Imogen Cunnigham is regarded as one of the most renowned women photographers of the twentieth century. She began taking photographs in 1901, when she was a student at the prestigious University of Washington. She was influenced by the works of Gertrude Kasebier, an internationally known pictorialist and aspired to be like her. Cunningham began her career with a part time job at the studio of Edward S. Curtis in Seattle. Curtis was famous for his remarkable documentation of the North American Indian. At the studio, Cunningham learned to make platinum prints in both quantity and quality.
Due to her meritorious photographic skills, Cunningham earned a scholarship for foreign study in 1909 and attended photographic courses at the Technische Hochschule in Dresden, Germany. The institution had recently revived its photography department under the guidance and direction of Robert Luther, a proclaimed photo scientist. It was during her years in Germany that she visited the renowned photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn in London. Upon her return to America in 1910, she visited yet another photographer, Alfred Stieglitz. They served as major influences on her photography.
Soon after returning to her country, she opened a studio in Seattle. She came to be recognised nationally not only for her portraits but for her pictorial work. She published a portfolio of these pictures in Wilson’s Photographic Magazine in March, 1914. A philosophy that she stated here came to define her works.
Cunningham got married to the American printmaker, Roi Partridge. The couple were blessed with three children and the family moved to San Francisco. There, she became friends with another renowned American photographer, Edward Weston. When asked to make nominations of works of outstanding American photographers for inclusion in the Deutscher Werkbund’s international exhibition, “Film and Foto” in Stuttgart, 1929, Weston chose eight works of Cunningham. These works were beautiful platinum prints of plants, shot from a close range to emphasise their form. All of them became a part of the George Eastman House Collection.
In 1934, Cunningham joined the band of enthusiastic photographers, known as ‘Group f/64’. It was founded by Ansel Adams and Willard Van Dyke. While histories of photography refer to this group as an organised reform movement, in reality, it was not such a thing. On the contrary, it was an informal group of friends who got together in a photography gallery from time to time. When they met, they talked about photography and showed their prints to each other and to the public. In late 1932, Ansel Adams and Willard Van Dyke suggested that they should be organised to implement and spread their ideas. It was Dyke who proposed the name f/64.
The name was chosen because the members of the group believed in the honesty of the sharply defined image and a f/64 lens opening provided the ultimate resolution and depth in the field. Adams felt that the group membership should be limited to only those artists who were making efforts to define photography as an art form by a simple and direct presentation by using methods which were purely photographic. However, Cunnigham recalled later that adopting the name and the criterion for membership did not lead to the formalisation of the group. There were no regular meetings, no officers and no dues.
For a few years, Cunningham also taught at the California School of Fine Arts and simultaneously worked on assignments for magazines. During her active years as a photographer, she photographed Hollywood actors like Cary Grant and Joan Blondell. She photographed Wallace Beery at the Burbank airport, just after he had landed his plane on his own. He was wearing a leather jacket, flannel slacks, old patent leather evening pumps and a diamond ring which was flashing. Cunningham recalls that Beery had a terrible toothache on that day, but was very obliging. She also photographed the American writer and activist Upton Sinclair during his campaign for the post of governor of California on the issue of EPIC- Ending Poverty in California campaign She photographed him a day before the general strike of 1934.
She recounted that Upton was so tired from the day-long campaign that he collapsed on the bed to rest, as soon as he entered his hotel room, while she set up her camera. Her photography of notable personalities also include Herbert Hoover, the President of the US. Hoover preferred a print where he was holding the collar of his dog, but he was being hurled slogans by the people on the streets of San Francisco… Hoover was such a controversial figure that Vanity Fair decided against featuring him.During this time, Imogen was associated with the fashion magazine, Vanity Fair and continued continued to be with Vanity Fair, till the magazine shut down in 1936.
In the mid-thirties, Imogen and Roi got a divorce. After living in Oakland till 1947, she moved to her home in San Francisco. While she made a living as a portrait photographer, she also photographed people just for fun. She got along well with painters, writers and other photographers. In fact, some of her best portraits were of those creative people. During her lifetime, she accomplished fame through her outstanding photographic skills and the attention to detail in her works. Her photography is admired by art critics and featured in a lot of publications after her death. Imogen Cunnigham died in 1976 in San Francisco at the age of 93.