Imogen Cunningham (April 12, 1883
- June 24, 1976) was an American photographer known for her
photography of botanicals, nudes and industry.
Cunningham was born in Portland, Oregon. In 1901, at the age of 18,
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 Kasebier to
take up photography again. With the help of her chemistry professor,
Dr. Horace Byers, she began to study the chemistry behind
photography; she subsidized her tuition by photographing plants for
the botany department.
After graduating in 1907 she went to work with Edward S. Curtis in
his Seattle studio. This gave Cunningham the valuable opportunity to
learn about the portrait business and the practical side of
In 1909, Cunningham won a scholarship from her sorority (Pi Beta
Phi) for foreign study and, on advice from her chemistry professor,
applied to study with Professor Robert Luther at the Technische
Hochshule in Dresden, Germany.
In Dresden she concentrated on her studies and didn’t take many
photos. 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
Kasebier in New York.
Once back in Seattle she opened her own 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 and a portfolio of
her work was published in Wilson's Photographic Magazine.
The next year she married Roi Partridge, an etcher and artist. He
posed for a series of nude photographs, which were shown by the
Seattle Fine Arts Society. Although critically praised, wider
society didn’t approve of such images and Cunningham didn’t revisit
the pictures for another 55 years.
Between 1915 and 1920 Cunningham continued her work and had three
children (Gryffyd, Randal and Padraic) with Roi. Then in 1920 they
left Seattle for San Francisco where Roi taught at Mills College.
In San Francisco, Cunningham refined her style, taking a greater
interest in pattern and detail as seen in her works of bark
textures, trees, and zebras. Cunningham became increasingly
interested in botanical photography, especially flowers, and between
1923 and 1925 carried out an in-depth study of the magnolia flower.
Later in the decade she turned her attention towards industry,
creating several series of industrial landscapes throughout Los
Angeles and Oakland.
In 1929, Edward Weston, nominated 10 of Cunningham's photos (8
botanical, 1 industrial and 1 nude) for inclusion in the "Film und
Foto" exhibition in Stuttgart. Cunningham once again changed
direction to become more interested in the human form, particularly
hands (and a further fascination with the hands of artists and
musicians). This interest led to her employment by Vanity Fair,
photographing stars without make-up or false glamour. 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 and they later divorced. She continued her
work with Vanity Fair until it stopped publication in 1936.
In the 1940s Cunningham turned to documentary street photography
which she did as a side project whilst supporting herself with her
commercial and studio photography and later on with teaching at the
California School of Fine Arts.
Cunningham continued to take pictures until shortly before her death
at age 93 on June 24, 1976 in San Francisco, California.
The Unmade Bed
Triangles Plus One, 1928
Ansel Adams, Photographer
Minor White, Photographer
Alice Boughton and child, Summerville, Cape Cod
Rene, Portrait in Seattle
Ruth Cravath, Sculptor
Ruth Cravath in her stoneyard
Roger Barr in his studio
Roger Barr [Decides]
Prof. Wellington with his Collection
Boy on Laguna St.
The Beach, San Francisco