Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Imogen Cunningham: Photographer and Feminist

"My interest in photography has something to do with the aesthetic, and that there should be a little beauty in everything."                          —Imogen Cunningham

Imogen Cunningham
ca. 1974
Gelatin Silver Print
Imogen Cunningham Trust

It is difficult to embrace the notion that when Imogen Cunningham began to take photographs in the early twentieth century, photography had been invented a mere seventy years before. As an independent woman with strong opinions and a mind of her own—at a time when opportunities for women were decidedly self-made—Cunningham’s life was a complex one. She did not ever formally identify herself as a feminist, but believed in equal rights for all.

If Cunningham was devoted to any cause, it was to her work. In January 1913, she wrote an article about women in photography for The Arrow, the University of Washington magazine. In it Cunningham stated, “Being devoted to one’s work is much like hearing a great Wagnerian opera with one’s soul open. The energy and vitality of life seem for a time sapped but come back in renewed quantity and quality.”[1]

Cunningham expemplified that philosophy as she lived and worked through much of the twentieth century, inspired by the changes she saw, and the people with which she worked. She was fascinated by portrait photography and people, as both nude studies and portraits became her lifetime theme. She photographed everything but, Cunningham felt that "people are always different, they are different every second." [2]

Photographing for nearly seventy-five years, her long career endured despite economic and emotional hardships. Cunningham produced a wide range of portraits, still-lifes, abstract and experimental works, industrial landscapes, and, during her early Pictorialist years, allegorical nudes. Her best known signature images were made between 1920 and 1940, an exciting period of modernist imagery in America.

Imogen Cunningham
Magnolia Blossom
ca. 1925
Gelatin Silver Print
10 x 13 inches
Imogen Cunningham Trust
 Cunningham accumulated a number of hard-won achievements, all while protesting that her best photograph might yet be made tomorrow. As Hilton Kramer noted, “Her work has a double claim on our attention. It belongs to history, and at the same time it is part of [the] contemporary scene.

Imogen Cunningham was born in Portland, Oregon in April, 1883. Her father, Isaac, was a voracious reader and was drawn to the ideals of utopian communities. When she was just four years old, Cunningham’s father moved the family from Portland to the Puget Sound Co-operative Colony at Port Angeles, Washington, a Victorian seaport for the fishing and logging industries. [4]The Pacific Northwest region of the United States, at the end of the nineteenth century, possessed a “frontier” quality. By then, Portland was the largest city in the northwest with a busy seaport that rivaled that of San Francisco. During such a period of rapid growth and expansion, perhaps the area wasn't as caught up in conventions as a more established Eastern urban setting may have been. Imogen, young and ambitious, took advantage of the more permissive atmosphere to study at the University of Washington and later, to start her own photography business.

Imogen Cunningham
Marsh, Early Morning
ca. 1906
Imogen Cunningham Trust
 While attending university, Cunningham was free to delve into chemistry as an avenue to photography. She began to take photographs as early as 1906, while she was a student The image she recalls as her first photograph is entitled Marsh, Early Morning, a misty study of a swamp at the university’s edge. The early photograph is rooted in pictorialism with its premise that the camera can engage the feelings and the senses of the viewer naturally, without manipulation of the photograph itself. Her photograph is an exceedingly soft-focus scene of water, surrounded by trees, sans leaves. It brings to mind an impression of an early morning setting, evoking a watercolor painting, rather than a photograph.

Imogen spent two years employed by Edward S. Curtis in Seattle where she learned about the mechanics of retouching negatives, the portrait business, and the practical side of photography. During that time, she became acquainted with the photographic journal, Camera Work, a periodical published by the Camera Club of New York and edited by photographer, Alfred Stieglitz. The periodical was dedicated to the Photo-Secession, filled with sublime photographs, and the discussion of modern art and culture. Cunningham also corresponded with managing editor Joseph Keily who would, two years later, provide her with an introduction to Alvin Langdon Coburn, [5] an important member of the Photo-Secession movement who lived in London.

Imogen Cunningham
Clare with Narcissus
ca. 1910
Gelatin silver print
Imogen Cunningham Trust

After her travels in Europe and across the United States, Imogen arrived back in Seattle with little money and no place to live, however, she was tenacious and managed to set herself up in business within a few weeks. For ten dollars per month, Cunningham rented a quaint old cottage on First Hill that had been refurbished as an art studio. The rather primitive building was covered completely with ivy and, along with several mature maple trees on the property, provided a contrast between the paved streets and modern buildings of the city with the cozy home/studio.

Cunningham took a different approach to portraiture by offering a naturalistic style, rather than the rigid poses and stereotypic formats used by other commercial studios of the period. Most of her studio work consisted of sitters in their own homes, in her living room, studio garden, or in the yard surrounding Cunningham's cottage. She composed portraits with props such as floral arrangements, or an occasional pet, situated her subjects in the studio garden, or against other architectural frameworks. Cunningham’s use of the environment would always remain an emphasis, but most crucial to her was the interpretation of the "essence" of the person.

Imogen was the only photographer to be a member of the Seattle Fine Arts Society, and was a frequent exhibitor of portraits of artists and writers. Cunningham was also obliged to promote her studio in order to stay in business, so she not only ran simple advertisements in local news papers, but she also submitted her work to the leading photographic periodicals and salons of the day. In 1913, Cunningham wrote a manifesto which she entitled, “Photography as a Profession for Women.” She ascribed the lack of “conspicuously strong and individual work” by women in the higher arts to their lack of opportunity. She pondered, “Why women of so many years should have been supposed to be fitted only to the arts and industries of the home is hard to understand.” [6] Cunningham believed that gender should not determine or limit any career for a woman and she felt as if women were simply trying to do something for themselves rather than to attempt to compete with men. Photography, in her opinion, was a craft to which both sexes should have equal rights.

Imogen Cunnigham
Boys with Cut Flowers
ca. 1919
Gelatin silver print
Imogen Cunningham Trust

Next Post: From Pictorialism to a Modern View

For an extensive look at her work see The Imogen Cunningam Trust:

1. Judy Dater, Imogen Cunningham: A Portrait (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1979), 35.
2. Ibid.
3. Hilton Kramer, "Imogen Cunningham at Ninety: A Remarkable Empathy, " New York Times, May 6, 1973
4. “Imogen Cunningham in Utopia,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly, April 1983, 88-89.
5.  Alvin Langdon Coburn, Spartacus Educational Publishers, Ltd.,  Boston-born Coburn moved to London in 1904, where he developed a reputation for photographing the portraits of celebrities such as George Bernard Shaw. In his journal, Blast (1914-15), Lewis attacked the sentimentality of 19th century art and emphasized the value of violence, energy and the machine. In the visual arts, Vorticism, the group with which he aligned himself, was expressed in abstract compositions of bold lines, sharp angles and planes.
6. Imogen Cunningham, Photography as a Profession for Women, The Arrow 29, no. 2, January 1913, 203.

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