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Cî‘Šnningham imogen

Masters of the Camera edited by Judy Dater


mogen Cunningham entered the University of Washington in Seattle in 1903 when she was twenty years old. No courses in studio art or in art history, both interests she had pursued since childhood, were then offered at the university. And, considering the date, it is not remarkable that photography did not appear in the curriculum either. Imogen had become acquainted with photography when she was eighteen. She then sent to the American School of Art and Photogra­phy in Scranton, Pennsylvania for a 4 x 5-inch view camera and instructions for its use. She soon lost interest in it, however, sold the camera and instructions to a friend and devoted herself to her studies and her social life. In 1906 she bought another camera, a 5 x 7-inch view camera; it was then that she determined to become a photographer. With this goal in mind, she majored in chemistry at the university and was able, because of her experience with the camera, to help pay her tuition by making slides for the botany department.


Masters of the Camera: i m o g e n c u n n i n g h a m

Masters of the Camera: i m o g e n c u n n i n g h a m


"Albert Bender gave me a print of the Magnolia Blossom, one of the most beautiful photographs I've ever owned." Ansel Adams

ISBN- 13: ISBN- 10:

Folio Press New York


Non-Fiction US $37.99  CAN $42.99  UK £ 27.99 567-0-548-65478-0 0-548-65478-05

Folio Press New York

Masters of the Camera edited by Judy Dater

Cî‘Šnningham imogen

Masters of the Camera edited by Judy Dater

Folio Press New York

Table of Contents Introduction by Ansel Adams Chapter 1 : The Early Years Chapter 2 : Growth Chapter 3 : The Later Years Plates Index

1 5 11 19 27 63

Introduction by Ansel Adams

I met Imogen around 1920 when I was visiting Mills College with Albert Bender. Albert was a great patron of the arts in the San Francisco area, and I used to drive him up to Mills on some of his trips, when he was carrying books as gifts to the library Roi Partridge was teaching at Mills then, and Imogen was doing some photography for the college. Then Imogen joined us when we founded Group f /64 in 1932. I'd like to think that that was about the time she really began to realize her creative potential. Her work became more extroverted, she became more aware of the different things others were doing, and that was stimulating to her. Just after that she had this wonderful opportunity to go back East to take photographs for Vanity Fair. She was so thrilled. It was the first chance she had had to really get out into the professional world. Up to this time she'd mostly been doing photographs of girls graduating from Mills and bringing up those three red-headed boys. She was tired of all that, and here was a chance to do something expansive. On that trip she got to photograph some very important people, and that gave her self-confidence and stabilized her. That was when she did that portrait of Stieglitz, which I've always thought was an absolutely superior job, full of understanding. Knowing Stieglitz, I can imagine the difficulties involved in taking his picture. Stieglitz once told me that he thought Imogen and Anne Brigman were the only two women important in western photography. I've heard people say that Imogen felt competitive with me. But in fact there was very little we competed on. In the first place, I'm not a portrait photographer, or only a very occasional one. Possibly rather than competitiveness, she may have felt a little resentment over my perhaps more obvious success. I guess I had more shows, more commercial jobs — but I think she didn't want those anyway. I was just extremely lucky. For one thing, during

» above: Imogen Cunningham, self-portrait, late 1920's » opposite: Ansel Adams, self-portrait



She devoted part of her senior year to studying the methods and photographs of Edward S. Curtis, the proprietor of Seattle's most successful portrait studio as well as the memoralist, through his photographs and recordings, of the vanishing customs of the North American Indians. After her graduation in 1907, Imogen joined the Curtis Studio, where she made platinum prints from Curtis' negatives and learned the practicalities of the portrait business. It seems important to emphasize the scientific basis of her training in photography, and to recognize this training as her way of understanding how to use a medium new to her for the artistic expression she had experienced earlier in painting and drawing. Like many of the pictorialist photographers, her visual sense had already been formed in these other

media. In school she did not study (could not, in fact) vision or expression; she studied instead the chemistry and optics of photography. She chose an appropriate subject for the paper that completed her course with Dr. Byers: The Scientific Development of Photography. In becoming an apprentice in the darkroom of the Curtis Studio she took the next practical step in her career. I was brought up on art. You see, my father thought I had a great hand at art and he sent me to art school on Saturdays. That was because of my report card in the general public schools. I had one teacher who was so keen about art. For instance, she put me in the back row — the very last seat — so that I could draw all the people in the room, if I wanted to, and when I had my lessons done. And those things influenced my father who said, "You should go to art school." So, on Saturday mornings I went to art school. I was always connected with it in some way or other.


» left: Magnolia Blossom, 1925 » right: Her and Her Shadow, 1931 » opposite: Martha Graham, Dancer, 1931

But he did not want me to become a photographer. Not on account of the money, which he knew nothing about. But he said, "Why should you go to school so long and just turn out a photographer?"

Vision of Nature The year 1921 was a distinct turning point for Cunningham. She refined her vision of nature, changing her focus from the long to the near. Her interest in detailed pattern and form became evident in studies of bark texture and contorted tree trunks along the Carmel coast, a writhing snake curled on a gnarled Monterey cypress, and the trumpet–shaped morning glory that grew wild in her backyard. A family visit to the zoo about the same year produced a series of zebra studies, one of which precisely defines the natural black and white abstraction of the patterned belly and loin. Within her portraits of this period, such as a 1922 series of Edward Weston and Margrethe Mather, she formed tightly composed relationships between the sitters within the framework of the plate. The emphasis on clarity, form, definition, and persona displaced her previous use of pictorialist space. By 1923, Cunningham broke new ground in West Coast photography. Her photographs of lunette sunlight patterns diffused through a leafy tree during a solar eclipse were straightforward documentation of a natural phenomenon but they were also unusual nonrepresentational abstractions, recalling the strange, stellate light studies of Coburn's vortographs. About 1923, possibly in response to Coburn's suggestion to make multiple exposures on one plate, Cunningham composed a double–exposure portrait of her mother, her profile veiled by a still life of a pewter pitcher filled with spoons, the utensils forming virtually a shining headdress. The double image, composed of an un-manipulated double exposure on the same sheet of film or the superimposition of two negatives, fascinated Cunningham and facilitated her creation of visual metaphors. Mirror images, reflections in water or window glass, layered multiple images (created in camera or darkroom), relationships between positive and negative, and the direct

The Early Years



» left: Two Sisters, 1928 » right: Two Callas, about 1925




American School of Are Bender, Albert Byers, Dr. Horace Brigman, Anne Carmel, CA Coburn's vortographs Curtis, Edward S. Curtis Studio f/64 Holm, Hanya Her and Her Shadows Images, flowers Images, nude Images, portrait Images, self portraits Magnolia Blossom Martha Graham, Dancer Mather, Margrethe Mills College Monterey cypress Morning Glory North American Indians Partridge, Roi Pictorialist photographers Platinum prints San Francisco, CA Seattle, WA Scranton, Pennsylvania

Âť Magnolia Bud, 1920's

5 1 5,6 6 7 7 5, 6 5, 6

Stieglitz, Alfred Two Callas Two Sisters University of Washington Vanity Fair West Coast Photography Weston, Edward Zebra

1 35 34 5 1 7 7 7

1 5 6 6, 35, 62 6, 34 7 6 6 7 7 1 7 7 6 1 6 6 1 6 5



Masters of the Camera: Imogen Cunningham  

Viewing her work, it is sometimes hard to see the difference from her floral and body shots. They share similar texture, form, and lighting....