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Imogen Cunningham

Text from The Photography Encyclopedia

Cunningham, Imogen
American, 1883-1976

Cunningham, Imogen (1883-1976), American photographer and artist

From bold, evocative nudes to starkly beautiful still lifes, Imogen Cunningham's impressive body of work has garnered her 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 amazing career, which spanned seven full decades.

She set trends decades ahead of others; Cunningham was pointing her lens at pregnant nudes eons before Annie Liebovitz focused in on Demi Moore for the cover of Vanity Fair. An idol of photography students and a paragon of her professional colleagues, Cunningham amassed portfolios that virtually encompassed the exploits of photography in the twentieth century.

One of ten children born in Portland, Oregon, Cunningham was a chemistry major whose first job was in the studio of Edward Curtis. After eight years there, she went to Germany on a scholarship, returning to Seattle in 1910 and establishing her own studio. She had her first solo show in Brooklyn, New York, in 1912.

Starting in the 1920s, she began making sharply focused, close up studies of plant life and unconventional views of industrial structures and modern architecture. Concerned with light, form, and abstract pattern, these photographs established her as one of the pioneers of modernist photography on the West Coast. In the 1930s, she joined the legendary San Francisco collective f/64 with Ansel Adams and others.

Some of her best known portraits were a 1931 series of the dancer Martha Graham for Vanity Fair and others of the actors Spencer Tracy and Cary Grant. She was prominently featured in the landmark 1937 Museum of Modern Art show "Photography 1839-1937." She continued to work voraciously as she raised three sons and maintained friendships with such contemporaries as Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Minor White, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and others. She shot on the street and in the studio. In the 1950s she photographed the Beats and in the '60s the Flower Power generation and Haight Ashbury scene.

At age 87, she received a Guggenheim fellowship to print many of her old negatives. At the same time, she was taking a public stand against the war in Vietnam. At age 92, she started her last major project, a book of images of people over 90; it was published posthumously.

She will go down in the annals of the medium as one who brought wit, originality, and freshness to photography decade after decade after decade. She was a true American original.


 


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