Cunningham, Imogen

American (1883-1976)


Imogen Cunningham began her photographic career as a chemistry major, convinced that a scientific understanding of the developing process would aid her craft. While studying at the University of Washington, she also honed her camera skills through a mail correspondence school, making use of a darkroom her father built in a woodshed behind their home. Her technical prowess landed her a job – in 1907 – in the portrait studio of Edward S. Curtis, but it wasn’t until she spent time in Germany that her artistic powers of expression were developed. Returning in 1910, she opened her own studio in Seattle, where she continued to make portraits, but also began producing dreamlike, mythology-influenced shots of nudes in the woods.

During the 1920s, Cunningham began experimenting with forms of abstraction. Some of these shots - close-ups of textures found in nature - possess a sharper focus than the romantic haziness found in her earlier work. Others, influenced by Alvin Coburn, utilize double exposure and fragmented views of the same object. After photographing dancer Martha Graham in 1931, Cunningham was increasingly invited by Vanity Fair to photograph celebrities. However, her penchant for catching them off-set, realistically, living their lives got her labeled something of a renegade where fashion photography was concerned. Shortly after, Cunningham traveled with Dorothea Lange and Paul Strand to document a logging community, beginning an interest in street photography. Her later years found her shooting with both Polaroid and color film, causing her body of work to be considered one of the most varied American portfolios in both subject matter and style.