S E C T I O N
© 2014 Imogen Cunningham Trust
Imogen Cunningham’s self portrait, 1974
© 2014 Imogen Cunningham Trust
When Imogen came to visit Portraits taken by famous photographer I Imogen Cunningham are recently rediscovered at Atherton retirement community © 2014 Imogen Cunningham Trust
Above: Sister Sister Maria Morrison’s portrait is a study in darkness, her black habit melding with the background of the print. She is partially blind, but her countenance is strong and resolute. Top Right: Mildred Murphy, a gardener, is captured amid the bucolic grounds of the Atherton campus.
Story by Sheryl Nonnenberg Photographs by Imogen Cunningham
n the winter of 1976, Imogen Cunningham traveled from her home in San Francisco to Atherton in order to take pictures of the nuns living at the Oakwood Retirement Center, on the campus of Sacred Heart Schools. She was nearly 93 years old and was still hard at work on a project she felt very passionate about, a book that would feature adults over the age of 90 who were still leading active and purposeful lives. While at Oakwood, she photographed eight of the elderly residents. These vintage prints, carefully wrapped in acid-free paper and placed in an archival box, were recently found in the facility’s archives by Sister Clare Pratt, Oakwood’s community life director. They tell a story of an artist and her subjects, all strong and independent women who led rich and fulfilled lives. The photographs of the nuns were taken for a book entitled “After Ninety” (published posthumously in 1977). Ms. Cunningham had come up with the idea both as a way to confront her own aging process and to celebrate the long life and achievements of those she photographed. The book includes a variety of people from all walks of life. There are writers and poets, scientists and neighbors who lived near her home on Green Street. The nuns at Oakwood came to be part of the book as a result See page 19
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Portraits rediscovered Francisco. She gave birth to three children over the next three years of a barter made with a young and soon found herself in the role nun who had contacted the of faculty wife, as Roi took a posifamous photographer, request- tion teaching art at Mills College. ing that she review and critique Ms. Cunningham established some photographs she had tak- a small business taking portraits en. Ms. Cunningham agreed to of Mills coeds and she also did look at her work, but only if the what women artists had been nun would introduce her to nuns doing for centuries, focusing over the age of 90 who would her artistic attentions on her agree to be photographed. immediate environment. It was not She began to unusual for Imotake close-up phogen Cunningham tographs of plants ‘I turn people to receive requests flowers in her into human beings and for advice from garden. Her magby not making novice photognolia series, lush, raphers. By the detailed blackthem into gods.’ 1970s, she had and-white studies been a professionof the interior of IMOGEN CUNNINGHAM al photographer this graceful flowfor seven decades, er, would become with dozens of exhibitions at one of her most famous works. prestigious museums, two pubThroughout the 1920s and lished books and a long list of 30s, she continued to take phohonorary degrees. tographs and her work began to Born in 1883, she was a strong be shown by galleries and museand independent spirit from ums on the East and West Coast. birth. At a time when women She was approached by Vanity had few options other than mar- Fair magazine and was hired to riage and motherhood, she was take pictures of dancer Martha encouraged to become an artist. Graham and Hollywood actors When she was 18, she bought such as Cary Grant and Spencer a 4x5 view camera and enrolled Tracy. The travel and separation in a correspondence course in took a toll on the marriage and order to learn about photogra- Imogen and Roi were divorced phy. She wanted to major in art in 1934. They remained friends in college, but the University of and she never remarried. Washington did not have such a Now free to pursue her career program. She focused her stud- and travel, she bought a small ies on chemistry, thinking that cottage in San Francisco and built it would help her to understand a darkroom. She became part the science behind the medium. of the pioneering f/64 Group, Once she earned her degree, which advocated for “straight she took a position in the studio photography,” free from any sort of Edward Curtis (known for his of manipulation. Others in the portraits of Native Americans), group included Ansel Adams where she learned the difficult and Willard Van Dyke. Their process of platinum printing. simple and direct approach to A small scholarship from her the medium changed the course university sorority allowed her of photography. to travel to Dresden, Germany, For the next 30 years, she gained where she studied photographic recognition as an artist who could chemistry and published sev- do it all: portraits, still-life, nudes eral scientific papers. Upon her and landscapes. Her work was return to Seattle, she opened her shown at the Oakland Museum, own portrait studio, which was the George Eastman House and immediately successful. the San Francisco Museum of At this time, the prevail- Modern Art. ing style of photography was She began to teach at the San called Pictorialism and was Francisco Art Institute and characterized by a soft-focus, became a legendary figure in the romantic tableaux that were city of San Francisco, walking influenced by the paintings of around town in her trademark the Pre-Raphaelites. Her early black cape, camera around her portrait photographs reflect this neck and always ready for that style, with subjects captured in next photograph. dreamy, allegorical settings. Her approach was as direct In 1915, Ms. Cunningham mar- and honest as her personality, no ried graphic artist Roi Partridge matter what the subject matter. and the couple moved to San In every image she sought out the continued from page 17
On the cover: Sister Ethel Teegarden stands in front of a statue of Mary — very appropriate in view of her life spent in the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, an order that was founded by a woman (Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat) in 1800.
S T O R Y
truth, and wrote in her book, “After Ninety,” about finding “beauty in the commonest things.” The portraits taken at Oakwood are typical of her work in many respects. They are simple and straight-forward, with the focus on the face of the subject. She once wrote that portraiture is very difficult, because most people are not happy with themselves and do not like to see the truth revealed in a photograph. She was adept at making her subjects feel at ease, and in the process she was able to get to their true essence and spirit, free of any pretense. One of the ways she did this was by capturing the person in a favorite place or with a treasured object. Sister Ethel Teegarden stands in front of a statue of Mary — very appropriate in view of her life spent in the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, an order that was founded by a woman (Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat) in 1800. Sisters Christine Bogner and Mildred Murphy were both gardeners and were captured amid the bucolic grounds of the Atherton campus. There is no attempt to sugarcoat the challenges of old age, as can be seen in the portrait of Louise Bujan. Wheel-chair bound, the elderly nun sits in quiet contemplation, reciting the
© 2014 Imogen Cunningham Trust
Like Sister Mildred Murphy, Sister Christine Bogner was a gardener, and her portrait is taken outdoors on the Atherton campus.
prayers of the rosary as she has done for decades. Sister Maria Morrison’s portrait is a study in darkness, her black habit melding with the background of the print. She is
partially blind, but her countenance is strong and resolute. There is a quiet dignity in all of the portraits, and a respect for See page 20
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ÂŠ 2014 Imogen Cunningham Trust
There is no attempt to sugarcoat the challenges of old age, as can be seen in the portrait of Sister Louise Bujan. Wheel-chair bound, the elderly nun sits in quiet contemplation, reciting the prayers of the rosary as she has done for decades.
Portraits rediscovered continued from page 19
the strength, devotion and years of wisdom accrued by the aged nuns, most of whom had enjoyed long careers as educators. In an oral history at the Smithsonian Institution, she explained her success at portraiture in the following way, â€œI turn people into human beings by not making them into gods.â€? After her session at Oakwood, the artist sent complimentary copies of the prints to the retirement home, where they were displayed for a short time. Six of the eight photographs were included in â€œAfter Ninety,â€? with the simple description, â€œNuns at Sacred Heart/Oakwood.â€? Imogen Cunningham died in June 1976, just months after her visit to Atherton. She had enjoyed a long and prolific career,
and had ensured the legacy of her work by establishing the Imogen Cunningham Trust, which preserves her negatives and oversees the exhibition of her prints. The Oakwood portraits are a testament to the strength and resilience of both the artist and her subjects, and to Imogen Cunninghamâ€™s no-nonsense philosophy towards life: â€œ... you just have to work and find your own way. Everybody can do it. If I can do it, everybody can.â€? 3 A
Sheryl Nonnenberg is an art researcher and writer who lives in Menlo Park. Much of the information for this article was drawn from Imogen Cunninghamâ€™s book, â€œAfter Ninetyâ€? (University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1977) and an oral history transcript in the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution (June 9, 1975.)
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