PRINT April 1965


Imogen Cunningham at the San Francisco Museum of Art

The first successful photographs were made between 1835 and 1840 (Daguerre’s photograph of the corner of his studio is dated 1837, and his daguerreotype process was described to the Academy of Sciences in Paris in 1839), and for almost 65 years, half the entire history of the medium, Imogen Cunningham has made photographs. She was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1883, and when she was six years old, she moved with her family to Seattle. In 1900, she saw reproductions of photographs by Gertrude Kasebier, who was later a member of Photo-Secession, and she dreamed of becoming a photographer as good as Kasebier. In 1901, her father built her first darkroom in the woodshed. In 1903, she enrolled in the University of Washington, and, since there were no art courses, she majored in chemistry. After college, she worked in the studio of Edward S. Curtis a photographer of Indians, and there she learned platinum printing. In 1909, she went to the Technische Hochschule in Dresden on a scholarship to continue her study of photographic chemistry––she developed a sensitized paper using, instead of platinum, a much cheaper salt of lead––but already she was more interested in the expressive aspects of photography than in its technology. When she returned to Seattle in 1910 she opened a portrait studio, and, in 1965, she continues to photograph to earn her living.

Miss Cunningham concerns herself with a wide variety of subjects. People have occasionally tried to categorize her as a nature photographer because of her classic series, “Pflanzenformen,” but she repeatedly asserts that she photographs anything that can be exposed to light. However, Miss Cunningham is a thoroughgoing individualist, and her photographs always deal with individuals. There are no crowds; she photographs only one or two people at a time. There are no panoramic landscapes; she focuses on a single plant.

Almost half the prints in the show are portraits, many of them of artists and writers, and Miss Cunningham is able to establish such a remarkable rapport between herself and her subjects that her photographs capture both the essence of the man and the quality of his work. In 1934, she photographed a compassionate, intelligent Alfred Stieglitz against a painting by his wife, Georgia O’Keeffe, and in 1958, a mystical Morris Graves outdoors against a stylized landscape. In 1963, she photographed Mark Adams and his wife, Beth Van Hoesen, chatting and relaxed together against a broad flat space in one of Adams’ paintings, and, in the same year, the poet and film· maker, James Broughton, against murky rocks and leaves, symbolic of the dark humor of his work.

Her casual photographs of people––on the streets, in cafes––are deeply sympathetic and reflect her commitment to the principles of equality and social justice. “In the Coffee Gallery, Grant Avenue, 1960,” showing the affection and understanding between a Negro boy and a white girl, is as powerful an indictment of segregation as many more dramatic photographs.

Miss Cunningham is an enthusiastic gardener, and her interest in plants, and her knowledge of them, has produced a continuing series of splendid photographs. “Magnolia, 1925,” a platinum print, one of the earliest exhibited here, shows the clear beauty of the complicated stamens and wide, flat, waxy petals of an open flower. The prints from the “Pflanzenformen” series, made before 1929––a rubber plant, calla lilies––are starkly composed and dramatic. “Exploding seedpod, Auragia, 1956” shows the delicate texture of milkweed seeds about to be blown away. “Three vegetables, 1963” is a direct, no-non sense examination of three trimmed fennel plants in a row.

In a spirit of curiosity, she has investigated techniques espoused by other photographers. In 1960, she photographed Man Ray, and the Museum shows a straight portrait of Man Ray beside “A Man Ray Version of Man Ray,” a playful multiple print, and, in the manner of Atget, she has made a self-portrait of her reflection in a McAllister Street second hand shop.

Her photographs show an incisive sense of design. The tightly-composed print, “Ruth Asawa’s new expression with metal, 1963,” is a vibrant composition that transcends the mere re· cording of the existence of a piece of sculpture. “Triangles, 1928” is a subtle, abstract nude, so advanced in its conception that it might have been made yesterday. “The unmade bed, 1957” is a provocative arrangement of a few metal and tortoise-shell hairpins framed by a rumpled sheet.

Although the photographs in the San Francisco Museum are an excellent sample of her recent work, the earliest photograph shown dates from 1925, and Miss Cunningham––who certainly achieved her early ambition of being as good a photographer as Gertrude Kasebier––deserves a comprehensive retrospective show of the quality of the Ansel Adams retrospective at the De Young Museum in 1963. The early photographs, 1910–1925, which might be borrowed from George Eastman House if they are unavailable in this area, look old-fashioned, since they were made through the soft-focus lenses and printed on the ivory-tinted papers then in vogue, but they already indicated a straightforward, intensely personal vision, and the photographs made in 1964 show no diminishing of her creative abilities. A truly remarkable woman.

––Margery Mann