Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective, ed. Paul Martineau

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by the J. Paul Getty Museum (here). Hardcover, 9 ½ x 11 inches, 256 pages, with 199 black-and-white and 6 color photographic reproductions. Includes an introduction and one essay by Paul Martineau, and two essays by Susan Ehrens. Published in conjunction with a traveling retrospective to be exhibited in Los Angeles from June 29-September 26, 2021 and at the Seattle Art Museum from November 18, 2021-February 6, 2022. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976) was an elder in the first generation of American Modernists, those young and ambitious beneficiaries of Alfred Stieglitz’s relentless boosterism of photography as a fine art.

Edward Steichen was born four years before her and Alvin Langdon Coburn a year earlier, but Cunningham was the same age as Charles Sheeler, and three years older than Edward Weston, Margrethe Mather, and James Van Der Zee; four years older than Georgia O’Keeffe; seven years older than Man Ray; nine years older than Paul Strand and Berenice Abbott; twelve years older than Dorothea Lange; thirteen years older than Paul Outerbridge and Tina Modotti; nineteen older than Ansel Adams and Wynn Bullock; twenty years older than Walker Evans; twenty-four years older than Lee Miller and George Platt Lynes; and twenty-five years older than Beaumont Newhall and Minor White.

Compared to some on this list, Cunningham has received extravagant coverage from art historians as a pioneer. For half-a-century or more, her abstracted close-ups of plants and nude body parts have been canonical. Recognized as an esteemed photographer by her peers for most of her adult life, she had been exhibited widely in Europe and the U.S. in solo and group shows throughout the 1920s and ‘30s. Ten of her photographs were featured in the epochal Film und Foto in 1929. Her close association with the inaugural f.64 exhibition in 1932 has meant that the story of photographic Modernism could not think about ignoring her. Interviewed often in print and on camera during her lifetime, she has been the biographic subject of several documentary films. Since her death, the art historian Richard Lorenz, a member of the Imogen Cunningham Trust, has published seven books about her work with major publishers. Nor has there been a paucity of retrospectives. There was one in Madrid as recently as 2012.

Nonetheless, as Paul Martineau points out, the present-day view of Cunningham is blurry and dimly illuminated. Her importance is more dutifully acknowledged than passionately argued for. While museums and monographs have chronicled in detail the early lives of Weston, Abbott, Strand, and Adams, Cunningham’s long career as an artist—who was also a wife, divorcee, and mother of three—has been something of a blank. Portraits of her by others from the first seventy years of her life are hard to summon up. It’s as if she had been born old. Full recognition by the art establishment happened late. The first monograph of her work was not published until she was eighty. Thanks to the inexplicable popularity of Judy Dater’s Imogen and Twinka in Yosemite, the most enduring image of Cunningham is that of a white-haired eccentric, with wire-rim glasses, cap and cape, and a twin-lens reflex camera around her neck—a grandmotherly spirit of the woods who appears to be slightly befuddled by the presence of a tall, comely nude woman two generations younger.

What does it say about her legacy that the photograph bringing Cunningham most quickly to mind should be of her and not by her—and taken when she was ninety-one, in Yosemite National Park, terrain more identified with her friend Adams?

Martineau and Ehrens have sought to correct the image of a gnomelike nonagenarian, sexless and bloodless, by fleshing out Cunningham’s unconventional upbringing on the West Coast and by enlarging the familiar scope of reproductions beyond the botanical studies and nudes. The selection stresses her continuous interest in portraiture over sixty years, her ventures into street photography during the 1940s, as well as her sporadic dissents from straight photography, experiments with double-exposures and other anomalous printing techniques.

Born in Portland, named for the Shakespeare heroine in his play Cymbeline, Imogen was one of ten children and grew up on a rural utopian commune where women enjoyed equality with men. According to Ehrens, the formative parent on the photographer’s life was her father, Isaac Burns Cunningham, a bookish farmer who was also a vegetarian and a Theosophist. When privation forced him to move his large family to Seattle in 1889, she attended formal school for the first time and developed a talent for drawing and art. Despite Isaac’s wish that his daughter become a school teacher, he built her a darkroom after she expressed serious curiosity about photography. In the portraits she made of him, one in 1906 and another ca. 1919, he is already white-haired and luxuriously bearded. In her 1936 portrait, My Father at Ninety, he sits outdoors on a woodpile, holding a cane and looking like an American holy man or Rip Van Winkle.

Cunningham was more formally educated in the technical aspects of photography than almost any of her fellow Modernists except Stieglitz. She graduated in 1907 with a degree in chemistry from the University of Washington, apprenticed in Seattle with Edward S. Curtis, from whom she learned platinum printing, and earned a fellowship to study photographic chemistry in Leipzig, Germany. On her return in 1910 she set up a portrait studio in Seattle.

Cunningham’s Pictorialist phase lasted from c. 1910-1925 and was guided by the languid atmospherics of the Pre-Raphaelites and its leading female photographic acolyte Gertrude Käsebier. Having grown up on a commune and traveled to Europe, Cunningham was more liberated and sophisticated than many of her neighbors. The catalog reproduces two gauzy platinum nudes she made at the time, one of herself lying in a meadow (1906) and another of her husband in a woodland setting (1915). A Seattle newspaper denounced her as immoral when the male nude was exhibited, a scandal that only seems to have increased business. The examples are impressive mainly as period pieces, the unclothed bodies coyly distant from the camera and, in the catalog anyway, hardly legible. (The only nudes by Cunningham that truly generate erotic heat are those of a half-dressed Martha Graham from 1931. Coincidentally, they also belong among her finest portraits.)

The retrospective does not seek to overturn traditional judgments about which of her images have deserved their status in previous histories. “Without question, Cunningham’s botanical photographs” <from the 1920s> “are her most significant contribution to photography,” writes Ehrens. Instead, the curators set some of her icons against biographic backgrounds that encourage keener appreciation.

Male photographers, even if married, could venture forth for hours, days or weeks in search of pictures, whereas the compass of women’s activities, especially if married, has usually been far more limited. Her flower studies were the ingenious result of her confinement at home in Oakland raising three children. With her artist husband often away, she planted a hillside garden in 1921 in order, as Ehrens puts it, to “grow her subjects.” Not all the plants she photographed in the ‘20s were native to California but these particular aloes, billbergia, hellebores, and calla lilies were grown in Cunningham’s garden or nearby.

The catalog cover is Magnolia Blossom (1925), a close-cropped study of a sexualized stamen surrounded by a cluster of ovoid petals. Ehrens doesn’t press too hard to build a case for its formal influence on later still-lifes by other artists. But by reproducing Weston’s Two Shells (1927) and O’Keeffe’s White Calico Flower (1931) we get the hint. None of the more than a dozen close-up studies, shown here as full-page plates, have lost their Modernist edge. Her most radical picture, to my eye, remains Flax (1926) in which a single, ribbed stalk zips from top to bottom against a blank background, leaving a faint shadow and dividing the page into halves. It’s a photograph that at the time she made it must have seemed almost too spare to be anything but that looks prescient as art trends over the last forty years have caught up to her. Two close-up photographs of human torsos from 1929, one of the folds in a bent over belly, the other of knees and shins, are likewise as fresh and thrilling as the they day they were printed. There is a casual simplicity to these pictures from the late ’20s and early ’30s, an acute effortlessness, that wasn’t there before and that she didn’t really achieve again.

When her husband divorced her in 1934, Cunningham took commercial assignments from magazines such as Vanity Fair to keep her solvent. A large group of her portraits was collected by Lorenz for a book in 2001; the smaller sample here includes Stieglitz, Gertrude Stein, Cary Grant. But celebrity and glamour did not intrigue her; none are outstanding. The 1940s were a rough period for her financially. She was living in San Francisco and tried her hand at street photography, with some success; she became friends with Lisette Model, although their personalities would not seem compatible. A few examples from these years, of pedestrians reflected in shop windows, look back toward Atget and forward to Lee Friedlander. Eventually, Cunningham was forced to make ends meet by teaching.

The catalog positions her within a utopian community of women artists. In the selection of photographs—of Frida Kahlo, of the ceramic artist Laura Andreson, of an anonymous female weaver, and of her friend Ruth Asawa, whose mesh sculptures must have reminded Cunningham of her flower studies—one can sense the curators stacking the deck in order to undercut the standard view that her success depended on endorsements by men. Citations from Adams and Brett Weston mention only their criticisms—they thought she was a “sloppy” printer—when in fact they publicly offered praise, and Adams found teaching work for her. (He was surely one of the writers who proposed her for a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1970.)

Cunningham’s politics were unorthodox. Like her father, she was at heart a free thinker and a mystic. A confirmed pacifist who began displaying a peace button after the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, she was an early opponent of the Vietnam War. Her left-leaning beliefs and friendships, however, seem never to have brought her within the sphere of American Communism and so she was not subjected to persecution during the McCarthy era. About her attitude toward the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in the Bay area, Martineau and Ehrens have surprisingly little to say.

The book touches more provocatively on her complicated relationship to feminism. After 1934 she was a single mother and had to struggle most of her life to earn a living as a photographer, an insecure profession unless you were in fashion or journalism and under contract to a magazine or movie studio. Artistic recognition came relatively quickly for her, before and after her conversion to Modernism. But in the ’50s and ’60s, she grew disillusioned as younger colleagues, such as Weston, Lange, Adams, and Evans, outpaced her and were given museum retrospectives.

Her opposition to the women’s liberation movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s—she was “repulsed” (Martineau’s word) by their rhetoric and actions—matches that of other women artists her age, such as O’Keeffe, Abbott, and Lee Miller. Only in her final years did Cunningham move to embrace the militant opinions of her younger sisters. “I’m almost ready to join,” the ninety-year old told an interviewer for Ms. In 1973. “Of course, I’ve always belonged.”

Martineau and Ehrens have wisely not attributed the generally lukewarm critical opinion about Cunningham’s oeuvre to sexism. Had they done so, they would need to explain why she was actually more prominent as a public figure before her death—i.e. prior to feminist art history’s gaining institutional respectability—than she has been since.

They don’t provide as much historical context as they might have to the slippage of her reputation in the 1950s and ‘60s. How much can its gradual decline be attributed to the writings of Nancy and Beaumont Newhall, whose popular books on West Coast photographers aggrandized Weston and Adams, but not Cunningham? The retrospective does not explore the issue that Martineau poses as the reason for its existence. I could not find a single memorable encomium from a contemporary or present-day writer attesting to her greatness. She had many admirers and advocates. Weston wrote to her in 1926 so excited by her print Glacial Lily that he declared “if you keep up to that standard, you will be one of a handful of the most important photographers in America—or anywhere.” Is this accurate prediction missing from the catalog because it would grant too much agency to Weston for her success as an artist? It appears that later in life her most ardent supporters were friends, such as Minor White, who when he took a job at the George Eastman House in the late ‘50s convinced director Newhall to buy seventy-five prints by Cunningham, the largest institutional holding of her work.

She did not live to see the flourishing of galleries and auctions devoted to photography in New York, and maybe that’s just as well. By temperament she was a reluctant self-promoter. An innate shyness and modesty also prevented her later in life from enjoying the steady-paying and revered role of workshop teacher. “I am not as confident as Ansel or Minor—that is I can never try to seem like an authority,” she wrote in a letter to a friend. “To say something that will help a worker and yet not discourage him is not as easy as it might seem.” Several younger artists in the catalog express their thanks for her gentle encouragement and guidance.

By the year of her death, at the age of ninety-three, she had become a celebrity, booked as a guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, where the tart-tongued little old lady photographer was a hit with the host and the audience. Was the adoration, even with Cunningham’s full participation, slightly condescending? No doubt. One might also plausibly argue that the fame of Twinka and Imogen in Yosemite rests on the persistence of the male gaze. Contrary to Dater’s intent, we are encouraged to ogle a full-frontal female nude and smile at the wizened ancient in the forest, covered head to toe in a costume of the repressed.

Another factor in the lack of critical zeal and research about her photographs may be her mysticism. Justly or not, West Coast artists, such as her friends White and Morris Graves are associated with New Age occultism, a school of cloudy thought out of favor in academies of art,  where hard-edged Conceptual strategies that question social structures of power have predominated over religious self-exploration

The chief accomplishment of this retrospective is to remind us what a beloved, tough, industrious, and supremely independent photographer and person Cunningham was. If her prints of flowers are velvety, without the bite, sheen, and torqued energy of Weston’s peppers, they have a confidence in their own humility missing in his. They have aged hardly at all and are still full of life. And even if she was never a darkroom virtuoso on a par with Adams, at least she never succumbed to the lure of financial gain that mars his bombastic late work. As always, it will be young artists who decide whether Cunningham again becomes a potent force on the art of photography. From the evidence so carefully presented here, she deserves to be.

Collector’s POV: In recent years, prints by Imogen Cunningham have been widely available in the secondary markets, fetching a wide range of prices, from posthumous estate prints for a few thousand dollars, later prints generally under $10000, vintage prints largely in 5 figures, and her most iconic vintage prints well into six figures, with a 2019 outcome at $350000.

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