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Matinee: 'Pioneering Photographer Imogen Cunningham' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

10 December 2016

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the 165th in our series of Saturday matinees today: Pioneering Photographer Imogen Cunningham.

As noted in our Calendar, the Fine Arts Museum Boston exhibit Imogen Cunningham: In Focus is running through June 18, 2017. This video, produced by the Boston Herald, features Lane Curator of Photographs Karen Haas discussing the exhibit, which is mainly drawn from that collection.

In just a brief two minutes, Hass describes both Cunningham's career and her importance -- but that's enough to fulfill our aged aspiration to include Imogene Cunningham in this matinee series.

It's been tough. Nobody's really done her justice.

The SFMOMA Web site has two short videos featuring Cunningham herself and they're worth seeing (in this order):

Cunningham is known for her fine art prints but as Hass points out in today's matinee, Cunningham made her living taking portraits. She started doing them going house-to-house with a 5x7 view camera and collapsible tripod in Seattle and was still doing them in her later years when she lived in San Francisco.

That, in fact, is how we came across her work. As the lithographer for a weekly newsmagazine, we made halftones of all the portraits published in each issue. And one day a very striking portrait of an Industrial Indemnity executive was dropped on the process camera's spring-loaded copy board.

We turned it over not so much to read the reproduction instructions as to see who the photographer was. There stamped on the back it said: "Credit to: Imogen Cunningham, 1331 Green St., San Francisco 9."

Years later when the magazine ceased publication and the photo morgue was being tossed out, we salvaged her print and have reverently kept it in our own files all these years.

The dramatic lighting, the shallow depth of field, the almost Lincolnesque pose speak to her competence certainly but also her sense of style. And much to this lithographer's delight, it converted into a gorgeous halftone (which is not something that could be said of many photographers in those days).

In addition to her portraits, she is appreciated for her botanical images and her nudes. She was a master of composition whether in formal portraiture or fine art. But in fine art she seemed to prefer natural light over the studio lighting she relied on for portraiture.

She explained her approach to photography in a characteristically straight-forward statement:

I never photograph ugliness. I am afraid I am a little too aesthetic to be anything but old-fashioned. I agree to that. I let myself be old-fashioned, why shouldn't I? I have a formula for how to make a good photograph; I think that in order to make a good photograph, you have to be enthusiastic. That is, you have to think about it, like a poet would.

Much is made of her founding interest in 1932 with Ansel Adams, John Paul Edwards, Sonya Noskowiak, Henry Swift, Willard Van Dyke and Edward Weston in the f/64 Group but she earlier photographed tableaus in the Pictorialist style as well.

Born in Portland, Ore., in 1883, her father named her after the faithful heroine of Shakespeare's Cymbeline. In college she majored in chemistry to provide a scientific background to her pursuit of photography, which in those days still obliged photographers to mix their own concoctions.

She worked in the Seattle portrait studio of Edward S. Curtis, the portraitist of American Indians (in 20 volumes) and learned platinum printing. She studied platinum printing in Germany before opening her own portrait studio in Seattle.

She married and had three sons, two of which were twins. After her divorce she worked briefly for Vanity Fair (which she talks about in the Carson interview), photographing Martha Graham and Hollywood celebrities. She also traveled with Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor to document a lumber co-operative, which sparked her interest in street photography.

She always maintained her fine art track, though, exhibiting continually throughout the years. Today you can see some of her work at the Imogen Cunningham Trust, 21st Editions' publications and SFMOMA's collection. We also published a couple of images from her Cornish College exhibit last year.

She passed away in 1976 at the age of 93. And the world hasn't been the same since.

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