Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 9, 2022
Paul Martineau Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective Exh. cat. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2020. 256 pp.; 199 color ills. Cloth $50.00 (9781606066751)
Imogen Cunningham, Martha Graham, 1931, gelatin silver print, 7 5/16 × 9 15/16 in. (18.5 × 25.2 cm). Getty Museum, Gift of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser. ©Imogen Cunningham Trust. 2016.173.18

The spare beauty and formal patterning of succulents and magnolia blossoms are hallmarks of Imogen Cunningham’s most celebrated photographs. But most fascinating in Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective, recently on view at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), was the combination of clever form and psychological intensity in her portraits and nudes. Cunningham’s high-contrast close-up of Martha Graham from 1931 highlights the inward focus of the dancer’s mind as equal in importance to the expressive physical gestures she performs. The striking image of Graham, eyes closed with a neutral expression, conveys intense concentration in the act of translating emotion into movement. The photograph is a study in contrasts, dark and light, horizontal and vertical, interior and exterior, as Graham holds her forearms horizontally on either side of her head, palms pressed to her temples, one hand extending horizontally, partially obscuring her face, while the fingertips of the other hand point up, releasing the pent-up tension of the gesture toward the upper edge of the image. Cunningham spent just one day photographing Graham in the summer of 1931, but as Susan Ehrens remarks in the catalog, the powerful series of images that resulted constitute a “collaboration between two innovative Modernist artists” (49).

In Seattle, the show emphasized connections Cunningham cultivated with women artists in a variety of media. Carrie Dedon, SAM’s assistant curator, made the inspired decision to display works by Cunningham alongside a film of Graham’s movement study Lamentation (1940) and six wire structures from the 1950s and 1960s by San Francisco sculptor Ruth Asawa, as testimony to the importance of artistic cross-pollination during the photographer’s career.

Ehrens’s catalog essay “The Marriage of Art and Science” narrates Cunningham’s early life and photography until the birth of her children and her move from Seattle to San Francisco in 1917. With three boys under the age of two and no darkroom of her own, as Ehrens describes in her second essay, “Revisiting a Modernist Pioneer,” Cunningham photographed what was around her and had her film processed and printed commercially (34). She took photos of plants in her garden, and her aesthetic shifted abruptly. In this period, she produced her most famous images, the lusciously organic Magnolia Blossom (1925) and the sharp, angular play of patterns in her Agave Designs (1920s).

Catalog essays by Ehrens and Paul Martineau, associate curator of photographs at the Getty Museum, narrate Cunningham’s life and work chronologically to raise the photographer’s stature and to expand the usual narrow focus on her 1920s botanical photographs for a more comprehensive view of her long career. The layout in Seattle maintained the overall chronological trajectory but emphasized important thematic preoccupations—plants, nudes, portraits, and dialogues between female artists not included in typical accounts of this canonical modernist photographer.

The show opened with two iconic works: Two Callas (1925–29) and a 1933 self-portrait picturing Cunningham’s large-format Korona View camera and her face, side by side. Opposite these, four images represented dominant themes: an arresting nude, Phoenix Recumbent (1968); a still life, The Unmade Bed (1957); followed by Shredded Wheat Tower (1928), a spare and disorienting photograph from below; and the sleek composition of contrasting angles, Agave Design 1 (1920s). Cunningham’s early Pictorialist images from the 1910s prefaced a room devoted to the botanical images and innovative nudes of the 1920s that highlighted the clever abstracting viewpoints and tight, disconcerting framing of both.

Portraiture, which Cunningham practiced throughout her career, dominated the next room. Images of artists and friends emphasized the importance Cunningham placed on human connection. Six hanging wire sculptures by Asawa held equal weight with Cunningham’s photographs in the following room: three undulating vertical forms, some with nested shapes visible within, and three nearly spherical forms of tied or woven wire with open, spiky silhouettes. The installation’s lighting cast intricate shadows on the white walls, cleverly echoing positive and negative prints from the same negative, on view in the same room, that Cunningham made of one of Asawa’s wire sculptures. 

The next section included an intriguing series of Cunningham’s street photographs from the 1930s to the 1960s, more portraits, and the film Portrait of Imogen (Pacific Pictures, 1987), by cinematographer Meg Partridge, the artist’s granddaughter and director of the Imogen Cunningham Trust, featuring Cunningham’s voice-over commentary about her images. A culminating room presented a selection of the artist’s late works, including metaphorical double exposures and selections from her last series, After 90: portraits of dynamic elderly people. A long hallway continued the exhibition with works by colleagues and contemporaries. A film of Graham’s Lamentation began a final section devoted to Cunningham’s portraits of dancers and musicians. Dedon ingeniously situated the film opposite an opening to the room with Asawa’s sculptures to juxtapose both artists’ works with Cunningham’s photographs.

Running through both Portrait of Imogen and the exhibition is the theme of how real life shapes an artist’s choices. In her voice-over, Cunningham seems to rue this impact. Referencing her shift to botanical photography, she remarked, “I had three children in two years, what could I do? I didn’t have any choice; I couldn’t get out of the garden.” As for landscapes, Cunningham explained, “I never have had the time to run out when the weather is right. You know, always I would be getting dinner for somebody when it was sunset time, when you really can do a nice landscape.” These comments downplay Cunningham’s active choices and cast life circumstances as determinants of her imagery. Yet her photographs belie these statements’ apparent passivity. Her formal decisions—tight focus, composition, patterning, and adaptation to commercial printing—give the “plant things,” as she calls them in the film, their force. In Ruth Asawa Family and Sculptures (1957), Cunningham pictures another woman artist determinedly producing work amid her four children, two of whom foreground the image while the sculptor herself sits hunched over her work in the back, partially obscured by the organic shapes of woven wire structures. Repeatedly, Cunningham references the interdependency of life and art and the ways that creative women find to overcome obstacles.

Cunningham made innovative nudes throughout her career, despite early criticism that such subject matter was inappropriate for a woman. She recollects in the film, “They called me an immoral woman.” Yet the only pre-1920 example in the exhibition, On Mount Rainier (1915), is the subtlest in a series she made of her husband, Roi Partridge, in the nude, surrounded by dramatic vistas of Mount Rainier, near Seattle. The soft-focus landscape—rocky foreground and windswept trees surrounding a small lake, with faint outlines of mountain peaks beyond—dominates the tiny nude figure. Leaning back, knees bent, on the far side of the lake, Partridge appears less distinctly than his reflected silhouette in the water. On Mount Rainier I (1915), a more clearly delineated image foregrounding Partridge, illustrates Ehrens’s discussion and would have better exemplified the label description of the series as “provocative” (31). Describing another early nude series, Ehrens lauds Cunningham’s decision not to “disguise or romanticize her subjects’ nudity with soft-focus Pictorialist effects,” yet she reproduces Reflections (1910), a murky platinum print of a nude family group, undermining her apt characterization of the suite as “daring, unflinching, direct” (28).

A much later nude, Phoenix Recumbent (1968), subtly challenges tradition. The photograph positions the viewer next to and above a bed, looking down at a tangle of blond hair. The angle of the shot inverts the figure: her hair fills the bottom of the image, above which we see the side of her face, turned away, leading to shoulders and one bared breast at the very top of the frame. Though the image presents an unclothed woman, the angle and point of view deny the viewer the typical effect of the sensual female nude: an unambiguous sense of power or possession of the pictured body.

 The Unmade Bed seems suggestive at first, with sheets and blankets mounded around a brightly lit section of white sheet and a few scattered hairpins. But this image refuses an easy reading. Martineau interprets the “rumpled bedsheets” as unambiguous “sexual symbolism” and the hairpins as referencing “letting down one’s hair” in the catalog’s third essay, “The Light Within” (63). He goes so far as to reproduce Gustave Courbet’s painting The Sleepers (1866), of two nude women, their bodies entangled on a bed with white sheets, to illustrate the traditional association of mussed sheets and loose hair with sexuality (62–63). Cunningham’s friend and colleague, photographer Judy Dater, offers a different take on the image, however. She recounts Cunningham’s penchant for gifting prints of this photograph as wedding presents, not to encourage a new couple’s intimacy, but “so that the husband would know that the wife was going to be busy, that she had things to do, and not to expect the bed to always be made” (“Imogen Cunningham: Audio Guide,” SAM). This engaging exhibition pays overdue tribute to the vision and determination of an artist whose works repeatedly offer surprising takes on apparently straightforward gender roles and perspectives. 

Naomi Hume
Associate Professor of Art History, Department of Art, Art History and Design, Seattle University