The iconic images produced by Imogen Cunningham have endured long after her death, and she is still talked about today as one of the greatest American photographers. A chemist through education and a botanist through her own passion, Cunningham combined her interests to produce some of the most striking still life shots ever seen.
Imogen Cunningham was born in April 1883 to parents from Portland, Oregon. She was a determined young lady who knew what she wanted from life, and in 1906 she started studying at the University of Washington, Seattle. Here, Cunningham was introduced to the work of Gertrude Käsebier and a lifelong love of photography was born. Working with her chemistry tutor, she began to study the processes of photography using botany as her subject. These early shots show a strong use of the Pictorialism style, which takes its inspiration from early academic paintings.
After graduating in 1907, Imogen Cunningham continued to focus on botanical photography. Her images use sharp focus and high contrast to bring out the details of each plant and to showcase them in a new way. This continued right through to the 1920s: famous study from this period in Cunningham’s work is Magnolia Flower. Cunningham also took commissions for portraiture and landscape shots, making her one of the United States’ first female photographers.
Cunningham was one of the founding members of photography group f/64. This collective of seven photographers worked on many images together, preferring a carefully framed modernist style that used Cunningham’s signature sharp focus. The group was unusual at the time for inviting female members, and it gave Cunningham a chance to get her work noticed by the US public.
In the late 1920s, there was a shift in Cunningham’s work and she started to produce an increasing number of industrial landscape shots. These wide shots of towers, steps and machinery were occasionally added to with stills of workers and close-ups of vehicles, and Cunningham continued to produce technical shots of a botanical nature as well. Many of the images from this time were taken in Los Angeles and Oakland, where industrial development was on the rise.
Having established her own studio, Cunningham took up an appointment with famed magazine Vanity Fair in the late 1930s and worked on a wide range of features. This led to some world-renowned portraits of VIPs and celebrities, from Frida Kahlo to James Dunn.
On leaving the magazine, Imogen continued to work in her own studio but embarked on a project of street photography at the same time. This intriguing series is seen as some of her best work.
In 1945, Cunningham was invited to accept a position as a faculty member at the California School of Fine Arts, working for the art photography department. She continued with her own work right up until her death aged 93, mainly concentrating on portraits from her studio in her final years. Cunningham also mentored young photographers and was something of a champion for the female photography movement.