Thursday, April 4, 2013

Imogen Cunningham: Nudes, Flowers and Landscapes

The most successful photographers throughout history are famed for their contributions to a particular style in the industry. In portraiture, there's Edward Steichen, Yousuf Karsh and Annie Liebovitz. In street and documentary photography, there's Henri Cartier-Bresson and Steve McCurry. Ansel Adams and Hiroshi Sugimoto stand out in landscape photographer. Pioneering photographer Imogen Cunningham didn't seem to mind moving around as she jumped from nudes to flowers to landscapes, and everything in between.

Imogen Cunningham was born in Oregon in 1883, growing up when photography was only beginning to be commercially available. She took a serious interest in photography as an 18 year old student when she enrolled in a correspondence course. Her interest grew when she enrolled in a chemistry course at the University of Washington. This academic background would help her tame the chemical process of developing her photographs.

She paid her way through college by taking detailed images of plants for the school's botany department, an experience that would would have a profound impact on her work with botanical subjects in the future. After graduating, Cunningham improved her photography through her apprenticeship with Edward S. Curtis, the documentary photographer famed for his portraits of Native American Indians. Through Curtis' help, Cunningham improved the quality of her platinum prints, producing images with deeper shadows and contrasts.

Cunningham got a chance to improve her technique when she traveled to Germany on a scholarship. Although she did not take as many photographers there, her study allowed her to refine the developing process of her pictures, improving their clarity and color. On the way back to the United States, she met photographers Alvin Langdon Coburn and Alfred Stieglitz, both of whom encouraged her in her own career.

Cunningham opened up her own studio in 1910, and by doing so earned the title of the first professional female photographer. She also encouraged other women to take up a professional career of their own. From this point, Cunningham took an interest in nude photography, experimenting on the best pose for the human body, both male and female. The sensual quality of her nudes would also translate to her pictures of plants and flowers, as these exhibited the curves and shapes of her nude photos.

In the 1930s, Cunningham took a greater interest in portraiture, taking on commissions for Vanity Fair. Her portraiture style differed greatly from her colleagues, as she preferred to photograph her subjects unadorned in makeup, against simple backgrounds. This philosophy led her to co-found Group/f64 with the likes of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, with their manifesto: "Photography as an art form by simple and direct presentation".

Cunningham continued to work well into her old age, accepting portraiture commissions for magazines and publications of today. When she died in 1976, her photography career spanned almost 75 years, and it was really only late in her life that she was given the recognition that she deserved. Throughout her life, it was always the simple things in everything that mattered. As she put it, "One must be able to gain an understanding at short notice and close range of the beauties of character, intellect, and spirit..."

More of Imogen Cunningham's works can be found on the Imogen Cunningham Trust website. Her nudes, flowers and landscapes can also be seen in different publications, notably Imogen Cunningham, Imogen Cunningham, Imogen Cunningham: Flora.


Francis Lee said...

Some real beauties there....literally.

Ray Rousell said...

Nice pics! I liked the old tattooed lady!

moonraker6x said...

Imogen Cunningham is not someone I had been aware of before. Beautiful images. I especially like the steps.

MRanthrope said...

last one with the three dancers = amazing

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