Imogen Cunningham was a photographer who is best known for her stunning close-ups of flowers shown with graceful curves, sensuous arabesques, and organic spirals, softened through the glow of filtered illumination.
Cunningham was born in Portland, Oregon and was the fifth in a family of 10 children. She grew up in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington as a chemistry major. This was a boon to her understanding of darkroom printing processes. Cunningham worked in the portrait studio of Edward S. Curtis on the first few of his 20-volume set of portraits, “The North American Indian.” Afterwards, Cunningham traveled to Germany to study photographic chemistry.
Cunningham worked on the West Coast and moved to the Bay Area with her husband. She established her own studio, becoming one of the very first professional woman photographers. Her first love was portraiture, and she photographed people in the art world: Gertrude Stein, Frida Kahlo Rivera, Spencer Tracy, and Cary Grant among others. She photographed her husband nude on Mount Rainier in 1915, producing the first series of male nudes made by a woman photographer.
It wasn’t until the 1920s that she began to explore plants and flowers as subjects for her photographic work. In 1932, Cunningham along with Ansel Adams, Edward Westin, John Paul Edwards, Sonya Noskowiak, Henry Swift, and Willard Van Dyke founded the Group f/64 collective that supported a Modernist vision of photography. The ‘f/64’ was a reference to the aperture setting which gives the sharpest clarity from foreground to background in a picture. It was the sharp focused photographs of calla lilies, magnolia blossoms, flowers, aloe, and amaryllis – bordering on abstraction – that became her most influential work.
Although she was well respected as a photographer among her peers, she was never given proper recognition in the art world until the 1960s and 1970s. But she did live long enough to finally see the recognition that was her due. A retrospective of her work, the first thorough survey in more than 35 years, is being shown at the Getty Museum through June 12, 2022.
Her work is in the collections of major museums, such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Art, International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House in Rochester, and the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and others.