The work of Gertrude Käsebier that brought Imogen Cunningham back into photography. Born in 1883, Imogen bought her first camera, a 4×5 inch view camera, at the age of 18 in 1901. She grew disenchanted with it until she came into contact with Käsebier’s work while studying at the University of Washington in Seattle. Through her studies, Imogen came to know both the artistic and chemical side of photography. She took photos for the botany department to help pay for her tuition, and she studied the chemistry of photography during her time there. Imogen would go on to make stunning photographs of faces, nudes, flowers, life, and industry. Herein lies a look back at her life and work.
Following her botanical work at the University of Washington, Imogen took up portraiture with the opening of her studio in Seattle, and her work, both portraiture and pictorial, quickly gained critical acclaim to the point where she was published in 1914 in Wilson’s Photographic Magazine. It was in that issue that she stated her photographic philosophy:
“One must be able to gain an understanding at short notice and close range of the beauties of character, intellect, and spirit so as to be able to draw out the best qualities and make them show in the outer aspect of the sitter. To do this one must not have a too pronounced notion of what constitutes beauty in the external and, above all, must not worship it. To worship beauty for its own sake is narrow, and one surely cannot derive from it that esthetic pleasure which comes from finding beauty in the commonest things.”
In 1915, Imogen married Roi Partridge, an etcher, with whom she had three sons. They relocated to San Francisco where she met Edward Weston who nominated her work for inclusion in Film and Foto, an international photo exhibition in Stuttgart in 1929.
In 1934, she joined a ragtag group of photographers known as Group f/64 which was founded by Ansel Adams and Willard van Dyke. It was a collective of sorts that met informally over the years to discuss and share their photography with each other and the public. The name was shortened to f/64, and the reason behind it was that that aperture provides the best resolution and depth of field. There weren’t strict membership rules necessarily, but Adams stated that it should only allow “those workers who are striving to define photography as an art form by a simple and direct representation through purely photographic methods”. This sounds like a precursor to Dogme 95, a film movement spearheaded by Lars von Trier, which sought to create films using only what was present at the filming location. If the room had only one candle, then that would be the only light available for the shot. I’d be curious to know if von Trier found inspiration in f/64.
Imogen made her living primarily as a portrait photographer, but she also went on assignments for various magazines. She became a professor at the California School of Fine Arts at the invitation of Ansel Adams in 1945. To fit Imogen into a mold is to do her a disservice as her work spanned myriad forms. She worked tirelessly until her death on June 24, 1976. Imogen’s camera captured many things, and to hold up any one image as a signature example of her work would be pointless. You’d have to look at her entire oeuvre to get a sense of who she was photographically. To see the world as she did, you’d have to stop down to f/64.
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