One could say that if a person is named after a character from a Shakespearean comedy (Cymbeline), they are predestined to an extraordinary life. And this American’s life certainly was just that – from beginning to end she was shaping it on her own terms.
Ever since she bought her first camera using her own savings at the age of eighteen, Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976) has taken photos almost non-stop. Throughout her seven-decades-long career she keeps experimenting and reinventing herself as an artist. Only soaking them in at first, she’s soon shaping the trends of the era herself. Her art conveys freedom: she follows what calls to her at the given moment; sometimes it’s nudes or portraits (of her close-ones and celebrities), other times it’s documentary or street photography. Finally – photography of objects.
The American’s first love is the poetic pictorialism inspired by her beloved Gertrude Käsebier and Edward Sheriff Curtis, in the studio of whom she works as an assistant for a while. Later, Cunningham takes a 180 degree turn in her interests. In 1932, along with Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and a couple of other photographers, she established a creative collective under the name Group f/64. Present among their demands are: verism, objectivism and scrupulosity in projecting reality. The artist’s still life work proves to be a blend of both these tendencies.
What does the American like to shoot the most? Primarily plants. During her chemistry studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, the young Imogen makes some extra money by producing slides for botanists. Her fascination with the shapes taken from the world of nature returns in the 1920s, when she’s taking care of her household, her three sons and – to some extent out of necessity – she’s looking for inspiration in her closest surroundings. In Cunningham’s still life pieces (Magnolia Blossom, Two Callas, Agave 2, Aloe or Black and White Lillies to name a few) the foreground is dominated by abstract form and texture, masterfully drawn out by the artist.
Imogen Cunningham, Succulent, 1920s
Imogen builds compositions out of prosaic in nature household objects as well: crab nets, coffee pot, lemons or birds’ eggs. When I look at my favourite photograph taken by the American, My Kitchen Sink from 1947, it reminds me of Jan Groover – equally as skilled, younger by two generations. I bet they would find a common ground.