Best known for her sharp-focus modernist images from the 1920s and 30s, Imogen Cunningham, who died in 1976, worked in a myriad of styles. Admired to the point of reverence for her seven decades of output, she came to embody photographic history and the critical role women have played in the field. Yet few know the full scope of her work. While she had many exhibitions in the 1950s through the mid-70s, including a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, recognition has been infrequent since her death. Imogen Cunningham: In Focus, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, rectifies this oversight.
This jewel-like exhibition draws from the MFA’s own holdings and from the Lane Collection, a 2012 museum gift and one of the finest private holdings of 20th-century American art in the world. It encompasses an unparalleled collection of photographs, including Charles Sheeler’s entire photographic estate of close to 2,500 works, a nearly equal number of images by Edward Weston and 500 photographs by Ansel Adams. Karen Haas, the museum’s Lane Curator of Photographs, chose 35 out of 100 photographs by Imogen Cunningham to crystallize the long thread of her career. From her best-known, large-format botanical photographs to street photography, still lifes, multiple exposures and portraiture — including self-portraits and iconic photographs of her contemporaries — the exhibition reveals the range of one of photography’s true titans.
Named Imogen after the heroine of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, Cunningham was born in Portland in 1883. She grew up in Seattle, where her family encouraged her in academics and the arts. She purchased her first camera in 1905 as part of a correspondence course — a $15 kit that consisted of a wooden 4×5 camera with a rapid rectilinear lens and a set of glass plates. A converted woodshed served as her darkroom. She attended the University of Washington in Seattle, majoring in chemistry after being advised to gain a scientific background if she wanted to pursue photography. While at work on her thesis — “Modern Processes of Photography” — she discovered the work of Gertrude Kasebier, which confirmed her career path.
From 1907 to 1909, Cunningham worked as a darkroom assistant in the Seattle studio of Edward S. Curtis, where she learned to retouch negatives and print with platinum paper. In 1909 she received a grant from her college sorority, Pi Beta Phi, to study photographic chemistry in Dresden at the Technische Hochschule. While there she published a paper titled “About Self-Production of Platinum Papers for Brown Tones,” which promoted the use of hand-coated papers for platinum prints. Next, Cunningham opened her own portrait studio in Seattle, becoming one of the first female professional photographers in the country. She initially pursued the popular trend of Pictorialism, with its emphasis on soft focus and elaborate printing techniques to evoke emotion. Her outdoor nude studies of her husband (the painter Roi Partridge), posed as a woodland faun, and her own nude self-portraits established her reputation as a leading West Coast practitioner of the romantic style.