The lady behind the lens: the early 20th century photographer back in focus

“The Unmade Bed” (1957), by Imogen Cunningham. Gelatin silver print. Getty Museum, gift of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser © Imogen Cunningham Trust

Recovered and recognized

“Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective” at the J. Paul Getty Museum

by Bondo Wyszpolski

“Self-Portrait with Elgin Marbles, London” (1909-10), by Imogen Cunningham. Platinum print. Getty Museum © Imogen Cunningham Trust

Although Imogen Cunningham is not as well known as other early and mid-20th century photographers such as Paul Strand, Alfred Stigelitz, Edward Wilson, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, her work parallels and compares to theirs to a great extent. respects. Her career behind the camera spanned 70 years – she lived from 1883 to 1976 – but how well known was she? Curator Paul Martineau notes in the accompanying catalog that she “was over eighty when she received her first monograph, in the Winter 1964 issue of Aperture”. Books dedicated to her work began to appear, in 1970 and again in 1974, along with others in the wake of her death on June 24, 1976, which is also the day Minor White, her friend and fellow photographer , gives up the ghost.

Cunningham’s 1956 solo exhibition at the Limelight Gallery in New York was favorably mentioned by The New York Times, but long before that people had taken notice of his photos. It also helped that she came from a liberal background and was undeterred in her career choice.

Initially, she had a rather eccentric father. Isaac Burns Cunningham, writes Susan Ehrens, “was a free thinker, a vegetarian and a spiritualist. He was bookish and inquisitive – a voracious reader of Shakespeare, theosophy and philosophical mathematics. He named Imogen for the king’s daughter Cymbeline, whom he considered William Shakespeare’s noblest female character. The Imogen of ‘Cymbeline’ is a stubborn and independent girl; his namesake would turn out to be of the same character.

“Cornish School Trio 2” (1935), by Imogen Cunningham. Gelatin silver print. © Imogen Cunningham Trust

Whether or not the elder Cunningham fully approved of his daughter’s pursuit of photography, he built her a darkroom in the family woodshed.

Although she may have been a confident young woman (as Ehrens implies), it helps to have role models, pioneers of a genre who can point the way forward, and other female photographers who have influenced or encouraged Cunningham include Gertrude Käsebier, Jessie Tarbox Beals, and Frances Benjamin Johnston.

So, after graduating from college in three years, Cunningham applied for and won a scholarship to study photographic chemistry in Dresden. She then left Seattle and traveled abroad, spending much of 1909 and 1910 in Saxony’s capital as she studied, learned, and experimented with the basic materials of her craft. As Ehrens points out, “it is clear that his aim in conducting these complex experiments was to enrich the aesthetic quality of his photographic prints – to put science at the service of art”.

After returning to Seattle, Cunningham opened his own studio. Much of his work at this time is squarely in the pictorialist vein, that is, there is a sepia-toned gauze here, which has attracted so many others, from Emily Pitchford and Anne Brigman to Edward Weston and even Ansel Adams. In 1994, the Getty Villa and the Huntington co-curated “Pictorialism in California: Photographs 1900-1940”, and the catalog for that exhibition remains a valuable resource for this particular genre which, perhaps predictably, has breathless as it seemed more a holdover from the late 19th century than a harbinger of 20th century modernism.

“Tea at Foster’s, San Francisco” (1940s), by Imogen Cunningham. Gelatin silver print. Seattle Art Museum. Gift of John H. Hauberg © Imogen Cunningham Trust

As visual artists must, Cunningham had an eye for composition and was keenly aware of patterns, shapes, tones and textures, whether she was pointing her camera at the inside of a flower or at someone. a seated motionless for a studio portrait. And speaking of the latter, she was influenced by Kitagawa Utamaro’s 18th century woodcuts, the way he posed people together for double portraits so that the resulting image would be as harmonious as possible.

Cunningham’s trajectory as an artist was somewhat interrupted after 1915, when she married and then, in fairly quick succession, gave birth to three sons. This is one of the reasons why we see so many birds and flowers, images taken in her garden where she could also keep an eye on her boys. And later, as they became more self-sufficient, Cunningham was able to venture further afield again, for example to Stuttgart in 1929, where she took part in the Deutscher Werkbund, “Film und Foto” exhibition. Additionally, her first images for “Vanity Fair” appeared in the December 1931 issue.

On the home front, however, things had not gone so well and her husband divorced her in 1934, which apparently affected her deeply. There were tough times in the late 1940s, but as some things were let go, other things, other people, came to help fill the void. In 1950, she began a lifelong friendship with sculptor Ruth Asawa despite their 43-year age difference. But again, Cunningham never seemed to particularly criticize people based on their age, ethnicity, or sexual preference. What interested him was the image, unearthing it, so to speak, from the woodwork. In other words, “I work on instinct”.

For those wondering if Cunningham ever photographed the famous of his day, the answer is yes, and the book features photos of Frida Kalho, Gertrude Stein, Herbert Hoover, Morris Graves, Man Ray, Martha Graham, Spencer Tracy and d ‘others.

When Imogen Cunningham died at the age of 93, she was still active and photographed almost until the very end. As Martineau puts it, “She readily admitted that she was never fully satisfied with anything and considered self-improvement, in all its forms, her life’s work.”

“Pentimento” (1973), by Imogen Cunningham. Gelatin silver print. Getty Museum, gift of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser © Imogen Cunningham Trust

One of her last projects was to photograph 90-year-olds, but she was forced to take it down a notch and include 80-year-olds. There is an image in the show, “Age and its Symbols”, from 1958, which seems to have been part of this series. We are so often obsessed with images of the young and flawless, but this is a beautiful portrait of an older lady and, in a way, an elegant reflection of the photographer herself.

This exhibition almost did not materialize, as its original dates (June 29 to September 26, 2021) came during one of the peaks of the pandemic. It was already planned at the Seattle Art Museum from last November to February. Perhaps there were no further engagements, for now Cunningham’s show is here and she can finally attempt, in Martineau’s words, “to elevate her stature by giving her work the same attention given to his peers”.

Concerning the catalog: “Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective”, by Paul Martineau (Getty Publications, 245 pp., $50).

Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective is on view until June 12 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. Daily, except Monday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Free, but parking is $20. Call (310) 440-7300 or visit getty.edu. Emergencies