Seattle-born American pioneer of photography (1883-1976).
A specialist of portraits, she worked steadily at her craft for over seventy years. In her work, one sees reflected the evolution of photography in this century, from its pictorialist beginnings to modernism and the still active trends of the environmental portrait.
She went to Germany for one year in 1909-1910 where she obtained a solid technical background in chemistry and photography. Perhaps thanks to this grounding, she did not fear technical innovation, as we can see from her experiments with color photography and negative and print manipulation.
After returning to the United States, she was influenced by Alfred Stieglitz's Camera Work photography-and-art magazine. Stieglitz saw an exhibition of her work in 1914 and appreciated it, but she was never published in Camera Work.
During these years, Cunnigham made a living with commercial portraits, both in a study and on location.
In 1917 she moved to San Francisco, where she came into contact with a group of artists that included Anne Brigman, John Hagemeyer, Dorothea Lange and her husband Maynard Dixon, Edward Weston and Margrethe Mather.
Within this group, the shift to modernism was complete; sharp portraits occasionally using strong contrast and bold framing.
Cunnigham started photographing actors for Vanity Fair, and in 1932 she was a founding member of "Group f/64", among other great names like Edward Weston and Ansel Adams
During the Thirties and the Fourties she was extremely productive, photographing among others Marta Graham, Frida Kahlo, Gertrude Stein and John Masefield.
In 1947 she became a visiting instructor at the photography department of the California School of Fine Arts. The deparment was headed first by Ansel Adams and subsequently by the great Minor White.
By this time, Cunnigham had started using smaller cameras: first a Graflex press camera and subsequently a Rolleiflex TLR.
Using this light and portable camera, and under the influence of friend and photographer Lisette Model, she took many remarkable street portraits; these pictures reveal an amused but never cynical eye, far from the rude penetrating curiosity of (for example) Weegee.
Of this spontaneous photography, she said in 1976:
"I don't look for anything. People have to hit me. If you go around looking for something that you've already thought of it's not going to work. It has to arise, it has to come in front of you; it has to be for you - and what is for one person is not for another."
In her photograpic exploration of the American street, she took many pictures of blacks and of interracial couples - these pictures at the time created quite a scandal.
In the 1960's, along with her regular work, she experimented with negative manipulation, an area pioneered by Man Ray, mirror distortions (they remind me of André Kertesz), double exposures, sandwiched negatives and Polaroid material .
Many of the pictures of these years were first published in Aperture, founded and directed by Minor White.
At the age of ninety, in 1973, she started a new series on the subject of old age. She confronted decrepitude, wrinkles and weakness with the same limpid and unfailing eye that she had always exhibited,
Her pictures of the old and very old show understanding and compassion, to the last; they close her life and works.
I think it is interesting to observe that her last pictures parallel some of her very first pictures of her mother and father, taken in the first decade of the century.
There are many books dedicated to Imogen Cunnigham's work. Two outstanding ones, Portraits and Flora are published by the Bullfinch Press.