One of the most influential photographers of the twentieth century, Imogen Cunningham's career lasted an impressive six decades. Born to Isaac Burns and Susan Elizabeth Cunningham on April 12, 1883 in Portland Oregon, she was encouraged to study chemistry at the University of Washington at Seattle so that she would have the sufficient scientific background for a career as a photographer. Her senior thesis was entitled, "Modern Processes of Photography." After graduation, she worked for two years as an assistant to Seattle-based photographer Edward S. Curtis, who had received national attention for his romanticized portraits of Native Americans.
In 1909, Miss Cunningham studied photographic chemistry in Dresden, Germany, and published her research on several types of printing processes. After returning to Seattle and opening a portrait studio, she immersed herself in the photographic community, which included etcher Roi Partridge, whom she later married and with whom she had three sons. Her lifelong fascination with nude subjects is reflected in her 1910 photograph entitled Eve Repentant, which provoked public outrage when it was published in Town Crier, a local Seattle publication. She further fanned the flames of scandal with her 1915 portrait The Bather, in which her nude husband is gazing at his own reflection a la Narcissus.
Miss Cunningham was enamored of the liberating effects of photography and her human and botanical portraits featured a creative interplay between close-up and light, which uncompromisingly presented her subjects that displayed an emotional intensity that was unique for its time. Her interest in pictorial photography waned as her intrigue with straight photography increased. After her 1934 divorced, she and her three young sons moved to San Francisco, where she opened a studio on Green Street. She became a photographic contributor to Vanity Fair magazine and, along with Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, was a founding member of Group f/64, which as its name implies advocated sharp-focused photography.
Her successful collaboration with dancer and choreographer Martha Graham in the early 1930s began a period of celebrity photography, but an invitation by University of California Paul Taylor led Miss Cunningham to the plight of the migrant workers, which she documented in painstaking detail. This began a period of considerable experimentation with Cubism-influenced photomontage and double exposures. She also became increasingly involved in the feminist movement, and became an impassioned supporter for the inclusion of women in the workplace and worked tirelessly to increase their role in the male-dominated artistic establishment.
In the 1950s, she returned to portrait photography, and her own self-portrait - that revealed an aging photographer whose face is partially concealed by a window display of women's lingerie - reflects an unflinching commitment to photographic creativity and realism. Miss Cunningham had little patience with photographers who did not make their own prints. To her, the print quality revealed as much about the photographer as the image itself. Refusing to slow down as she entered her 90s, she continued producing commercially popular portraits that established photography as the preeminent visual medium of the twentieth-century. Imogen Cunningham died on June 23, 1976 at the age of 93.
2001 Concise Dictionary of Women Artists (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers), pp. 169-171.
2000 The Eighth Lively Art (Seattle: University of Washington Press), pp. 118-126.
1999 Oregon Biographical Dictionary (Wilmington, DE: Somerset Publishers, Inc.), pp. 44-45.
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