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.

Featured Content

Here is what Wikipedia says about Imogen Cunningham

Imogen Cunningham (/ˈkʌnɪŋəm/; April 12, 1883 – June 23, 1976) was an American photographer known for her botanical photography, nudes, and industrial landscapes. Cunningham was a member of the California-based Group f/64, known for its dedication to the sharp-focus rendition of simple subjects.

Early life

Cunningham was born in Portland, Oregon to father Isaac Burns Cunningham and mother Susan Elizabeth Cunningham (née Johnson). Her parents were from Missouri, though both of their families originally came from Virginia. Cunningham was the fifth of 10 children. Although art was not included in the traditional school curriculum, as a child Cunningham took art lessons on weekends and during vacations.

She grew up in Seattle, Washington and attended the Denny School at 5th and Battery Streets in Seattle.

In 1901, at the age of eighteen, Cunningham bought her first camera, a 4x5 inch view camera, via mail order from the American School of Art in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

She entered the University of Washington in 1903, where she became a charter member of the Washington Alpha chapter of Pi Beta Phi fraternity for Women. It was not until 1906, while studying at the University of Washington in Seattle, that she was inspired to take up photography again by an encounter with the work of Gertrude Käsebier. Her first photographs in 1906 were portraits taken with a 4-by-5-inch-format camera. With the help of her chemistry professor, Horace Byers, she began to study the chemistry behind photography while paying for her tuition by photographing plants for the botany department.

In 1907, Cunningham graduated from University of Washington with a degree in chemistry. Her thesis was titled "Modern Processes of Photography." While there, she served as class vice-president, participated in the German Club and Chemistry Club, and was on the yearbook staff.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about Imogen Cunningham.