Imogen Cunningham’s Sensual Photography
On the 24th of June 1976, American photographer Imogen Cunningham died in San Francisco, California at the grand age of 93. Best known for her portraits, nudes and images of plant life, Cunningham started her studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. “Her earliest prints were made in the tradition of Pictorialism, a style of photography that imitated academic painting from the turn of the century. After studying photography at the Technische Hochschule in Dresden, Germany, from 1909 to 1910, Cunningham opened a portrait studio in Seattle in 1910 and soon established a solid reputation. By the early 1920s Cunningham began to change her style, creating close-up, sharply detailed studies of plant life and other natural forms. Her experiments with form allied her with other Modernist photographers at the time, and in 1932 Cunningham joined the association of West Coast photographers known as Group f.64. Like other members of the group, she rejected the soft-focused sentimental subjects that were then popular in favour of images such as Two Callas (c. 1929, see feature image to this article), which conveys a sensuous delight in nature.” (Britannica)
From boldly sensuous nudes to simple close-ups and beautiful still lifes, Imogen Cunningham’s pioneering work garnered worldwide acclaim. One of the first women to make her living as a photographer, Cunningham consistently experimented with a wide range of techniques during her remarkable career. Ideas without End offered the first complete retrospective of 100 of her photographs — the majority of which had not been published. Cunningham was one of the few women photographers to exhibit nationally and internationally during the first three decades of this century. Her work has received serious scholarly study, some of the most insightful from Richard Lorenz, who wrote on the artist in the aforementioned Ideas without End. In his essay Imogen Cunningham: Flora, Lorenz discussed Cunningham’s botanic images, placing them within a personal context as well as relating them to the work of colleagues interested in similar themes. We learn of her fascination with plants and gardening and her amateur botany studies.
When she moved to California and her husband began working at Mills College, they purchased a home on a large lot. She started gardening and joined the California Horticultural Society. She began photographing the plants and flowers in her garden. Her photographs were sold at the Mills College bookstore for $25 each. In 1925, the Museum of Modern Art began exhibiting and selling her photograph of magnolia blossoms. Writing in the third person, Cunningham explained: “[She had] a skill with the camera, which she was not willing to sacrifice to maternity, so she turned her camera to use and photographed the things she had around her- her own children of course and plants that she cultivated. It is quite easy to do a bit of gardening work and yet attend children. It is not as easy to do good photographic work, but it can be done. She did both.” (Pamela H. Simpson, review of Imogen Cunningham: Flora by Richard Lorenz, in Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring – Summer, 1997).
While Cunningham seemed restricted by family life to explore certain subjects close to home, she still applied the artistic principles she held dear to all the work she produced. The famous photographer Anselm Adams, speaking of his friendly rivalry with Cunningham, captured her wit and fighting spirit when it came to the preservation of modernist values: “Imogen used to give me a hard time about what she considered my “too-commercial” side. That was probably another legacy of her being around painters so much. She felt I wasn’t enough the artist, wasn’t following the studio tradition. Art with a capital A. She had had some commercial jobs, and I think she didn’t trust advertising. (…) In any case, I know she disapproved of that Hills Brothers coffee can that came out about 1968 – the one with one of my Yosemite snow scenes on it. She made that very clear. She sent me one of the cans with a marijuana plant growing in it!” (Ansel Adams interview from Judy Dater’s book Imogen Cunningham: A Portrait). Imogen Cunningham symbolically opted for ‘flower power’ over the commercialisation and serialisation of art through advertising. She can in fact be considered one of the most faithful modernist formalists in photography at the time.