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Imogen Cunningham

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Openness to explore the possibilities of any photographic image is in part why Imogen Cunningham had such a strong and continuing influence on American photography

"Anything that can be exposed to light," was Imogen Cunningham's response when asked what she liked to photograph. She was not being clever, but truthful. Her unerring eye for powerful images was not limited by stylistic preconceptions or directed by a social agenda. Rather, she delighted in capturing the immediacy of striking moments of light, mood, or gesture in the world around her. She found equal satisfaction in photographing an artisan's hands, an oil derrick, a snake curling over stones, a gnarled tree, or children at play - as long as she was able to recreate in the darkroom the momentary magic of light, shadow, shape and texture that had first captured her eye.

Openness to explore the possibilities of any photographic image is in part why Imogen Cunningham had such a strong and continuing influence on American photography throughout her seventy-five year career. Her work never grew stale. The photographs of her last years have a dramatic vitality and freshness equal to her work of half a century earlier.

Imogen was born on April 12, 1883 in Portland, Oregon. She launched herself into photography in 1901 when in high school in Seattle. She mailed fifteen dollars she had saved to a correspondence school in Scranton, Pennsylvania to obtain a 4 x 5 camera, a box of glass plates, and a booklet of instructions. Using a converted woodshed as her darkroom, she pursued photography with vigor while obtaining a chemistry degree from the University of Washington. Her early images of friends, exposed on glass plates and made with a large format camera, had a soft romantic focus which showed the influence of the pictorialist movement.

But she was not driven by aesthetics alone - she had a strong pragmatic streak. She apprenticed with the renowned photographer of American Indians, Edward S. Curtis, and in 1909, she studied photographic chemistry in Dresden, Germany on a $500 scholarship from her sorority, Pi Beta Phi. Upon her return to Seattle a year later she opened a successful portrait studio of her own.

Her independence and self-sufficiency as she started a photographic career stayed with her, allowing her to continue artistic and technical development in circumstances which might have frustrated many. Her marriage to etcher Roi Partridge in 1915, a move to San Francisco, and the birth of her first son, Gryffyd, did not interrupt her career. But with the arrival of twins Rondal and Padriac in 1917 the subject matter of her photography shifted from portraiture to more informal photos of plants and children. "Well, I had three children in two years, and what could I do?" Fortunately, putting aside her passion for photography did not enter her mind. With characteristic pragmatism and flexibility, she simply shifted her focus to the images at hand.

The San Francisco Bay Area was to remain her home. She and six other West Coast photographers, including Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, met frequently to share ideas and techniques. They adopted the name "f/64 Group" for their landmark show at San Francisco's De Young Museum in 1932. Although the group disbanded after three years, their sharp focus and honest portrayal of the world had sent shock waves through the pictorialist photographic community of the time.

In 1932 the magazine Vanity Fair published her work for the first time. In the years to come, Imogen continued her freelance assignments for national magazines such as Life, Look and Sunset. Recognition of her work began to increase and Imogen was given a solo exhibition at the Limelight Gallery in New York in 1956. In 1970, she received a Guggenheim fellowship to print her old negatives, including the early pictures of Roi on Mount Rainier. Three years later, when she was in her ninetieth year, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York showed her work and the Smithsonian Institution asked for a collection of her photographs. She began her last book project when she was ninety-two. Called: After Ninety, the book celebrates people aging, particularly people who remain independent, active, and creative.

To Imogen Cunningham, photography was a process of discovery, never a finished, static product. Her unending delight in the new possibilities of the next image kept her vision fresh and strong. Imogen died June 23, 1976. She was ninety-three years old.