Thursday, May 30, 2013

Imogen Cunningham: Ideas without End

Imogen Cunningham
Self Portrait with Grandchildren
ca. 1955
Imogen Cunningham Trust

After her divorce from Partridge, Imogen continued to work for Mills College and she downsized from her bulky four by five inch Graphlex camera to experiment with her son Ron’s 35mm camera, photographing locations in San Francisco, along the Embarcadero and Market Street. She explored aerial views of pedestrians milling about the cable-car turnabout, and photographed store window reflections taken in a single release of the shutter, which mirrored the complexity of her double exposures. The smaller size of the negative did not produce a quality enlargement to her satisfaction, however, so Cunningham switched to a camera that produced a two and one quarter by two and one quarter inch negative. This was the formula she would use with a succession of Rolleiflex cameras for the rest of her life.[1]

Imogen Cunningham
Mount Hamilton Observatory
ca. 1937
Imogen Cunningham Trus
 Not particularly unusual for her times nor location, Cunningham did not drive or own an automobile. A car was not a necessity in San Francisco, and Cunningham managed to get where she needed to go by using available public transit or she traveled about with other photographers.

As the Depression dragged on, projects and commissions all but disappeared, so Cunningham actively solicited work and exposure in such magazines as U.S. Camera, Life, Sunset, House and Garden, and Fortune. She began to photograph for Sunset in color and her vivid, colorful detail of fuchsias appeared on the cover of the June, 1940 issue. Cunningham managed to support herself and help out her sons, as she was able, by photographing commissioned portraits, publishing work in magazines, and living frugally. In a letter to Tom Malone of U.S. Camera regarding her inclusion in the 1942 annual, she wrote:

        “What shall I say about such a straight shot, literal Kodachrome, except that it was a JOB
         and that you might give me a little ad saying that I would like more of the same…And for myself,
         I am not like a spring morning—fiftyish to be inexact. Still having a good time of it.”[2]

Cunningham detested vanity and possessed a strong sense of self. Her attitude is reflected in her musings with regard to a sitter who simply was not happy with any of the likenesses taken by Cunningham. Exasperated, she claimed: “All she wants is to be twenty-five years younger than she is. That’s all she really wants. She cannot take time. She can’t reconcile herself to her age. Now, you see with me, I don’t give a damn.”[3]

Imogen Cunningham
Morris Graves, Painter
ca. 1950
Imogen Cunningham Trust
 Cunningham’s work reflected her love of straight photography—photographs that are frank portrayals, un-retouched, not glamour shots. Her works mirror the concerns and decisions that directed her life as an artist, a wife, a mother, and later, a single, working woman. Cunningham balked at being labeled a “feminist,” but her independence and sense of equality defined her as one by default. In a later interview, she admitted to being a liberal who fought for women’s suffrage and civil rights, but was clear that she “never set out to make a political statement. It’s pretty tough to make anybody change and I’m not one of the persons who’s going to do it.”[4]
In the years 1946-1947, Cunningham taught photography at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Though she believed in learning photography on one's own, Cunningham taught at many institutions of higher learning in the Bay Area and was mentor to many student photographers. In 1947, she opened a studio in her home and worked there for the rest of her life.

Imogen Cunningham
Bench in the Marina District
ca. 1954
Imogen Cunningham Trust
By the 1950s, Cunningham's work was reaching a wider audience and earning her more recognition and she was regularly featured in prestigious exhibitions. She was also the subject of several documentary films. Cunningham still challenged herself as an artist. In the 1960s, she began experimenting with Polaroid cameras. She published her first monograph, in the 1964 issue of Aperture, which included Polaroid cameras. Cunningham published her first book in 1967, the same year she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In 1970, when she was 87 years old, Cunningham was granted a Guggenheim Fellowship from which used the money to print and organize her work. Three years later, at the age of 90, Cunningham had two major exhibitions in New York City. In a New York Times review, Hilton Kramer wrote, "Empathy rather than esthetic invention has been her forte, guiding her eye and her lens to her most powerful images." In 1975, Cunningham created a trust so that her work would be preserved, and would continue to be exhibited, and promoted. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Cunningham's work was exhibited in the United States and throughout the world. Her photographs hang in museums and galleries across the U.S., including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Imogen Cunningham
My Father, After Ninety 2
ca. 1937
Imogen Cunningham Trust
At the age of 92, Cunningham began what would be her last book, After Ninety. The book featured portraits of the elderly, many of whom were her friends, exploring and celebrating old age in a culture that worships youth. She was asked how she kept busy. Cunningham answered in her typically, frank manner, “I don’t keep busy, I am busy.”[5]
Imogen Cunningham
Self Portrait, Denmark
ca. 1961
Imogen Cunningham Trust

1. Up until about 1935, Cunningham used 8 by 10, 5 by 7, and 4 by 5 inch negatives; after 1938 she primarily used 2 ¼ by 2 ¼ and 4 by 5 inch negatives but occasionally shot with the 8 x 10 format through the 1950s.
2. Cunningham to Tom Maloney, Sept. 2, 1941, Imogen Cunningham Archives.
3. Cunningham, interview with Danieli, 135.
4. Judith Rich, “In Focus with Imogen Cunningham,” Westways (Automobile Club of California) 68, no. 8 (Aug. 1976), 72. Adopted by the women’s movement as an example and heroine, Cunningham was critical of militant feminism, stating that “a lot of hate never got anyone anywhere
5. Leslie Sills, In Real Life: Six Women Photographers. (New York: Holiday House, 2000), 17.
Imogen Cunninghma passed away in San Francisco on June 23, 1976, and After Ninety was published posthumously in 1977. From 1978 until 1981 an exhibition, based on the book, traveled widely throughout the United States. One of the first women to make her living as a photographer, Cunningham consistently experimented with a wide range of techniques during her impressive career, which spanned seven full decades.


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