Left: “Self Portrait on Geary Street”, 1959 by Imogen Cunningham via the Museum of Modern Art; right: “Magnolia Blossom,” 1925 by Imogen Cunningham via Oklahoma State University Art Collection

“I made a lot of mistakes, and I still do. But, I try not to worry about it, because I never will be the perfectionist, and I never tried to be, I guess…I don’t think anyone knows his own work. We always make mistakes about what we like and what we don’t like.”

Imogen Cunningham purchased her first camera in 1901, at age 15. From that moment, she began a 75-year study and career in photography that included gauzy images of the human form, precise documentation of botanicals, and both celebrity and street photography. Her wide range of approaches evolved as she aged, and she eventually became one of America’s most sought-after professional portrait photographers

Imogen’s early work was taken with a large-format camera and glass plate negatives. She focused largely on the human body, using the Pictorialist, soft-focus approach of the time. The photographs were staged and stylized, as a painting might be, and sometimes the artist would experiment with developing negatives and prints to present a dreamlike, blurred image. As she developed her craft, she focused on form, natural lighting, lines, and texture. Some more puritanical collectors were scandalized by Cunningham’s nudes, the most famous of which featured her husband on Mount Rainier. “I don’t know who tells me this, but somebody said, that I’m the first woman that ever photographed a nude man… Of course they were not acknowledged as being a nice ladylike job. I was condemned by the newspaper, a well-known publishing company in Seattle, and they called me an immoral woman.”

“Nude”, 1932 by Imogen Cunningham via the Museum of Modern Art

As a photographer, Imogen eventually turned away from Pictorialism and toward Modernist philosophies; she was a founding member of the artist group known as Group f/64, which included artists like Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Alma Levinson, and others. The group documented reality exactly as it was, without manipulation. As Edward Weston described it, “The camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh.”

“Magnolia Blossom”, 1925 by Imogen Cunningham via Christie’s 

Cunningham is frequently celebrated for her botanical photography. Her close-up, detailed images are examples of her transition into sharp focus photography. She captured photographs of bark, trees, and leaves and eventually focused heavily on flowers. While taking time off from professional photography to be home with her children, Imogen did a two-year study of the magnolia flower. Though she is widely known for these photos, the subject began to bore her and she moved on to other themes like industrial landscapes and street photography. 

“Ruth Asawa at Work with Children”, 1957 by Imogen Cunningham via the Museum of Modern Art

She was hired by Vanity Fair and other magazines to photograph celebrities and artists. Cunningham enjoyed focusing on hands and wanted to see her subjects in their raw, makeup-free form. Her portrait subjects include Martha Graham, Gertrude Stein, Man Ray, Frida Kahlo, Cary Grant, and a staggering number of other artists, writers, dancers, and actors. Cunningham’s expertise was in drawing out the personality of the individual subject. Some of her most iconic images are those of artist Ruth Asawa, whom she called “an unfailingly creative person.”

After winning a Guggenheim scholarship, Cunningham was able to focus on printing her photographs, rather than continuing to shoot them. She founded a trust bearing her name in 1975 and it continues to preserve her work for future generations. Imogen Cunningham died in 1976, but remains one of the most innovative and respected photographers of our time. As curator Celina Lunsford once said, “It is Cunningham’s modernist artistic legacy that has impacted photography most, but her thirst for experimentation was perpetual.” 

Explore the works of Imogen Cunningham in Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective.

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  1. Nadine Priestley

    This is one of my favorites of Imogen. Not only is her work outstanding but it depicts the reality of another favorite artist, Ruth Asawa, and her quest to create not only her art but a family.

    1. Alabama Chanin

      Thank you for your kind message, Nadine. You can explore more of our inspirations on the #womenartists series on The Journal.