Lady behind the lens: early 20th century photographer back in focus

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“The Unmade Bed” (1957), by Imogen Cunningham. Gelatin silver print. Getty Museum, Gifts of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser © Imogen Cunningham Trust

Landfilled and recognized

“Imogen Cunningham: Retrospective Exhibition” at The Getty Museum

By Bondo Wyszpolski

“Self-portrait of Elgin Marbles, London” (1909-10), by Imogen Cunningham. Platinum print. Getty Museum © Imogen Cunningham Trust

Imogen Cunningham is not as well known as other early to mid-20th century photographers such as Paul Strand, Alfred Stigeritz, Edward Wilson, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, but her work is many. It is similar to their work in that. Her career behind the camera spanned 70 years — she lived from 1883 to 1976 — but how well-known was she? Curator Paul Martineau states in her attached catalog that “when she received her first monograph, she was over 80 years old in the winter 1964 issue of Aperture.” .. Books dedicated to her work began to reappear in 1970 and 1974. It was also the day, June 24, 1976, when her friend and fellow photographer Minor White gave up her ghost, along with others, following her death.

Cunningham’s 1956 solo exhibition at the Limelight Gallery in New York was favorably mentioned by the New York Times, but long before that, people were paying attention to her photographs. It also helped her come from a liberal background and not be discouraged in her career choices.

In the first place, she had a pretty eccentric father. Isaac Burns Cunningham writes Susan Ehrens: He was a serious and curious reader of Shakespeare, theosophy, and philosophical mathematics. He named it Imogen after the daughter of King Cymbeline, who considered William Shakespeare’s most noble female character. Imogen of “Simbelin” is a strong and independent girl. You will find that the person of her same name has a similar personality. “

“Cornish College of the Arts 2” (1935), by Imogen Cunningham. Gelatin silver print. © Imogen Cunningham Trust

Whether or not Elder Cunningham fully approved his daughter’s pursuit of photography, he built her a darkroom in a family forest hut.

She may have been a confident young woman (as Ehrens suggests), but she influences and encourages role models, the kind of pioneers who can show the way forward, and Cunningham. Other female photographers include Gertrude Käsebier, Jessie Tarbox Beals, and Frances Benjamin Johnston.

And after earning a college degree in three years, Cunningham applied for and won a scholarship to study photographic chemistry in Dresden. He then left Seattle to travel abroad, spending most of 1909 and 1910 in the capital of Saxony, learning, learning, and experimenting with the basic materials of crafts. As Ehrens points out, “her purpose in conducting these complex experiments was clearly to improve the aesthetic quality of her photographic prints and to bring her science to the arts.”

After returning to Seattle, Cunningham opened his studio. Many of her works at the time are honestly in the veins of pictorialists. In short, there was sepia toning here, and she was attracted to many others, from Liam Pitchford and Anne Brigman to Edward Weston and even Ansel Adams. In 1994, The Getty Villa and Huntington co-sponsored “Pictorialism in California: Photos 1900-1940”. The show’s catalog remains a valuable resource for certain genres, perhaps as expected, with a lack of steam as it looks. It was a remnant of the late 19th century, rather than a pioneer of modernism in the 20th century.

“Tea at Fosters in San Francisco” by Imogen Cunningham (1940s). Gelatin silver print. Seattle Art Museum. John H. Howberg’s Gift © Imogen Cunningham Trust

As a visual artist has to do, Cunningham looks at the composition, whether the camera is pointed at the inside of the flower or at the person sitting still for a studio portrait, the pattern, shape, tone, I was keenly aware of the texture. And as for the latter, she was influenced by the 18th century woodblock print Utamaro Kitagawa.

Cunningham’s artistry career was somewhat interrupted after his marriage in 1915, after which he gave birth to three sons quite quickly. This is one of the reasons we see so many birds and flowers. The images taken in her garden allowed her to keep an eye out for the boys as well. Later, as they became more self-reliant, Cunningham was able to venture further, such as Stuttgart, who participated in the Deutscher Werkbund exhibition “Movies and Photography” in 1929. Also, the first image of her “Vanity Fair” appeared in the December 1931 issue.

However, it didn’t go very well after the home front, and it seems that her husband’s divorce in 1934 had a great impact on her. There were difficult times in the late 1940s, some of which fell along the way, and others came to fill the gap. In 1950, she began to make long friendships with sculptor Ruth Asawa, despite the age difference of 43 years. But again, Cunningham didn’t seem to be particularly judgmental about people based on her age, ethnicity, or her sexual orientation. What she was worried about was the image of digging it out of woodwork, so to speak. In other words, she says, “She works instinctively.”

For those who are wondering if Cunningham has ever filmed a celebrity of her time, the answer is yes. The book contains photographs of Frida Kahlo, Gertrude Stein, Herbert Huber, Morris Graves, Man Ray, Martha Graham, Spencer Tracy and more.

When Imogen Cunningham died at the age of 93, she was still active and photographed almost to the end. As Martineau says, “She quickly admitted that she was never completely satisfied with anything and considered all forms of self-improvement as a job in her life. . “

“Pentiment” (1973), by Imogen Cunningham. Gelatin silver print. Getty Museum, Gifts of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser © Imogen Cunningham Trust

One of her last projects was to take a picture of an elderly person in the 90’s, but she dialed it down a notch and was forced to include people in the 80’s. The show had one image, “Age and its Symbols,” in 1958, which could have been part of this series. We often stick to young and perfect images, which are beautiful portraits of older women and, in a sense, a graceful reflection of the photographer himself.

This exhibition was rarely realized as the original date (June 29-September 26, 2021) was one of the pandemic surges. It was scheduled to be held at the Seattle Art Museum from November to February last year. The Cunningham show is here, and in Martineau’s words, “perhaps more commitment as you can finally try to increase her height by paying the same attention to her work as her peers. There wasn’t.

About the Catalog: “Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective” by Paul Martineau (Getty Publications, 245 pp., $ 50).

Imogen Cunningham: Retrospective It will be on display until June 12th at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles’ 1200 Getty Center Drive. Free every day except Mondays from 10am to 5:30 pm, but parking is $ 20. (310) Call 440-7300 or go to getty.edu. ER

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