I saw her on several occasions in San Francisco, on the street or on the bus.
She was unmissable, in her long black skirts and black cape, her soft white hair
topped by a black or richly embroidered skullcap, her oversized glasses. And her
camera, always the trusty Roloflex camera on a strap around her neck, ready to
capture whatever caught her eye. “I don’t hunt for things” to shoot, she once said.
“I just wait until something strikes me.”
When I spotted her in the 1970s, Imogen Cunningham was fondly considered a San
Francisco character. But thanks to a boyfriend of mine who loved art photography and
was a photographer himself, I knew that Cunningham was more than a colorful local
celebrity. She was a creative pioneer, an early feminist, a true daughter of the West,
and an artist with an instinct and talent for capturing beauty in natural forms – be it
in the expressive face of dance legend Martha Graham, the curves of calla lilies, or in
an unmade bed with black hairpins strewn on a white sheet.
Cunningham’s artistic achievements are being celebrated at the Seattle Art
Museum in a generous, eloquent exhibit that runs through February 6, 2022.
Organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum of Los Angeles, it the first major U.S.
retrospective of her work in 35 years, providing a long overdue overview of her 70-
year career in more than 200 images.
And it is a treasure trove for anyone with a deep love of photography.
The photos (all black and white) chronicle the phases of a remarkable artistic
journey, which began when photography was barely considered an artistic enterprise.
And the show also contains Portrait of Imogen, a short documentary film by her
granddaughter Meg Partridge, which allows the eminently pithy and quotable
Cunningham to guide you through her best-known work.
Born in Portland in 1883, but raised primarily in Seattle, young Imogen took an
early interest in art and decided as a teenager that she wanted to be a
photographer—when it was largely a man’s job.
After she earned a chemistry degree from the University of Washington,
Cunningham went to work as an apprentice to the famed portrait photographer
Edward Curtis, learned more about her craft during a fellowship in Germany, and in
1910 opened what is believed to be Seattle’s first studio for artistic photo portraiture.
The exhibit contains a few of the sepia and soft-focus early images from the
first chapter of her professional life, then moves on to the poetic (and controversial)
nude, fawn-like images she took of her husband Roi Partridge, a fellow photographer,
on Mt. Rainier. After the couple moved to San Francisco with their three young sons,
Cunningham wrestled with a challenge still facing many contemporary women: how to raise her a family while pursuing her art.
A pragmatist as well as a visionary, she created a domestic sphere that served
her aesthetic needs by planting a garden and capturing the sensuous shapes of
botanicals – images that were considered innovative enough to be part of a 1925 avant-garde exhibit in Germany, including a much-reproduced close-up of a magnolia
Portraits of other artists
As her career progressed and children grew more self-sufficient, Cunningham again
turned to portraiture. The exhibit includes a perfectly composed shot of her fiercely
independent 90-year-old father, in his long white beard by the pile of logs he split for
his rural home, as well as portrayals of her fellow artists. Among them are a
beautifully serene (and famous) shot of the painter Frida Kahlo, many images of her
great friend San Francisco sculptor Ruth Asawa, some enigmatic portraits of the
Northwest painter Morris Graves.
Also included are portraits of photographers like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston,
two members along with Cunningham of the famed Group f/64 – a coalition of
renegade Western artists, named after a particular aperture setting on a camera,
who championed a new modernist aesthetic that rejected the earlier romantic
pictorialism in favor of well-defined, “pure or straight” photography. As Weston put
it, the goal was “rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself,
whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh.”
Asked why she hadn’t shot more Western landscapes like Adams and Weston
did, Cunningham gave a bluntly candid answer: she had to tend to domestic chores
like getting meals on the table, and didn’t have time to run out and take pictures
when the weather was exactly right.
But the exhibit reveals that in her intentional portraits (including intriguingly
revealing ones of Spencer Tracy and Cary Grant for a Vanity Fair gig), as well as her
work as a street photographer, she brilliantly explored the landscape and topography
of faces and bodies, as in a work titled Jump Rope, New York, 1956.
All in the family
Late in her life, when I spotted her around San Francisco, Cunningham
embarked on the project After Ninety, in which she portrayed the lived-in faces of
elders including herself. There is nothing sentimental or glamorous in these
likenesses: one can see every line and furrow and blotch that age imparts on human
flesh. But like all of her work, one also sees the beauty in the organic, in the actual,
the particular. “The thing that’s fascinating about portraiture,” she once said, “is that
nobody is alike.”
She also said: “The formula for doing a good job in photography is to think like
a poet.” Clearly, Imogen did.