Monday, May 20, 2013

Imogen Cunningham: From Pictorialist to Modernist



Imogen Cunningham
Roi Partridge, Etcher
ca. 1915
Platinum print
20.8 x 15.7 cm.
George Eastman House
Still Photograph Archive
 Imogen met her husband-to-be, artist Roi Partridge, while he was studying art with his friend, John Butler, in Paris during a whirlwind and passionate correspondence via mail, He pleaded with her to join him in Europe, but the outbreak of the First World War forced Partridge to return to Seattle, where the couple finally met for the first time. They wed on February 11, 1915, in Butler’s studio, whereupon Partridge set up an art studio next to that of Cunningham. Cunningham’s first photograph of Partridge depicts him posed in front an over sized etching entitled La Petite Reine, in order to produce a study of designer and design.
 
Cunningham and Partridge made a number of trips to the local forests; he sketching directly from nature and she, taking photographs.  Partridge posed for an extended series of nude photographs in a variety of classical poses and was pictured faun-like in settings of the Washington hills, and mist-covered lakes. The photographs caused a local scandal when they were published in a The Town Crier, that same year.

The couple moved to a rural area in Oakland and Partridge was hired to teach drawing and design at Mills College, a small, liberal arts institution for women. With three young children to care for, Cunningham remained frustrated at the three-year hiatus from he professional career, however, Partridge’s association with Mills College benefited Cunningham, in that he was the organizer of exhibitions for the art gallery on campus. He, with Imogen, mounted a major exhibition of new photography-photographs by Cunningham, Edward Weston, Margrethe Mather, and Anne Brigman were included. Cunningham was in her element as an artist/photographer who had studied art, was married to an artist, and attracted many artists as friends. Mills College specialized in art, music, dance, and literature, and was home to a variety of international visiting artists who not only provided inspiration for Cunningham, but also became her subjects.
Imogen Cunningham
Jose Limon, Dancer, Mills College
ca. 1939
Platinum print
No size given
Imogen Cunningham Trust

 



1921 was a turning point for Cunningham. She refined her vision of nature, taking a greater interest in modernist ideas of light, form, and pattern. A family visit to the San Francisco zoo during that same year produced a series of zebra studies, which defined the natural black and white abstraction of the animal. Cunningham’s portraits of this period reflect her move from the long view to the close-up as she composed tight relationships of objects or sitters that filled the picture frame. Cunningham’s studies of detail and pattern are reflected in the photographs of bark texture and contorted tree trunks, along the Carmel Coast and the trumpet-shaped morning glories that grew wild in her backyard. The 1922 series of Weston and Mather, and of Partridge and John Butler, demonstrated her emphasis on clarity, form, definition, and persona which replaced her previous use of pictorialist space.[1]




Imogen Cunningham
Morning Glory
ca. 1920s
No size given
Imogen Cunningham Trust
By 1923, Cunningham began to experiment with abstraction, and was one of the first photographers on the West Coast to do so. She explored sunlight patterns that were diffused through leaves during a solar eclipse, double exposures and which married the art and technology of her day. 

Imogen began to turn her camera to botanical subjects between 1923 and 1925 that became increasingly simplified as she sought to recognize the form within the object. In addition, she sought pattern and design. Cunningham would hunt for random artifacts and photograph items such as a drawer full of buttons.





Imogen Cunningham
Buttons
ca. 1925
Gelatin Silver Print
No size given
Imogen Cunningham Trust

Perhaps inspired by her time in Germany, Cunningham cultivated her interest in German culture by reading publications such as the annual Das Deutsche Lichtbild, which profiled botanical photographs by Alber Renger-Patzsch, volumes from Ernst Fuhrmann’s Die Welt der Pflanze, and Karl Blossfeldt’s Urformen der Kunst.  Cunningham, probably more than any other West Coast photographer, matched the Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity of the Germans with her work. New Objectivity was an art movement that grew in Germany in the aftermath of World War I, directly out of the war experiences of a group of German artists that included George Grosz, Max Beckmann, and Otto Dix. All of them had served, at some point, in the German army and had been profoundly affected by the experience. The artwork is characterized by a realistic style combined with a cynical, socially critical, philosophical, stance. The works sought to show the horrors of the war and its effects. Working with plant forms, Cunningham produced images that were both frank and precisionist in their botanical imagery.
In her exploration of American Industry and Precisionism, Cunningham attempted to reduce her compositions of industry to basic shapes, geometric structures, and minimal extraneous detail. She, like other precisionist artists, sought to idealize American industry in print. She took extensive photographs in Los Angeles in 1928, capturing the oil industry in a striking series of images of oil rigs and tanks.
Imogen Cunningham
Gas Tanks
ca. 1927
Platinum print
No size given
Imogen Cunningham Trust
Weston and Cunningham most likely influenced each other as they worked during the same period and knew one another well. A review of a photography exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum in 1929, declared Cunningham to steal the show. The reviewer felt that in comparison, Cunningham’s work had balance and had included enough elementsto make the work interesting. “Were it not for Cunningham’s revelations of what can be created in photography, we might appreciate Weston the more."[2]
Imogen Cunningham
Edward Weston in his first Carmel studio
ca. 1932
Platinum print
Imogen Cunningham Trust
Weston, in particular, felt that Cunningham’s work was “fine and strong and honest.”[3] Not only did Weston respect Cunningham as an artist, he was also a supporter who never failed to praise her work both personally and publicly in conversation, and in print, as well.  In 1929, Weston nominated ten of Cunningham's photos for inclusion in the Film und Foto exhibition in Stuttgart, Germany. Weston requested that Cunningham send examples of her flower forms, but, true to her independent spirit, she forwarded eight botanical subjects, an industrial study, and a nude. 
Next Post: Towards Abstraction


1. The most likely inspiration of Cunningham’s cropped double head portraits of these years is Mather’s masterpiece Hohan Hagemeyer and Edward Weston (1921) which is largely composed of a dark central space framed by half of each subject’s face.
2.  Florence Lehre, “Artists and Their Work,” Oakland Tribune, October 27, 1929, p. 5-7. Other photographers exhibiting include Brett Weston, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Tina Modotti, Dorothea Lange, Roger Sturtevant, Anton Bruehl, E.A. Nievera, Ira Martin, and three members of the Japan Camera Club of Los Angeles, T.K. Shindo, R. Itano, and K. Nakamura.
3.  Edward Weston to Cunningham, undated (late 1920s), Imogen Cunningham Archives.