Cunningham, Imogen (1883-1976)

  • By Paul Lindholdt
  • Posted 4/02/2024
  • Essay 22935
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Among the first women to pursue the art of photography, Imogen Cunningham came of age in Seattle. She graduated from the University of Washington in 1907, worked for Edward Curtis, studied in Germany, and opened her own Seattle studio. Over her 70-year career, she innovated in the art of nudes and double-exposures. Her marriage to etcher Roi Partridge began with a scandal when she photographed him nude on Mount Rainier. The marriage ended when their three sons were teens and they had moved to San Francisco. Awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and other accolades, she pushed the boundaries of Modernism when she cofounded Group f/64 with Ansel Adams, Brett Weston, and others. She made portraits of many celebrities and became something of a celebrity herself, appearing on The Tonight Show in the same year she died at age 93.

In Port Angeles

In the fine art of photography, Cunningham was transgressive. She pioneered nude studies, double exposures, detailed closeups and still lifes, and some of the most memorable portraits of artists and celebrities in her time. Her father, Isaac (ca. 1838-1918), shaped her. A vegetarian and freethinker, he helped found the Puget Sound Co-operative Colony and moved the family (which included 10 children) from Portland, Oregon, to Port Angeles, when she was 3. Accompanied by 400 fellow colonists, they doubled the population of that Olympic Peninsula frontier town. The colony advocated women’s suffrage more than 30 years before the 19th Amendment was made law. Isaac’s alternative sensibility influenced Imogen’s later bohemianism by home-schooling her early on. When the colony began to wane due to financial strains, he moved the family to Seattle, where he sold coal and firewood and graded roadways.

In 1906, when Isaac was 60, Imogen took a fine picture of him that foresaw her everyday portrait photography. Then again in 1936, when Isaac was 90, she made a portrait of him seated before a pile of cordwood, his white beard draping to his navel.

The fifth of 10 children, Imogen was the only one to attend college. Isaac named her after the king’s daughter and heroine in Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline. As a feminist, she felt torn for her mother, Susan Elizabeth Johnson Cunningham (ca. 1842-1925), whom she considered a victim of her domestic status and her times. Queen Anne Hill in Seattle, when the family relocated, was rustic. The children sometimes saw bear tracks on the way to school. Imogen was her father’s favorite. He afforded art classes for her and encouraged her to educate herself in all the arts and sciences. He built a darkroom for her in a woodshed behind the house. She had to pay her way through the University of Washington, however, which had no art major until 1923. Imogen worked part-time in the botany department to earn a chemistry degree with honors in 1907. That chemistry major held most promise for her photography career because it tied so well into the process of manipulating negatives and making prints.

After graduation, she worked two years for the studio of Edward S. Curtis (1869-1952), the photographer of Native Americans. Curtis was too busy to mentor her in person, but the influence of his studio was profound. She gained technical proficiency and business savvy to help run her own studio later. She also built a record to win a Pi Beta Phi Fellowship in 1909, which gave her seed money to study for a year to Dresden, Germany. There she studied at the Technische Hochschule under the guidance of Robert Luther, a world-renowned professor of photochemistry. In an intimate portrait that he sat for, her professor prepared himself by meditating on a math problem. Traveling to and from, she visited museums in London, Paris, Munich, and the United States. Back home she opened her own Seattle studio, "furnished in Bohemian comfort with deep blue velvet draperies covering the walls" (Becker). She also visited her "customers in their own homes, traveling by streetcar and carrying her equipment in a wicker case" (Becker).

Nude and Erotic Photography

In 1906, at a remote location on the University of Washington campus, Cunningham took a nude self-portrait. She was 22. She posed herself on her belly, one ankle crossed over the other, face hidden, her hair atop her head displaying her bent neck. Lush grass rises around her, fluffy dandelion seedheads preparing to go airborne. She used a self-timer to take the shot. The first self-timing device for cameras was the Faries Shutter Tripper, patented in 1902. A rubber hose with an attached squeeze ball ran to a metal cylinder mounted on the shutter. Nude studies had been the exclusive domain of male artists at the time. Reflecting upon her 70-year career in photography in 1971, she mused to a San Francisco journalist, "You might say I invented the nude" (Lorenz, 7).

Cunningham’s 1906 Self-Portrait holds historical significance as the first nude self-portrait to be taken by a woman. Composed with a 4x5 mail-order camera in seclusion near some woods, the photo demonstrates her interest in exploring the human form and experimenting with light and shadow. It also shows her confidence and audacity. She was an innovator willing to challenge societal norms. Her later colleague and friend Anne Brigman (1869-1950) has been wrongly credited with preceding Cunningham’s creation of a female nude self-portrait. However, Brigman’s photo The Bubble, made in the same year 1906, is not in fact a self-portrait but instead a photo of an unnamed model. Brigman often chose not to identify her models, either to protect their privacy or to emphasize the symbolic and universal nature of the figures. She identified herself as the model for the artful nude self-portrait she first displayed one year later titled Soul of the Blasted Pine. It, too, was a photographic milestone. Brigman’s full-frontal photo taken in the open air dramatized a ravaged tree from which she appeared to be growing. Showing how tough female photographers had it, some pundits scorned Brigman’s photo as obscene and immoral, her figure as too scraggy to be attractive.

Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), the influential champion of Pictorialism, speaking to Ansel Adams (1902-1984), praised Cunningham and Brigman as, "the only two women important in western photography" (Dater, 46). Cunningham’s reputation has only grown since then. She now ranks among the very best of all photographers in the U.S.

Her gaze was renegade for her audacious willingness to do nudes. In step with Brigman, she was also in step with international artists. The first nude female self-portrait to appear in paint came the same year as Cunningham’s. German artist Paula Modersohn-Becker left her husband and stepdaughter and boarded a train for Paris. The now-legendary painting she completed there, Self-Portrait Nude with Amber Necklace, Half-Length, produced in August 1906, reveals her from the navel up, her eyes glancing to her left, a flower pinched in each hand, her breasts flagrantly bared.

Cunningham gained early notice in Seattle as both a college-educated woman and as a business professional. "Her quaint little cottage in Terry Avenue is her home, her studio and her workshop – all in one old-fashioned, vine-covered, modern shrine," an article in the Post-Intelligencer noted in 1913. The abiding tension between workaday business and artistic ambitions was implicit in the article. "Miss Cunningham is not insistent upon the capital A in speaking of her profession, but the loving seriousness, the instinctive authority and the unfailing sense of selection which mark her pictures instantly classify them in the mind of the beholder" ("An Artist of the Camera"). Later notice she received in Seattle was less flattering and more judgmental.

In 1910, Cunningham continued exploring the human form. Her Eve Repentant riffs on the biblical story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It shows a nude Eve, viewed from the side, comforting a nude Adam viewed from behind. Eve’s arm drapes over Adam’s back. Early commentators took the photo as a meditation on guilt, remorse, and the possibility of redemption. More recent critics have engaged the image as visual rebellion against a male-regulated regimen of female sexuality and power. The Eve figure's self-possession, they say, scripts a counter-narrative to the typically subservient legend of the Fall. A companion photo, Reflections, appearing with Eve Repentant in the Seattle periodical The Town Crier in 1915, features a nude family of three – a mother, father, and daughter – tiptoeing in a body of water. The pond in the photo’s lower half mirrors their images. The device of a reflection to reproduce the family tableau presages Cunningham’s masterful fascination with double exposures later in her career.

One of her leading biographers and critics, Richard Lorenz, likened Reflections to a "secular baptism or, considering the timing of its publication at Christmas, a feminist nativity scene" (Lorenz, 15). The 1915 review that went with those photos praised them: "There is a harmonious grace in the composition of both these examples from her studio, which expresses a vivid and poetical imagination" (Ballard, 35). Her visits to museums in the more-liberal European world of art likely emboldened and enlightened her. These were the first of dozens of nudes that Cunningham would find the inner resources to share. 

If those nudes shocked the small audience that she had cultivated by age 32, the public shock was more overt when she convinced her husband to strip for her lens. On February 11, 1915, after a lengthy courtship by correspondence, Cunningham married printmaker and etching artist George Roy Partridge (1888-1984). He chose to go professionally by Roi, French for king. Roi had been working in Paris as an etcher until World War I broke out, prompting his move back to Seattle. Cunningham was pregnant when the newly married pair hiked through the meadows and forests of Mount Rainier that spring. Partridge was making studies for some etchings to be finished in Seattle. She posed him on the mountain to compose a series of fully nude photos that smacked of the photographic movement known as Pictorialism. That movement assumed styles and themes derived from nineteenth-century painters. Favoring allegories from the Bible and other literary sources, Pictorialism also often fused hazy dreamlike imagery with moralistic themes.

One print she titled The Bather caused a particular scandal. It appeared in The Town Crier in 1916. Differing from other sharper photos in the series, The Bather is so soft in focus as to be almost blurry, as if in modesty or self-censorship. The Bather, like Reflections, uses the device of a mirroring water body. Lorenz likened the image to the Greek legend of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own image and either drowned, killed himself, or pined away. Ugly backlash against Cunningham’s nude photos of her husband repressed her public presentation of them for decades. The owner and editor of the Seattle weekly newspaper The Argus wrote, "If these pictures were posed in the open air, and there is a suspicion that one of them was, the whole gang of moral perverts who participated in the orgie should be arrested" (Ehrens in Martineau, 29). Cunningham thereafter self-censored those photos that "explored feminine desire" by hiding the negatives until the final years of her career (Martineau, 6).

Those sepia-toned 1915 photos are transgressive in ways that come into clearer view today. They offended by enacting a woodland frolic of a newly wedded couple and by suggesting they had disrobed for other purposes than to make art. Seattle art dealer Gail Gibson, addressing the scandal a century later, traced the shock to "the female gaze." A prejudicial double standard categorized the photos as dangerously immoral. Gibson elaborated that, "Women were portrayed nude, whether it be painting, drawing or photography ... [but] women were not photographing men nude." Cunningham "did work that others weren’t doing, and she felt good about doing it and wasn’t afraid of doing it" (Vansynghel). Susan Ehrens, for a Cunningham retrospective in 2020, cast the photos as "a radical gender reversal" (Martineau, 30). If recent critics consider Cunningham’s nudes of her husband to be empowering for women, censorious early critics were offended by the notion of a woman photographer given too long a leash.

In the wake of the scandal from her 1915 photos of Partridge, her willingness to share nude human forms would cool for almost 20 years. Eventually her reputation grew great enough that her rebellious attitude could make a safe return. Like all the photos mentioned here, those of Partridge are readily accessible on the Imogen Cunningham Trust website curated by her granddaughter, Meg Partridge. Ms. Partridge also made a 1987 documentary film that features some of those photos and an interview. In 1918 Cunningham made a never-publicized series of nine nudes, taken near Mill Valley, California, titled Roi on the Dipsea Trail. Also, in 1923, she produced a nude image titled Roi in the Alabamas, a fantasy that features Partridge wrestling a rock and riffing on the Sisyphus myth.

Reinvention as a Modernist 

Paid portraits and catalog copy were the bread and butter of Cunningham’s long career, but her later and more modernist work has come to be regarded as most artful. Critic Angie Kordic finds her essential contribution to be in "the field of erotic photography," which "was always a passion, never a job," a passion that "called out the questions of masculinity and femininity." Just as some early reviewers brought tension to Cunningham’s career, so did her marriage. She and Partridge had three sons whose names suggest an homage to British ethnicity. Gryffyd was born in 1915, the same year the pair married; twins Rondal and Padraic later. While Partridge worked in California, the pair often lived apart. Pregnant in 1917, she informed him by letter of her intention to close the Seattle studio and join him in San Francisco. She had morning sickness, had wearied of single-parenting, and wanted to be near her parents who had moved to San Francisco. Partridge expected her to be an obedient wife and keep the home fires burning in Seattle. He "bitterly opposed her plan and accused her of insensitivity to his needs, even proposing that it might be better for them to divorce than for her to join him" (Martineau, 30).

To lighten her load and prepare for the move, she used old glass-plate negatives to flatten his etchings for the move and smashed an untold number of others. Her act of smashing carries symbolic weight. It shows her disowning the Pictorialism that marked her early work and preparing for reinvention as a modernist.            

Partridge, shortly after Cunningham joined him, began teaching art at Mills College in Oakland, a private school for women. Founded as the Young Ladies Seminary in 1852, it is the first women’s college west of the Rockies. Cunningham became a sort of captive to her domestic duties, constrained to raising children and helping his career. Her letters reveal a restless discontentment. Instead of putting her own career entirely on hold, though, she made many beautiful and intimate nude studies of her children and her garden, as well as more nudes of Partridge. She also began to build a career for herself that would overshadow her husband’s. In the view of Susan Ehrens, Partridge "believed that there was room for only one artist in the family" (Martineau, 36). They had "a small garage where Partridge would often retire for the evening to isolate himself from Cunningham and their children," while "She made the house a safe haven for private discussions about sexuality and family planning, sometimes escorting young women to a local clinic for birth control" (Martineau, 36). When Cunningham had a solo retrospective of her work at the de Young Museum in December 1931 – at Golden Gate Park, in the city of San Francisco where Partridge had been working for so long – more professional jealousy and marital tension ensued. Enhancing her stature and fame, her in-depth study of plants and flowers between 1923 and 1925 earned her notice in both art and scientific circles.

In the late 1920s, with Ansel Adams, Brett Weston (1911-1993), and others, Cunningham formed the collective known as Group f/64. They emphasized sharp focus, clarity, and realism. They used the smallest camera aperture available, f/64, to achieve a greater depth of field that would counter the old Pictorialism. In November 1932, they officially announced themselves at a show in San Francisco. The group published an exhibition statement and essays that collectively comprise a manifesto of sorts, an agenda that would foster a brave new wave of American realist photography through the 1930s. The group disbanded in 1946, but their influence would be felt for years to come.

In 1933, Cunningham founded the California Horticultural Society, an outgrowth of her botanical work as a University of Washington student. Her groundbreaking photos of plants hold such verisimilitude that scientists and horticulturalists began to utilize them for education and illustration. To this day, some of her most famous prints are the dozen or so she did of magnolias, whose buds and blossoms show a similitude between the private human anatomy and flower parts. In that respect she shares an affinity with Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1906). Like few creatives before them had ever done, that pair of women outliers discovered visual connections between diverse plant species and human bodies. Cunningham took so many photos over her 70-year career that her contributions are still being assessed a half-century after she died.

Her turn toward modernist aesthetics has several key features. She favored close focus on detached human body parts. She innovated by originating double exposures, superimposing images from nature atop closeups of her human models. As lean as life was for her during the Depression, she found work making more than 20 photos of the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham in the early 1930s, some of them partial nudes. Susan Ehrens, in the fine 2020 retrospective collection by Paul Martineau, noted that, "She is one of the few photographers ever to produce striking nude images of both genders, and even when she combines them into a single image, as she did in her 1923 Torso, there is never anything prurient about it" (Martineau, 39). Cunningham’s Torso verges on abstraction; light and shadow make the bodies angular, so they appear dismembered. Torso is a shining example of the high modernist vision in mid-century photography.

Marital tensions finally culminated in Roi’s and Imogen’s divorce. One impetus was her professional visit, against his wishes, for a month in New York City. There she met with the editor of Vanity Fair in 1934 and made portraits for that magazine. She was also building business collaborations with other magazines such as Sunset. Upon her return, Partridge filed for divorce. The Depression still had the nation in its grip, and life for Cunningham became leaner than ever. She had never learned to drive and relied on others to tote her around. She was now working solo, no longer benefiting from Partridge's professor salary to supplement her finances. She was destined never to remarry, or even evidently to have another intimate relationship. Hints of intimacy abound in her photos, though, conferring on her a surrogate life of sorts in art. In the photo Helen from 1928, warm boundaries and disappearing curves of cloth and flesh insinuate private parts.

Her greatest achievements in modernist aesthetics reached full expression in the decades following her marriage. Trends toward mechanization were spilling into fine-art galleries and museums, a result of the Industrial Revolution that shaped the sensibilities of so many artists and citizens born in the previous century. Her imagery often verges on the non-representational. Close focus on anatomies, investigations of light and shadow, acute attention to geometric angles that pop from amid bodily contortions: these are some of the patterns that emerge in her work. Her camera became no longer a device to emulate nineteenth-century painting, no longer a looking-glass used to reflect the world in imitative fashion, but rather a machine that she could manipulate to rescript reality. In his book and accompanying film on modern art, Robert Hughes dubbed the movement "the shock of the new." Cunningham’s work is shocking today.

By any measure, her midcentury photographs qualify as avant-garde. Stunning multiple exposures form her best work. She had shown an interest in duplicates with the early pieces based in watery reflections, thereby achieving a kind of Doppelganger effect. Her eight nude photos from 1928, which include the experimental Two Sisters and Triangles series, are formal preludes to the overlays or superimpositions that would consistently fascinate her throughout her career. Hands of Laura LaPlante, made circa 1931, qualifies as a triple exposure, the two faces of the film actress overlain by filigrees of leaf or feather which adorn one hand. Human hands always proved to be a fascination. Another artful early effort, from about 1932, is Hands of Henry Cowell and His Rhythmicon. In that photo the musician and his instrument effectively become one, almost as if artificial intelligence had been deployed to generate the merger.

Other artists praised her, galleries included her work and gave her solo shows, and her reputation grew. Nellie Cornish, founder of Cornish School (later Cornish School of the Arts) invited her to come to Seattle the year after her divorce. She invited Cunningham to take photos to document student life at the school. One standout piece she made during that visit is the wonderful collage Cornish School Trio (1935) of three players performing on cello and violin. The three musicians and their instruments are fragmented and reassembled in a way that duplicates the dynamism of their performance. It is one of the stellar instances of a photography whose finish is akin to the cubism that informs works by Picasso and by Marcel Duchamp, whose Nude Descending a Staircase was presented in the groundbreaking Armory Show of 1912.

A Delicate Interpretation

Aside from her many frontline compositions that place her smack in the middle of the radical new experiments of mid-twentieth century, she made admirable and straight-ahead portraits of celebrities that reveal much about their characters. Invited to come to Hollywood and do some portraits, she was asked what kinds of subjects she preferred. Thinking perhaps of the handsome Partridge, she responded that she preferred "ugly men" as subjects because they "aren’t as vain, and they don’t complain." Her term for the kind of portrait work that necessitated beautification she cleverly dubbed "face-lifting" (Martineau, 58). Never one to suffer fools or foolish questions gladly, she appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1976, her final year alive. Her host asked her if she considered Cary Grant ugly, whom she had photographed years before. "No," she retorted to the question, "he convinced me he wasn’t" (Martineau, 68).

Seattle was never far from her mind, nor was she from Seattle and its interest in her. One of her most honored headshots captures poet Theodore Roethke (1908-1963). Afflicted by mental-health challenges for decades, Roethke had spent many months in and out of institutions to help him heal. Four years after she snapped him in 1959, his lifetime of cares etched on his face, he would die of a heart attack. Morris Graves (1910-2001), who began his painting in Seattle, was her good friend. Other artists cite her 1950 portrait of Graves, posed before a moss-draped stone, as one of the finest American portraits ever made. In 1973 she convinced him to pose with her in the gender-bending Self-Portrait with Morris Graves. She sits before him as if she were a child or a puppet on his lap, the lines of wrinkled flesh on her neck resembling whiskers on an old man’s beard.

Institutions around the nation honored Cunningham as her 70-year career was coming to an end. Instead of photographing celebrities, she became a celebrity. In 1964, at the age of 80, a monograph appeared in print devoted entirely to her. That same year the Library of Congress collected 41 of her photos. In 1974, the University of Washington honored her as an alumna and celebrated her many accomplishments. "She invented a photographic printing paper in 1909 using lead salts instead of costly platinum then in use and was the first to experiment with double images in the 1920s." Likewise, "She is a fellow of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences and the only person to receive a Guggenheim fellowship at the advanced age of 87" ("UW Alums"). The $10,000 the Guggenheim Foundation awarded her was only one of the many jewels in her crown. Already by 1913 she knew where she was headed as an artist. "If one decides upon the medium of photography," she said, "why attempt to soar into the realm of the imagination? There are plenty of subtleties right on the earth which need a delicate interpretation" (Martineau, 33). She had faith in her artistry both as a mirror to reflect the world and as a lamp to shade the world in suggestive ways.

She was forever putting her work in the public eye. Not only in experimental and avant-garde artistry, but also in her dozens of self-portraits, she refused to hide behind the studio or the contact sheet. She never apologized for her rare missteps or for the scandal that drove her early set of photos underground for 50 years. Interviewed at the age of 92, her only form of jewelry was a ceramic peace symbol. Evolving and maturing beyond the fads and manners that limited and typecast some of her contemporaries, she was transgressive from the start. By the time the art world at last began to accept and even to applaud transgressive art, she had amassed a body of work that demonstrated how long she had been at the cutting edge of her chosen medium. Her fellow founder of the influential f/64 movement, Ansel Adams, commented to the United Press International after she died, "Imogen was the most prolific and broad ranging of anyone. She was a super artist ..." ("Imogen Cunningham, Pioneer").


HistoryLink Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “The Puget Sound Co-operative Colony is established at Port Angeles in June 1887” (by Kit Oldham), “Photographer Imogen Cunningham opens her first portrait studio in Seattle in September 1910" (by Paula Becker), “Love Israel Family” (by Charles P. LeWarne) accessed January 20, 2024: Judy Dater, Imogen Cunningham: A Portrait (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1979); Edward S. Curtis, The North American Indian, being a series of volumes picturing and describing the Indians of the United States and Alaska, 20 volumes, 1907-20 (New York: Johnson Reprint, 1970); Mary Street Alinder, Group f.64 (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014); Paul Martineau, Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2020); “Imogen Cunningham, 1883-1976,” International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum; Adele M. Ballard, “Some Seattle Artists and Their Work,” The Town Crier (Seattle) 10, No. 51 (Christmas 1915), p. 35; Imogen Cunningham Official Site; Angie Kordic, “Sensuality Unveiled in Erotic Photography of Imogen Cunningham,” Widewalls Magazine, October 2, 2015; Margo Vansynghel, “How Seattle’s Imogen Cunningham Changed Photography Forever,” Crosscut, November 16, 2021; Portrait of Imogen, video by Meg Partridge, 1987, YouTube; Hannelore Sudermann, “Imogen Exposed,” University of Washington Magazine, December 2021; Richard Lorenz and Imogen Cunningham, Imogen Cunningham: On the Body (Boston: A. Bulfinch, 1998); Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New: The Hundred-Year History of Modern Art, Its Rises, Its Dazzling Achievement, Its Fall (Thames & Hudson, 1991); “An Artist of the Camera,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 11, 1913, p. 42; “UW Alums Will Honor Two for Distinguished Service,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 21, 1974, p. 3; “Imogen Cunningham, Pioneer of Photography, Dies at 93,” The Seattle Times, June 25, 1976, p. 50.

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