SAM exhibit shows why Seattle’s Imogen Cunningham was one of the premier photographers of his time


Photographer Imogen Cunningham was born in 1883; the same year, a car first crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, the deadly Krakatoa volcano exploded over the Sunda Strait and a train, later immortalized in the “Murder on the Orient Express” d ‘Agatha Christie, left Paris for Istanbul.

Throughout her life, until her death in 1976, Cunningham, born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, embodied the essence of a contemporary woman. The photographer handled the camera as one would with a blade – precise and controlled, but with delicate grace.

Over the course of a 75-year photographic career, Cunningham captured form, movement, and motif with intent sharpened to the end and with a sensuality that flirted with eroticism. The mechanical medium integrated Cunningham into a larger community of artists, photographers and intellectuals, with whom she expressed her artistic language with unyielding clarity. His photographs have been exhibited in some of the world’s most prestigious museums, including the Portland Museum of Art, MoMA, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. To this day, Cunningham is considered one of the foremost American photographers of his time.

Until February 6, 2022, viewers can immerse themselves in the luminous kingdom of Cunningham at the Seattle Art Museum, which exhibits the first retrospective of Cunningham’s work in 35 years, organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. . “Imogen Cunningham: a retrospective”Presents works that defy the era in which nude silhouettes framed by a female photographer were not taboo, but rather art created as a measure of human truth, and portraits – many of whom are friends or relatives. Cunningham’s family – exude a candid warmth, framed by the photographer’s direct affection for those in his world.

Cunningham spent his childhood in the Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle, where his family moved from Portland, his birthplace. Cunningham would later attend the University of Washington as an undergraduate student in the chemistry department. She applied her technical studies to her photographic training, writing a thesis entitled “The scientific development of photography”. As a young photographer, Cunningham was already practicing the unconventional – one of his first nudes, a self-portrait, was composed in a low-key corner of the college campus.

After graduation, Cunningham ran her own portrait studio in Seattle between 1910 and 1917. The photographer toured Vashon Island, Mount Rainier and other local settings to stage mystical scenes in nature. . “Much of Imogen’s early pictorialist work was done here in Seattle,” says Carrie Dedon, associate curator of modern and contemporary art at SAM, who was instrumental in setting up the exhibition at Seattle. “She was leading the international movement at the time. His works throughout the 1920s were fuzzy and relied on mythological themes.

“Self-Portrait with the Elgin Marbles”, a 1909 photograph by Imogen Cunningham. (J. Paul Getty Museum / Imogen Cunningham Trust)

Many of these early works convey a bucolic ease. Women with arms outstretched like branches, the wind fluttering through the drapes of their veils, draw allegorical threads on tales of beautifully dancing wood nymphs. Cunningham’s pictorialist approach, where the artist’s touch constructs a photographic painting rather than literal documentation, unfolds in the muted nuances of works like “The Wind” (1910), as well as his dark landscapes on the Duwamish or beside the Mirrored Lakes of Mount Rainier.

Cunningham also deepened his exploration of nude studies while working as a commercial photographer in Seattle. Several of her husbands, King Partridge, depict her naked figure walking over tree-lined hills or leaping through the air into a lake. Despite outcry from the local media, which went so far as to assert “that an ‘entire bunch of moral perverts'” were involved in Cunningham’s bodily scenes, according to an article from ARTnews, the nude portrait has continued to be a compelling thematic interest for Cunningham over the years.

By the 1920s, Cunningham and Partridge would settle in San Francisco, a town that eventually became Cunningham’s living home. While caring for her family of three young children, her perspective was often limited to her immediate family environment. Nevertheless, the artist produced some of his most beloved works, including “Magnolia Blossom” (1925), during this period. The sectional and everyday shapes of the petals were sites of wonder for Cunningham, who framed his compositions as a reflection of their inner balance.

Imogen Cunningham's 1940 photograph

“Imogen Cunningham pursued photography with a singular passion,” says Meg Partridge, granddaughter of the famous artist. Partridge fondly remembers her eccentric parent, as a brilliant friend rather than an adoring grandmother. As a teenager, Partridge spent his summers as an “observer” in Cunningham’s studio, painting over small imperfections on photographic prints after their development.

“I remember painting ‘Magnolia Blossom’,” Partridge says. “And Imogen asked, ‘Meg, are you still working on that magnolia flower? ” I said yes. And she said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about that, it’s just going to MoMA,’ ”Partridge laughs. “There are impressions like this that remind me of how much I adore the memory of my time with Imogen.”

A large expansion of

Partridge, who has the same distinct, aquiline profile as her grandmother, speaks from a studio at the Imogen Cunningham Trust, which houses an extensive collection of Cunningham’s original negatives and prints. Lopez Island in San Juan County is home to both Partridge and the Cunningham Trust, where Partridge oversees executive functions.

Although many of the Cunningham Trust’s projects include the transfer of reproduction rights or the loan of works of art to exhibitions, including that of SAM, the archives themselves are an invaluable resource in reconstructing life and history. 20th century work by Cunningham.

Bridget Nowlin, director of library services at Cornish College of the Arts, worked with Partridge and the Cunningham Trust to trace some of Cunningham’s works to college. “Imogen was an acquaintance of Nellie Cornish,” Nowlin says. Cornish founded the college in 1917. “Nellie knew about Imogen’s work and hired her to come and create a catalog. It’s a little little book.

Cornish College’s photos encompass dimensional, movement-packed art, music and dance scenes. Nowlin located some of the prints at the Cunningham Trust, which resulted in a 2015 college exhibit titled “A Stitch in Time: Imogen at Cornish”. “I love this idea of ​​walking in the same halls as [Imogen] did, as well as Nellie, ”Nowlin says. “Being able to have these prints on display at Cornish was a real treat.”

Some of the images from Cunningham’s Cornish College collection of works appear in the SAM retrospective. “Cornish School Trio 2” (1935) presents a double exhibition of cellists playing their instruments furiously. The heady dream of their silent concerto is magnified by their ghostly overlays.

In the SAM exhibition, each section of the room traces Cunningham’s career through the phases of his creative cycles. From the hazy aura of his pictorial romance to the crisp juxtaposition of shadows and understated geometries beneath his Modernist style, Cunningham has tempered his steely perspective with unwavering tenacity. She was also largely prolific – Cunningham’s work includes portraits, figure studies, artistic scenes, landscapes, abstracts, and street photos.

Part of SAM’s curatorial intention is to place Cunningham’s influence in relation to the f / 64 group, a photographic movement marked by “a modernist west coast aesthetic,” Dedon describes. The group included mid-century American legends such as Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and Edward Weston, whose selected works appear alongside those of Cunningham.

From exciting landscapes and portraits of the working class to studies of textured still lifes, “the inclusion of their works is partly about relationships, but also [Cunningham’s] position within group f / 64. The direct lines of influence and inspiration, the echoes and the differences from one photographer to another, ”explains Dedon.

The f / 64 movement will have a lasting impact on Cunningham’s photographic technique. “She turned a modern eye towards her portraits, her street photography, her more experimental and surrealist work,” explains Dedon. Yet Cunningham has retained his own creative language, often with an element of sensuality, which lingers throughout his works like an indelible fingerprint. In “The Unmade Bed” (1957), the remains of erotic activity linger on crumpled sheets. Works like these reveal Cunningham’s progressive and contemporary gaze towards deeply human states of being.

Cunningham also had close relationships with other artists, including dancer Martha Graham and sculptor Ruth Asawa. SAM develops these connections in the exhibition – a video of Graham’s ‘Lamentation’ (1930) curls over a dark wall, and Asawa’s wire sculptures, resembling birds in their architectural essence, hang in a neighboring corner, as if they were in perpetual flight.

“I knew Ruth when I was a child,” recalls Partridge, Dorothea Lange’s goddaughter. “Al [Ruth’s husband] and Imogen had the same birthday, so we got together and celebrated their birthdays every year.

Imogen Cunningham's 1958 photograph

One of Cunningham’s most vulnerable photographs is a self-portrait, taken in a shard of a storefront mirror on a San Francisco street. “Self-Portrait on Geary Street” (1958) shows the elderly photographer staring at her own reflection with unfailing recklessness. A cape drapes her shoulders and a patterned cap perches her nest of snowy hair. Shadows form sharp angles on the city sidewalk.

At this stage, Cunningham had already left a lasting mark on the world of photography. She had become the character she had always wanted to be. “Self-Portrait on Geary Street” reflects a photographer at her zenith. She is perhaps wiser and more determined than the young woman she once was. But the bare truth of Cunningham’s entire life was this: she was a sentient creature and she used her art as a tool for the pure expression of her greater humanity.

“Imogen Cunningham: a retrospective”

Until February 6, 2022; Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle; $ 19.99 to $ 29.99, free / members and children under 14; 206-654-3100,

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