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How is it that a photographer as prolific and beloved as Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976) is hardly known outside of photographic circles? Perhaps one of her greatest attributes was the key: versatility. The public knows her Californian comrade Ansel Adams for his soaring landscapes and Edward Weston for his sensual peppers. But the irrepressible Imogen did it all, a creative force for over seven decades. Now there’s an opportunity to appreciate her impressive range and astounding talent: “Imogen Cunningham: In Focus” will be on view in the Herb Ritts Gallery at the MFA, Boston through June 18, 2017.
When reduced to trademark perceptions, Cunningham is most often recognized for her widely popular 1920’s series of large-format botanical photographs. In an amusing case of what biologists term “convergence” – the resemblance of unrelated species – Cunningham’s work invited comparisons with the paintings of another West Coast artist, Georgia O’Keeffe (they didn’t meet until much later). The undeniable similarities may stem in part from the distinctive light of the open Western skies, casting harsh shadows that accentuate positive and negative spaces and strong motifs. Cunningham’s printing style and papers moderated this effect, appearing almost like platinum prints in their romanticism. But this was destined to change, in her lifelong pattern of tireless curiosity and experimentation.
Cunningham’s pursuit started in Seattle where, as an intrepid teen, she taught herself photography, went on to study photochemical techniques at the University of Washington and graduated in 1907 with a degree in Chemistry. Industrious and pragmatic, she made slides for her college Botany department, assisted after graduation in the Seattle portrait studio of Edward S. Curtis (of “The North American Indian” fame), obtained a grant to study photochemistry in Dresden, Germany (1910), and ultimately opened her own portrait studio in Seattle. All this when it was a rarity even for men to extend their education beyond high school.
In her earliest work, Cunningham embraced the Pictorialist ideals of painterly lyricism (these are not included in the show), followed by the less contrived style of Photo-Secessionism, started by Alfred Stieglitz in NYC in an effort to legitimize photography in its own right. But it was her move to the California Bay Area as a young mother of three sons and faculty wife of Roi Partridge, a print etcher at Mills College, that changed Cunningham’s photographic trajectory. Befriending Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, Cunningham helped co-found “Group f/64”, the influential West Coast alliance that employed infinite depth of field and sharp focus in images of the natural world to advance a pure photographic form. Although family obligations largely confined her to the environs of her home, Cunningham’s modernist style was evident in the brilliant abstract shapes and graphic patterns she accentuated in her photographs.
With the wide range of subjects she explored, it may be surprising to learn that Cunningham considered herself a portrait photographer. The show’s selection of character-illuminating portraits – including some humorously constructed self-portraits and a couple of iconic portraits of Cunningham herself – are my favorite images in the exhibit. It is easy to imagine how her dramatic portrait of the rising-star, modern dancer Martha Graham (1931) for Vanity Fair launched a future of commissioned work for newspapers and magazines.
As one of ten children in a financially struggling family, Cunningham eschewed what she referred to as “stolen pictures” in the style of street photographers like her friend Dorothea Lange. Instead, she favored collaborative sessions with willing subjects. Exhibited candid portraits of her friends Ansel Adams and Edward Weston and photographic idol August Sander share Cunningham’s signature combination of captivating composition and endearing empathy. From revelatory portraits like that of the famously tormented poet Theodore Roethke (1959) to the sensitive study of a forlorn man simply referred to as “Stan” (1959), Cunningham’s portraits are mesmerizing.
A gallery wall devoted to her later, most experimental work includes a playful double exposure of poet James Broughton aptly named “A Poet and His Alter-Ego”, as well as an intriguing image of her grandchildren reflected in a funhouse mirror. Upstairs in the MFA’s “Making Modern” exhibit is Cunningham’s powerful portrait of a serious young Frida Kahlo. Of her portrait work, Cunningham related: “Ansel (Adams) once said to somebody that I was versatile, but what he really meant was that I jump around. I’m never satisfied staying in one spot very long. I couldn’t stay with the mountains and I couldn’t stay with the trees and I couldn’t stay with the rivers. But I can always stay with people because they really are different.”
Kudos to the MFA’s Karen Haas, The Lane Curator of Photography, for this remarkable exhibition. Her expert selection from the MFA’s vast Lane Collection is mindfully installed (right down to picture frames that track the era) to create a cohesive whole that enlightens and enlivens Cunningham’s creative life. The marvelous assortment of later work echoes the versatility that rings from every wall, telling the tale of an extraordinary artist whose greatest strength may have kept her from a wider audience. Well, now’s your chance.
For more information about this exhibit, go to: http://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/imogen-cunningham-in-focus
Feature Image: “Imogen and Twinka” (Detail) Judy Dater (American, born in 1941) 1974 Photograph, gelatin silver print *The Lane Collection *Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.