A Century in Focus

A new retrospective of work by photographer Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976) at Seattle Art Museum explores her extraordinary range. From botanical studies to portraits, nudes and street shoots, the American-born artist and member of the influential f/64 group never stopped experimenting throughout her 70-year career.

Cunningham was born in Portland and raised in the Pacific Northwest. She began experimenting with photography as a teenager, in a darkroom built by her father in the family woodshed. After graduating with a degree in chemistry and apprenticing for photographers in her home city of Seattle as well as in Dresden, Germany, Cunningham opened Seattle’s first art photography studio in 1910. She married the printmaker Roi Partridge, and in 1917 went to live with him in San Francisco.

It was there that the lens-based artist created some of her most celebrated modernist photographs, whilst balancing her commitments as a mother to young children. In pieces such as Magnolia Blossom (1925), clarity of focus and a close-up perspective – at odds with the prevailing pictorialist style in photography – are used to create hyperreal yet sensuous studies of natural forms. Works like these were included in a major exhibition in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1925, bringing Cunningham to international attention. At the same time, California’s bohemian and glamorous social scene provided a rolling cast of portrait sitters, from the artists Frida Kahlo and Morris Graves to actors like Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy, all of whom Cunningham captured for Vanity Fair. This exhibition also features iconic shots of dancer Martha Graham, taken during a 1931 session, showing dramatic close-ups of the face and body.

Cunningham was always forging connections with other creative spirits, and was an early member of the f/64 group founded in the Bay Area in 1932, featuring luminaries such as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Dorothea Lange. This group became central to the turn from pictioralism, with its hazy, painterly approach, to the sharp focus and clean lines of modernist photography. Works from a number of artists associated with the collective, many of whom were an inspiration to Cunningham, are shown alongside her own contributions to the group in a dedicated gallery space.

As Amanda Cruz of Seattle Art Museum notes, the artist “was underappreciated for most of her career, only finding recognition in her last years.” In spite of this, the photographer continued to invent and explore, and to champion and collaborate with other artists. In later years, street photography became a key interest, allowing Cunningham to capture the spirit of the American anti-war and civil rights movements. In the last decade of her life, a number of major retrospectives were finally offered to her.

This show offers viewers the chance to witness an inspiring and expansive view of the photographer’s chosen subjects, which Cunningham once described as “anything the light touches.” As Carrie Dedon, curator at SAM, notes, this body of work “reveals an endlessly curious, innovative, and determined mind that places her as one of the most important photographers of the last century.”

Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective runs at Seattle Art Museum until 6 February. Find out more here.

Words: Greg Thomas

Image Credits:
1. Martha Graham, Dancer, 1931, Imogen Cunningham, American, 1883-1976, gelatin silver print, 7 5/16 ~ 9 15/16 in., The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser, 2016.173.18, © 2021 The Imogen Cunningham Trust.
2. Two Callas, 1925/1929, Imogen Cunningham, American, 1883–1976, gelatin silver print, 11 13/16 × 8 7/8 in., The Art Institute of Chicago, Julien Levy Collection, Gift of Jean Levy and the Estate of Julien Levy, 1988.157.24, © 2021 The Imogen Cunningham Trust. 
3. Aloe, 1925, Imogen Cunningham, American, 1883-1976, gelatin silver print, 8 13/16 ~ 6 1/2 in., The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 87.XM.74.1, © 2021 The Imogen Cunningham Trust
4. Stan, San Francisco, 1959, Imogen Cunningham, American, 1883 – 1976, gelatin silver print, 9 1/2 × 7 1/16 in., Collection of The Imogen Cunningham Trust, © 2021 The Imogen Cunningham Trust

5. Another Arm, 1973, Imogen Cunningham, American, 1883 – 1976, gelatin silver print, 9 1/8 × 7 1/2 in., Collec tion of The Imogen Cunningham Trust, © 2021 The Imogen Cunningham Trust