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  • Ashley Anderson

Exposed to Light: Imogen Cunningham

Pick a niche, maybe two, and make that your photography business. That is the advice I have been given time and time again on being a "successful" photographer. It usually takes all that's in me not to roll my eyes at this limiting advice. As an artist, the thought of restricting my craft to just one or two avenues scares the hell out of me. It makes me want to rebel and explore as many facets as possible. Anytime someone tries to pare down my art I turn to Imogen Cunningham and her broad portfolio for inspiration.

By the time Imogen Cunningham (b. 1883) passed away, she had been making photographs for over 70 years. That's a lot of photographs. What I find so admirable about her is that, even though she kept coming back to portraits and nudes, she wasn't afraid to find the photograph in any moment. She never held herself to just those two genres.

"I photograph anything that can be exposed to light." - Imogen Cunnigham

Imogen was a unique for many reasons. Her colleagues remembered her as a sort of free spirit that would answer to whatever was calling her. If she wanted to do something, then by God, she was going to do it! It seems as if she was a woman of little hesitation. In the early 1900s she was studying chemistry at the University of Washington (just take a moment to soak in how amazing it was that a woman in 1903 was not only in college, but studying chemistry) when she came across a photograph by Gertrude Käsebier. It was from then on she steered her chemistry degree in the direction of photography.

In 1907 Cunningham graduated, not with an art degree, but a chemistry degree. Once out of college she went and got an internship that I could only dream of! She studied under Edward S. Curtis, who, to this day, is renowned for his photographs of Native Americans. Curtis, for better or for worse, was a master of setting up a studio portrait. Cunningham honed not just her platinum printing technique with Curtis, but her portraiture skills as well.

Roi Partridge, Immogen Cunningham's husband, poses nude atop Mt. Rainier in Washington state. He is facing away from the camera posing next a tree while looking out on the mountain range. Black and white photograph.
The Faun @ImogenCunninghamTrust

At this time photography was still quite new on the art scene. It met some resistance from painters who were losing their portraiture clients to the speedier photographic process. There was also talk circulating that it would never be a fine art like sculpture or drawing. It was a medium for scientists, not artists. Enter Pictorialism, one of the first photographic movements. It acted as a bridge between traditional art mediums and photography. Characterized by soft-focus and dreamy scenes it took on the allegorical subjects of paintings like fantasy scenes and nudes.

Cunningham's early work features some of the most iconic Pictorialist photographs of the movement. She brought forth fantastical creatures such as nymphs and goddesses into our world through gossamer images. Quite scandelously, she even photographed a nude faun atop Mt. Rainier! Roi Partridge, who later became Cunningham's husband, posed au natural for her in a dreamscape set of photos. The photographs were published in Seattle's The Town Crier. Some of the readers took offence to a woman photographing a nude man, but Cunningham hadn't put much thought into it. As I said before, she would go wherever the inspirational wind would take her. The terrain of Mt. Rainer and Roi Partridge's body compelled her to make some photographs, so she did.

A black and white image of the spiral portion on a Calla Lily. Photograph by Imogen Cunningham.
Calla ©ImogenCunninghamTrust

Fine art nudes are not about sexuality or objectification, they are a study of form and shape. Cunningham spent much of her time studying form through photographing nudes and botanicals. Her botanicals, much like Georgia O'Keefe, tend to play tricks on the mind. Despite knowing you are looking at a flower, you begin to see other shapes and patterns as well. They have an esoteric ability to look different with each viewing.

Even though her botanicals will have you second guessing if you have ever really seen a flower before, they are reality. Photographing things as they truly are was at the heart of Group f/64's philosiphy. In 1932 Group f/64 came on the scene. It was a coalition of elite photographers, Cunningham among them, that shed the dreamy concepts of pictorialism in favor of realistic subjects in sharp focus. This movement was dubbed "straight" or "pure" photography. Making images of life as it truly is set photography apart from traditional forms of art. While paintings capture everyday moments on canvas, they take longer than a photograph. In the time it takes to make a painting some details can be either lost or romanticized. With photography, once the shutter is clicked that moment is immedietly exposed onto a negative as it happened.

A man in soft afternoon light counts his change in a street photo made by Imogen Cunningham.
"Counting Change" ©ImogenCunninghamTrust

Following this new philosophy, Cunningham created a large volume of work that included her ubiquitous nudes and portraits as well as new subjects such as hands and street photos.

I find it so admirable that, even though street photography didn't have as much staying power in her heart as portraits, she still got out and tried it! Street photography is portraiture on the move and when looking at her photos I can see her portraiture training, as well as her eye for form, shine through in the images. "Counting Change" is one of my personal favorites. It brings together so many of the things Cunningham is known for. The dusty afternoon light feels pictorialist against the sharp focus of the gentleman's suit. The way he seems to dip in and out of the light shows changes in his form. Above all, counting change is a scene we all know. Through Cunningham's photo we can now see the romance of the mundane.

Imogen Cunnhingham is a direct influence of mine in many ways. She gave me courage to photograph nudes when my conservative fear held me back. As I traversed a photo program that skewed heavily in the direction of conceptual photography, not straight photography, I looked to Cunningham for reminders that the everyday is just as interesting as an abstract moment. Futhermore, Cunningham's varied portrolio is a reminder to try things outside of my comfort zone. To photograph anything that strikes my fancy, weather or not it will bring me money or recognition. Art is freedom of the soul. Do what makes you happy and you will feel more successful that the richest photographer in the world.

By: Ashley Anderson

See Imogen Cunningham's full portfolio here.

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