistic legacy was secured though her inclusion in the "F64" show in San Francisco in 1932. With a small group of photographers which included Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, she pioneered the renewal of photography on the West Coast. Awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, Cunningham’s work continues to be exhibited and collected around the world.
Source: Photography West Gallery
Cunningham was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1883. In 1901, at the age of eighteen, Cunningham bought her first camera, a 4x5 inch view camera, from the American School of Art in Scranton, Pennsylvania. She soon lost interest and sold the camera to a friend. It wasn’t until 1906, while studying at the University of Washington in Seattle, that she was inspired by an encounter with the work of Gertrude Käsebier, to take up photography again. With the help of her chemistry professor, Dr. Horace Byers, she began to study the chemistry behind photography and she subsidized her tuition by photographing plants for the botany department. After being graduated in 1907 Cunningham went to work for Edward S. Curtis in his Seattle studio, gaining knowledge about the portrait business and practical photography.
In 1909, Cunningham won a scholarship from her sorority (Pi Beta Phi) for foreign study and applied to study with Professor Robert Luther at the Technische Hochschule in Dresden, Germany. In Dresden she concentrated on her studies and didn’t take many photographs. In May 1910 she finished her paper, “About the Direct Development of Platinum Paper for Brown Tones,” describing her process to increase printing speed, improve clarity of highlights tones, and produce sepia tones. On her way back to Seattle she met Alvin Langdon Coburn in London, and Alfred Stieglitz and Gertrude Käsebier in New York. In Seattle, Cunningham opened her studio and won acclaim for portraiture and pictorial work. Most of her studio work of this time consisted of sitters in their own homes, in her living room, or in the woods surrounding Cunningham's cottage. She became a sought after photographer and exhibited at the Brooklyn Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1913.
In 1914, Cunningham's portraits were shown at An International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography in New York. Wilson's Photographic Magazine published a portfolio of her work. The next year, she married Roi Partridge, a teacher and artist. He posed for a series of nude photographs, which were shown by the Seattle Fine Arts Society. Although critically praised, Cunningham didn’t revisit those photographs for another fifty-five years. Between 1915 and 1920, Cunningham continued her work and had three children (Gryffyd, Rondal, and Padraic) with Partridge. In 1920, they moved to San Francisco where Partridge taught at Mills College. Cunningham refined her style, taking a greater interest in pattern and detail and becoming increasingly interested in botanical photography, especially flowers. Between 1923 and 1925 she carried out an in-depth study of the magnolia flower. Later in the decade she turned her attention toward industry, creating several series of industrial landscapes in Los Angeles and Oakland. In 1929, Edward Weston nominated 10 of Cunningham's photographs (8 botanical, 1 industrial, and 1 nude) for inclusion in the "Film und Foto" exhibition and her renowned, Two Callas, debuted in that exhibition. Cunningham once again changed direction, becoming more interested in the human form, particularly hands, and she was fascinated with the hands of artists and musicians. This interest led to her employment by Vanity Fair, photographing stars without make-up.
In 1932, with this unsentimental, straightforward approach in mind, Cunningham became one of the co-founders of the Group f/64, which aimed to “define photography as an art form by a simple and direct presentation through purely photographic methods.” In 1934, Cunningham was invited to do some work in New York for Vanity Fair. Her husband wanted her to wait until he could travel with her, but she refused. They later divorced. She continued with Vanity Fair 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 accept a position as a faculty member for the art photography department at the California School of Fine Arts. Dorothea Lange and Minor White joined as well. In 1973, her work was exhibited at the Rencontres d'Arles festival in France through the group exhibition: Trois photographes américaines, Imogen Cunningham, Linda Connor, Judy Dater. Cunningham continued to take photographs until shortly before her death at age ninety-three on June 24, 1976, in San Francisco, California.