“I don’t think there’s any such thing as teaching people photography, other than influencing them a little. People have to be their own learners. They have to have a certain talent.”
Imogen Cunningham mailed away 15 dollars for her first camera in 1901 at the age of eighteen. She quickly lost interest and soon she gave away the camera to a friend. Five years later, while studying at the University of Washington, an encounter with photographer Gertrude Käsebier inspired Cunningham to photograph once more. Obviously, she never stopped.
A co-founding member of Group f/64, Cunningham’s portfolio is quite diverse, dabbling in the fields that many of her colleagues specialized in. This included portraiture, soft focus, hard focus, abstraction, nature photography and street photography. Her most recognized early works were nudes and photographs of plants. In the middle of her career, Vanity Fair, for whom she often photographed public figures in a straightforward, guileless manner, hired Cunningham. Later, she explored the burgeoning beatnik culture and later still – as she herself was advancing in years – she took to photographing the elderly.
During Cunningham’s career, she often blended the traits of a scientist with that of an artist. Her inner scientist drove her to study photography’s chemistry, publishing a paper in 1910, “About the Direct Development of Platinum Paper in Brown Tones.” She also had a scientist’s curiosity, exploring every manner of life with a highly analytical mind and precise execution. Combined with her artistic intuition, the results within her photography are a body of work that is often bold, sensitive and innovative. Works such as Dream are almost supernaturally ethereal, contrasting with the exacting anatomy of Magnolia Blossom. No matter the subject within her photographs, perhaps Cunningham’s greatest strength was her uncanny use of natural light, weaving and bending it like a master sculptor chisels marble.
While Cunningham did travel all over the country and all over Europe, she spent the majority of her 93 years in the Pacific Northwest. She was born in Portland, started her first studio in Seattle and later settled down in San Francisco Bay area. Cunningham passed away in 1976.