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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Imogen Cunningham

Names:
Other: Imogen Cunningham Partridge 
Dates:  1883, 12 April - 1976, 24 June
Born:  US, OR, Portland
Died:  US, CA, San Francisco
Active:  US
 
  
American photographer.
 
Questions regarding rights, permissions and the estate should be sent to:
 
Meg Partridge
Director, The Imogen Cunningham Trust
PO Box 456
Lopez Island, WA 98261
 
trust@imogencunningham.com

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for Imogen Cunningham
(Courtesy of Christian Peterson)

 
  
One of the great twentieth-century women photographers, Imogen Cunningham created pictorial images from about 1905 into the 1930s, as well as straight photographs for half a century, beginning in the mid-1920s. She was a member, at different times, of the Pictorial Photographers of America and Group f.64, two organizations with opposing attitudes towards photography.
 
Cunningham was born on April 12, 1883, in Portland, Oregon. When she was about sixteen, she moved with her family to Seattle, where in 1907 she graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in chemistry. About this time, she decided to pursue a career in photography after seeing reproductions of work by Gertrude Käsebier. Initially, she worked in the Seattle studio of Edward S. Curtis, where she learned to retouch negatives and make platinum prints, but in 1910 she set up her own portrait business. Seven years later, she moved with her husband, printmaker Roi Partridge, to San Francisco, and in 1921 she resumed making portraits in Oakland. From then until her death, she produced situational portraits of friends, artists, and paying customers, made both on the street and in a succession of studios in the Bay Area.
 
Cunningham’s earliest work was pictorial, depicting nude or classically draped figures in atmospheric landscapes. She presented her first one-person exhibition in 1912, at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. The Pictorial Photographers of America (PPA), of which she was a member, reproduced her work in three of its annuals during the 1920s and in 1932 she was part of a PPA-sponsored traveling show. As late as 1936, she was still making softly focused nudes and serving as a district executive for the PPA.
 
Cunningham moved from pictorialism to modernism in the 1930s. In 1932, she was a founding member of Group f.64, a small contingent of California photographers (including Ansel Adams and Edward Weston) who agitated for creative photographs made with crisp definition, a full range of tones, and non-sentimental subjects. By the end of the decade, she was fully committed to the straight approach to photography.
 
Both schools and museums recognized the importance of Cunningham’s work. She taught photography at the California School of Fine Arts in the late 1940s, at the San Francisco Art Institute in the mid-1960s, and shortly thereafter at Humboldt State College. She presented solo shows at art museums beginning in 1931, with an exhibition at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco. Large collections of her work were purchased by the George Eastman House in 1960, the Library of Congress in 1964, and the Smithsonian Institution in 1970.
 
Cunningham remained active in her old age. In 1973, the year she turned ninety, she began a photographic project focused on others of the same age. She continued to present one-person exhibitions at museums and galleries and in 1975 created a trust to preserve, exhibit, and promote her work. In 1976, she appeared on the Tonight Show and matched wits with host Johnny Carson. She died later that year, on June 23, at the age of ninety-three. 
  
Christian A. Peterson Pictorial Photography at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Christian A. Peterson: Privately printed, 2012) 
  
This biography is courtesy and copyright of Christian Peterson and is included here with permission. 
  
Date last updated: 1 June 2013. 
  
SHARED BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION PROJECT 
  
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
 
If you find any errors please email us details so they can be corrected as soon as possible.
 
  

Biography provided by Focal Press 
  
Inspired to take up photography in 1901 after seeing the work of Gertrude Käsebier, she learned platinum printing from Edward S. Curtis, eventually opening a portrait studio in Seattle (1910). Her first work was romantic, soft-focus portraits and nudes. After moving to San Francisco in 1917, she adopted modernism. Cunningham’s images came to reflect Group f/64’s credo (of which she was a founder) that the "greatest aesthetic beauty, the fullest power of expression, the real worth of the medium lies in its pure form rather than in its superficial modifications." Her tightly rendered 1920s plant studies presents nature with machine precision or as sexual allusion, drawing sensual parallels to the female form that she explored through her long career. Although the picture is a faithful rendering of a plant, Cunningham’s concern was not the subject itself, but what the subject could become under the photographer’s control. She worked as a commercial photographer from the 1930s. Her last book, After Ninety (1979), was a sympathetic portrait collection of elderly people. 
  
(Author: Robert Hirsch - Independent scholar and writer) 
  
Michael Peres (Editor-in-Chief), 2007, Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, 4th edition, (Focal Press) [ISBN-10: 0240807405, ISBN-13: 978-0240807409] 
(Used with permission) 
  

Further research

 
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Thumbnail
Imogen Cunningham
Self-portrait on Geary Street 
1958 (taken) 1970s (early, print)
 
  
Family history 
  
If you are related to this photographer and interested in tracking down your extended family we can place a note here for you to help. It is free and you would be amazed who gets in touch. 
  
alan@luminous-lint.com
 
  
 
  

Exhibitions on this website

20th century masters
ThumbnailImogen Cunningham: Seen and Unseen 
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Visual indexes

 
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Internet biographies

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Wikipedia has a biography of this photographer.Show on this siteGo to website
Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website
Grove Art Online (www.groveart.com) has a biography of this artist. 
[NOTE: This is a subscription service and you will need to pay an annual fee to access the content.]
Show on this siteGo to website
The International Photographers Hall of Fame has provided a biography.Show on this siteGo to website
 

Internet resources

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Imogen Cunningham 
http://www.geh.org ... 
  
 

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

 
• Auer, Michele & Michel 1985 Encyclopedie Internationale Des Photographes de 1839 a Nos Jours / Photographers Encylopaedia International 1839 to the present (Hermance, Editions Camera Obscura) 2 volumes [A classic reference work for biographical information on photographers.] 
  
• Beaton, Cecil & Buckland, Gail 1975 The Magic Eye: The Genius of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown & Company) p.156 [Useful short biographies with personal asides and one or more example images.] 
  
• Capa, Cornell (ed.) 1984 The International Center of Photography: Encyclopedia of Photography (New York, Crown Publishers, Inc. - A Pound Press Book) p.125-126 
  
• Coke, Van Deren with Diana C. Du Pont 1986 Photography: A Facet of Modernism (New York: Hudson Hills Press, The San Francisco Museum of Art) p.171 
  
• Evans, Martin Marix (Executive ed.) 1995 Contemporary Photographers [Third Edition] (St. James Press - An International Thomson Publishing Company) [Expensive reference work but highly informative.] 
  
• Fernandez, Horacio (ed.) 2000 Fotografía Pública: Photography in Print 1919-1939 (Aldeasa) p.82 [This Spanish exhibition catalogue is one of the best sources for illustrations of photomontage and book design for the period between the two World Wars.] 
  
• Heyman, Theres Thau 1992 Seeing Straight: Group f.64 (California: The Oakland Museum) p.151 
  
• International Center of Photography 1999 Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works from the International Center of Photography Collection (New York: A Bulfinch Press Book) p.213 [Includes a well written short biography on Imogen Cunningham with example plate(s) earlier in book.] 
  
• Lenman, Robin (ed.) 2005 The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (Oxford: Oxford University Press)  [Includes a short biography on Imogen Cunningham.] 
  
• Witkin, Lee D. and Barbara London 1979 The Photograph Collector’s Guide (London: Secker and Warburg) p.115-116 [Long out of print but an essential reference work - the good news is that a new edition is in preparation.] 
  
 

Useful printed stuff

If there is an analysis of a single photograph or a useful self portrait I will highlight it here.

 
• Gruber, Renate and L. Fritz Gruber 1982 The Imaginary Photo Museum (New York: Harmony Books) p.244 
  
• Lahs-Gonzales, Olivia & Lippard, Lucy 1997 Defining Eye: Women Photographers of the 20th Century. Selections from the Helen Kornblum Collection (Saint Louis Art Museum, D.A.P.) [Imogen Cunningham is included in this overview of women photographers.] 
  
• Naef, Weston 1995 The J. Paul Getty Museum - Handbook of the Photographic Collection (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum) p.123, 182 
  
• Newhall, Beaumont 1982 The History of Photography - Fifth Edition (London: Secker & Warburg) [One or more photographs by Imogen Cunningham are included in this classic history.] 
  
• Sobieszek, Robert A. and Deborah Irmas 1994 the camera i: Photographic Self-Portraits (Los Angeles: LACMA - Los Angeles County Museum of Art) p.213, Plate 92 [When the Audrey and Sydney Irmas collection was donated to LACMA - Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1992 the museum gained a remarkable collection of self portraits of notable photographers. If you need a portrait of Imogen Cunningham this is a useful starting point.] 
  
• Szarkowski, John 1973 Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art (New York: The Museum of Modern Art) p.100 [Analyzes a single photograph by Imogen Cunningham.] 
  

Collections

Photographic collections are a useful means of examining large numbers of photographs by a single photographer on-line. 
  

 
In the 1990 survey of 535 American photographic collections Imogen Cunningham was represented in 89 of the collections. Source: Andrew H. Eskind & Greg Drake (eds.) 1990 Index to American Photographic Collections [Second Enlarged Edition] (Boston, Massachusetts: G.K. Hall & Co.) 
  
Library of Congress, Washington, USA 
  
Approximate number of records: ? 
Note: A single record may contain more than one photograph.
Click here
 

Quotations

The wit and wisdom.

 
"Oh people have forgotten that, Dorothea. They‘ve forgotten that I ever did plant forms. You know, I‘ve tried my best to sell people on the idea that I photograph anything that can be exposed to light."
"The Magnolia Flower, the most common job I ever did, is still on exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. And whenever they sell a print, that‘s what they sell. That's what I call conservative buyers ... I always think that the finest one is the one I‘m going to do, not the one that I have done. So as soon as I‘ve done it, it‘s finished. But I‘m hoping some day to do a fine one."
"The thing that‘s fascinating about portraiture is that nobody is alike."
"Which of my photographs is my favorite? The one I‘m going to take tomorrow."
 
  
 
  
 
  
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