Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday November 5, 2020


Toward the end of her life, Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976)) was asked what her favorite photograph was. Without hesitation she replied, “The one I will take tomorrow.” This statement now seems emblematic of the photographer’s life and work, as it is now being celebrated in a major publication organized by Paul Martineau, an associate curator of photography at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. The book, titled Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective, will accompany the forthcoming exhibition at the Getty Center, then traveling to Seattle, where she spent her early years. Above: Magnolia Blossom, 1925 

Cunningham’s long career, which ended at her death at age 93, began when she identified herself as a photographer during her high school years with a mail-order view camera that came with an instruction book. So began a seven-decade journey that progressed with few interruptions, save the three-and-a-half years she spent in college, studying chemistry and optics. Shortly before her graduation, she purchased her second view camera, and opened a studio where she concentrated on portraiture. 


The Unmade Bed, 1957

Cunningham was at the time the only professional photographer in Seattle. When she began working with her first camera, Alfred Stieglitz, in New York City, founded the Photo-Secession group, 291 Gallery and launched the seminal publication, Camera Work, which was a strong influence for the young photographer—especially as it presented the portrait work by Gertrude Kasabier, who referred to her portraits as “likenesses that are biographies” that bring out “the essential personality that is variously called temperament, soul, humanity”.

The characteristics referred to by Cunningham’s unknowing mentor are the underlying characteristics of her career, which covered genres and themes from portraiture to groundbreaking nudes; landscape to erotic botanicals; still life to street photography. The book, which includes essays by Martineau and by Susan Ehrens, an independent curator and expert on Cunningham and other female photographers, demonstrates what it is to be an artist fully committed to the art, barring any obstacles presented. Curator Martineau says, “Cunningham had a peripatetic eye, and this combined with her innate curiosity and forward-thinking attitudes about gender, race and sexuality resulted in an unusually diverse body of work that defies easy characterization.” 

Right: Edward Weston and Margrethe Mather, 1922

The book presents Cunningham’s work in roughly chronological order, by thematic groups, and divided into chapters that demonstrate her shift from Pictorialism to Modernism to the later work in which she shows her humanistic involvement with people from diverse backgrounds. The scholarly research that informs the text offers many surprises, including the fact that she worked for the love of it long before she received monetary rewards. At the time she was doing commissioned work for Vanity Fair in the 1930s, for example, she was paid $10 per print [value today: $156] while Edward Steichen earned an annual salary of $35,000 [value today: $545,500] as a staff photographer at Conde Nast, the parent company of Vanity Fair. Not least is the fact that this respected artist waited until her 80th year for her first monographic publication: the Winter 1964 issue of Aperture, edited by one of its founders, Minor White. There were subsequent books and exhibitions, but this is the first major exhibition of Cunningham’s photographs in thirty-five years to explore the full range of the artist’s life and career.

Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective (2020 J. Paul Getty Trust), with essays by Paul Martineau and contributions by Susan Ehrens; 256 pages, 199 color illustrations. Info

The exhibition slated to open in October at the Getty Center has been postponed due to COVID-19 pandemic. It is scheduled to open in November 2021 at the Seattle Art Museum. Info


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