THE CALLA LILY DIALOGUES

Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976) American Photographer

Arleen Solomon Rotchin4 Comments

She began her photographic career at 18 and was still taking photographs until her passing at 93 years old.

Imogen Cunningham was born in Portland, Oregon, on April 12, 1883.  One of 10 children, she was her father’s favourite.  She was educated at home before enrolling in school at the age of eight.  Imogen was interested in photography since childhood and was given art lessons, a luxury her family could barely afford. 

After she graduated from high school, she entered the University of Washington and paid for her own education by working as a secretary to a professor and making lantern slides for a botany class.  In 1906, Cunningham got her first camera and took portraits of herself in the nude.  Her father built a darkroom in the family woodshed.

Imogen studied printmaking and its technical aspects in Germany on a scholarship from her college sorority and a loan from the Washington Women’s Club.  Her coursework included art history and life drawing, but she focused on platinum printing.  Important to her development as a photographer, was the International Photographic Exhibition.  This exhibit featured both American and European photographers and gave her an opportunity to see the development of different styles. 

Cunningham’s most creative period came in the 1920s and 1930s when she was recognized as an innovator.  She had married Roi Partridge, a Seattle etcher, photographer and print specialist and had 3 children.  Most of her work was done at home, where her style changed drastically.  

Her pictures became tightly focused and her subjects were often found in nature. She took pictures of trees, magnolia blossoms and calla lilies growing in her garden.  Her flowers were very much like the famous paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe and although the two artists worked at the same time, Cunningham claimed she was not aware of O’Keeffe’s work until years later.

Cunningham also continued to take portraits of those around her.  In 1923, she began experiementing with double exposures.  She was reputed to be the most sophisticated and experimental photographer at work on the West Cost.  She was a founding member of the f/64 group whose members included Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Minor White.  The group was known for its sharply focused photos and unretouched images.  Their photos had greater depth-of-field and featured more detail.

Along with the quiet dignity that pervaded her work, there was an abiding sense of humanity and a touch of whimsy. Her refreshingly informal approach resulted in a collection of open, honest portraits of the notable people of her time.

Imogen Cunningham self-portrait, 1933

Imogen Cunningham self-portrait, 1933

In 1934, Imogen was offered a job in New York by Vanity Fair. Despite her husband’s protests, she took the job and he filed for divorce soon after.  She began experimenting with taking pictures on the street in New York, calling them ‘stolen pictures.’ She also photographed many famous people including Frida Kahlo.  

In 1937, she was included in her first big exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Photography, 1839-1937.     

Ansel Adams photo by Imogen Cunningham

Ansel Adams photo by Imogen Cunningham

By the 1950s, Cunningham’s work was reaching wider audiences and earning more recognition.  It began with a 1956 exhibition in the Limelight, a new gallery devoted to photography.  She was also the subject of several documentary films. 

In the 1960s, she began experimenting with Polaroid cameras. 

When she was 87 years old, Imogen was granted a Guggenheim Fellowship.  She used the money to print and organize her work.  Three years later, at the age of 90, she had two major exhibitions in New York.

Cunningham self- portrait using double exposure

Cunningham self- portrait using double exposure

‘My best picture is the one I’ll take tomorrow.’