Friday, May 24, 2013

Imogen Cunningham: Towards "Stolen Pictures"

Imogen Cunningham
Self Portrait
ca. 1932
Imogen Cunningham Trust
Imogen Cunningham was an artist who never stopped challenging herself, and continued to grow both personally and professionally. By 1932, California photographers Cunningham and Edward Weston were internationally known professional photographers, whose work was shown in major retrospectives at venues such as the de Young museum in San Francisco. Cunningham, however, was rebellious. Her interests were too eclectic to be constrained by her involvement in Group f/64, a group of seven twentieth century San Francisco photographers who shared a common photographic style characterized by sharp-focused and carefully framed images seen through a particularly Western (American) viewpoint. In part, the group formed in opposition to the Pictorialist photographic style that had dominated much of the early 20th century, but they particularly wanted to promote a new Modernist aesthetic that was based on precisely exposed images of natural forms and found objects.

The restrictions, which held to a realism that was born of Weston’s aesthetic, stifled her creativity. Cunningham was adventurous, flexible, and enjoyed “fooling around” as she would say, to go beyond the conservative, signature subjects of most photographers of the time. Cunningham would crop an image when she felt it necessary, and save a rejected negative from the darkroom sink when it became more interesting, due, for example, to an accident during the printing process. Always experimental, she would sandwich negatives of photograph double exposures when she pleased.[1] Cunningham embraced abstraction and, on occasion, one can see shades of Surrealism and Dada in her evolving body of work. This is especially evident in her 1935 Photomontage of Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt, as well as her later photographs created during the 1960s and 1970s, such as Doll with Head Between Legs, and Lyle Tuttle, Tattoo Artist.


Imogen Cunningham
Photomontage of Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt
ca. 1935
Imogen Cunningham Trust
Vanity Fair invited Cunningham to work in New York in 1934. Her husband, Roi Partridge, however, was busy with his own work and he insisted that she defer the trip until they could travel together. Cunningham chose not to wait. According to their son, Padriac, Cunningham and Partridge cared deeply for one another, but his father (Partridge) was inflexible and controlling. Raised as an only child, Partridge had what he wanted, the way he wanted it, and he demanded that things go the way he wanted them to go. In an interview with Judy Dater, Padriac stated that, “(Partridge) wanted more services, more housecleaning—he wanted a housewife in a sense, and he wasn’t getting one…So, Roi’s attitude and Imogen’s activities were not conducive to living smoothly together.” [2]

Given his temperament, and the generation in which he was raised, Partridge could not continue to accept Cunningham’s independence. She grew tired of Partridge’s chauvinistic, dogmatic, attitude, and of putting her work and their family second to his career. Partridge admired her work, but, despite being a talented artist in his own right, it was difficult for Partridge to accept that he could
not be Cunningham’s equal in photography. A certain amount of professional rivalry may have increased the tension of their marriage. With her sons old enough to be on their own, the nineteen year marriage lost its cohesive element, and Partridge, not Cunningham, traveled to Reno, Nevada, in June of 1934, to file for divorce. The couple remained friends for the rest of their lives. Cunningham would never remarry and remained devoted only to her craft.
 
During her month’s stay in Manhattan, Cunningham met with and photographed Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer she had met early in her career and of whom she had been completely intimidated at the time. An established and well-respected artist in her own right by this trip, Imogen was a peer and was able to capture the essence of the man in a striking photograph with a painting by his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe hung behind him.

Imogen Cunningham
Alfred Stieglitz, Photographer
ca. 1934
Imogen Cunningham Trust

Cunningham also photographed a broad range of subject matter and content. She captured images from horse-drawn carts in Chinatown, to a portrait of Mrs. James Roosevelt, mother of Franklin D. Roosevelt, at her home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  The extremes of wealth and dire poverty observed by Cunningham propelled her to take what she considered to be her first “stolen picture,” a term she used to describe her particular type of documentary, street photography.[3] Cunningham captured a homeless man sleeping on a gritty sidewalk. He lies at the base of a wall which declares “No Thorofare” [sic], beneath the Queensboro Bridge at 59th Street in Manhattan.
 
Imogen Cunningham
Under the Queensborough Bridge
ca. 1934
Imogen Cunningham Trust
 
 











In 1934, Cunningham made her foray into documentary photography. Paul Taylor, a professor of economics, and a specialist in migratory labor at the University of California, Berkeley, invited Cunningham and her friend Dorothea Lange to provide visual documents for his social research. Lange was already working in the genre at the time and had begun recording the social concerns raised by the Great Depression beginning in 1934 (famous most notably for her photograph, Migrant Mother). Taylor, Cunningham, Lange, and three other Bay Area photographers spent a weekend photographing the process of converting a failed sawmill into a self-help cooperative, taking photographs of its members and their challenging existence. Lange and Cunningham differed in their aesthetics. Taylor felt that Lange’s working method was a search for emotion and story, where she candidly captured nuances of attitude, character, and mood. Cunningham “set up and made a few studied, well-organized, well-executed photographs.”[4] Taylor’s observation is evident in Cunningham’s photograph entitled, Coon Saw.

Imogen Cunningham
Coon Saw
ca. 1934
Imogen Cunningham Trust
 Cunningham relied on the cooperation of her subject. The photograph depicts a worker, standing with his head in profile, in front of what appears to be a metal water tower or cylindrical storage container. His skin is deeply tanned and weathered with lines that etch the skin on his neck and face. He wears a rather formal felt hat, which contrasts with the rumpled appearance of his unbuttoned striped shirt, open at the neck, revealing a grimy undershirt beneath. The ensuing picture is an almost theatrical portrait of a depression-era man.

Cunningham would take her so-called “stolen pictures” throughout the rest of her life. The photographs, however, would always evoke humanistic portraits rather than offer documentary commentary or opinions on particular social issues. Cunningham did not care to invade people’s privacy by interpreting, or judging them. She steered away from depictions of poverty and sadness, and was uncomfortable exploiting their miseries. With her background in the arts, and her belief in producing works of aesthetic value, Cunningham claimed at a later date, “I have no ambition, never did have any ambition to be a reporter…I still feel that my interest in photography has something to do with the aesthetic, and that there should be a little beauty in everything.”[5]

 

1. Hirsch, Robert (2000). Seizing the Light: A History of Photography. McGraw-Hill. pp. 245–246 
2. Lorenz, Imogen Cunningham: Ideas without End, 34.
2. Dater, Imogen Cunningham: A Portrait, 21-22.
3. Cunningham to Franke and Heidecke, an advertising firm in Germany, June 5, 1959, ICP. She wrote: “I am not so much intrigued by landscape—though I have done some. I like to do street shots and what I call ‘stolen pictures’ such as strange people at rummage sales and in crowds.”
4.  Meltzer Milton, Dorothea Lange: A Photographer’s Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1978), 81-87.
5. Carol Kort, " Imogen Cunningham," In Kort, Carol, and Liz Sonneborn. A to Z of American Women in the Visual Arts, A to Z of Women. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2002. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?
ItemID=WE52&iPin=WVA025&SingleRecord=True (accessed July 9, 2012)