Imogen Cunningham
American photographer



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Imogen Cunningham
American photographer
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Birth Date

April 12, 1883

Death Date

June 23, 1976

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Imogen Cunningham repped the Best Coast hard: born in Portland, schooled in Seattle, and settled in San Francisco.

She died in 1976 at age 93 - and for more than seven decades of that lifetime, she was taking photos.

Her interest in photography started when she was a teenager. She ordered a simple camera by mail, and her dad built her a makeshift darkroom in their backyard woodshed. She grew into a serious enough photographer that she was hired to work for famous Seattle photographer Edward Curtis after she finished college. She didn’t have a close relationship with Curtis, who was always in the field and never in his studio, but it was pretty prestigious for a first gig.

Pictorialism was the style that dominated the photography world when Cunningham was an up-and-comer. This is the most romantic of the photographies. Fuzzy, soft-focus lens treatments combined with clever printing techniques (basically old school Photoshop) rendered hazy, moody images that were fashionable up through the 1920s. Cunningham started out working in this way, taking photos of mysterious goddess babes and misty landscapes.

Then she turned over to the “light” side and became a member of f.64, a west coast photography group who’d had enough of pictorialism already. Other famous f.64-ers included Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. Together, these photogs promoted the rise of sharp, focused, modernist photography. The group’s cryptic name comes from the refined camera lens opening that they were partial to using.

Cunningham was married to artist and Mills College professor Roi Partridge, and took lots of pics of him prancing around in the nude. These portraits scandalized critics by subverting gender norms of the time, and proved that dudes, too, can make alluring and sassy models. They got divorced when Cunningham took a Vanity Fair job in NY, despite Partridge’s protest.

Impressed by the crispness of her stark, high-drama images? She was actually reputed to be a sloppy printer with bad studio habits. Sometimes we just don’t need to know how even the most beautiful sausage is made.




  1. Blaustein, Jonathan. “An In-Depth History of Group f.64.” Lens, The New York Times. Dec 11, 2014. Accessed Sep 14, 2017.
  2. Davidov, Judith Fryer. “Women’s Camera Work: Self/Body/Other in American Visual Culture.” Duke University Press: 1998.
  3. Graves, Jen. “Imogen’s ‘Racy’ Pictures.” The Stranger. Mar 19, 2009. Accessed Sep 14, 2017.
  4. Hagen, Charles. “PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW; Sampling Imogen Cunningham’s Vibrant Diversity.” The New York Times. Oct 13, 1995. Accessed Sep 14, 2017.
  5. Hagen, Charles. “PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW; Sampling Imogen Cunningham’s Vibrant Diversity.” The New York Times. Oct 13, 1995. Accessed Sep 14, 2017.
  6. “Imogen Cunningham.” Accessed Sep 22 2017.
  7. Katzman, Louise and Paul Karlstrom. “Oral History Interview with Imogen Cunningham.” Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Jun 9, 1965. Accessed Sep 15, 2017.
  8. “Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Showcases Pioneering Photographer Imogen Cunningham.” Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Accessed Sep 20, 2017.
  9. Romanoff, Andy. “How Ansel Adams Wrote Pictorialism Out of Photography History.” PetaPixel. Sep 22, 2016. Accessed Sep 20, 2017.