Imogen Cunningham, Vitreous Painting on Glass, 8 x 10”
Imogen Cunningham is renowned as one of the greatest female photographers. She started her photographic career at the age of 18 and was still taking photographs up until her passing at age of 93.
She was born in Portland Oregon on April 12, 1883. Cunningham was one of 10 children born to Isaac and Susan. She was named after a character in William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. Cunningham was home schooled until the age of 8, when she was finally enrolled in school. She always had an affinity for art, and she bought her first camera a 4 X 5 inch view camera at the age of 18.
After losing interest in photography she sold the camera to a friend. Five years later her renewed interest occurred due to her enrollment at the University of Washington in Seattle. Her inspiration came from the work of Gertrude Käsebier. With the assistance of her history professor Cunningham began studying the chemistry behind photography. She helped pay for her tuition by photographing plants for the botany department.
Cunningham went to work with Edward S. Curtis in his Seattle studio. This gave her insight into the commercial workings of a portrait business. In 1909 Cunningham won a scholarship from her sorority (Pi Beta Phi) which allowed her to study abroad. On her professor’s advice she decided to study with Professor Robert Luther at the Technische Hochschule in Dresden, Germany. While in Germany she focused on her studies and completed a paper entitled “About the Direct Development of Platinum Paper for Brown Tones”. This paper described her process to increase printing speed and improve the clarity of highlight tones.
After returning from Dresden, she opened a portrait gallery in Seattle, Washington, and soon established a national reputation. Most of the work she did at her studio involved portraits and nature shots done around her cottage. In 1913 she exhibited at the Brooklyn Academy of Arts and Science. She had some of her photographs published in Wilson’s Photographic Magazine in 1914 and an exhibit in New York entitled “An International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography.”
In 1915 she met and married artist Roi Partridge. She photographed a series of nude photographs of her husband, which were shown by the Seattle Fine Arts Society, although critically praised, she received negative response from society at large.
Between 1915 and 1920 Cunningham continued her work and had three children (Gryffyd, Rondal, and Padraic) with Roi. Then in 1920 they left Seattle for San Francisco where Roi taught at Mills College.
Cunningham had many interests photographically. She particularly enjoyed photographing nudes and plants in their natural environment. The results were an amazing body of work filled with bold, contemporary subjects. Cunningham loved the use of textures and natural light. She is best known for some of her outstanding floral images which she photographed during the 1920’s.
Cunningham was best known for her sharply focused images of flowers and her revealing portraits. In 1932, Cunningham became one of the co-founders of the group F/64, which included such well known photographers as Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. F/64 had a show in San Francisco that helped revive photography on the West Coast.
As a result of this show she gained a contract with Vanity Fair. Her husband wanted her to wait until he was free to travel, but she refused and they later divorced. In the 1940s, Cunningham tried her hand at documentary street photography. Although she enjoyed it, she made most of her living from her commercial and studio photography.
Ansel Adams invited her to join the faculty at the first fine art photography department at the California School of Fine Arts. Some of her colleagues included Dorothea Lange and Minor White.
Cunningham continued her photographic legacy until shortly before her death in 1976 at the age of 93.
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