Imogen Cunningham, 'Clare and Floating Seeds,' 1910. Gelatin silver print on paper, 20 by 15 inches (sheet); 10 5/8 by 8 inches (image). Museum Purchase

Imogen Cunningham (American, 1883–1976)

Clare and Floating Seeds, 1910
Gelatin silver print on paper, 20 x 15 in. (sheet);
10 5/8 x 8 in. (image)
Museum Purchase

When Imogen Cunningham began making photographs, in 1901, the medium was just six decades old. Clare and Floating Seeds represents an important early moment in her development, one that was largely unknown until she received a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship in 1973 that enabled her to create new prints from her early glass plates.

Born in Portland, Oregon, Cunningham attended the University of Washington in Seattle, where her chemistry professor encouraged her interest in studying photographic processes. Meanwhile, she also worked for the university’s botany department, capturing images of plants. After graduation in 1907, Cunningham found employment in the Seattle portrait studio of Edward S. Curtis, now renowned for his photographs of Native Americans. Thanks to a scholarship, she was then able to spend a year at the Technische Hochschule in Dresden, concentrating on photographic-development techniques.

In 1910, the year the Ulrich's photograph was taken, Cunningham returned to Seattle and opened a portrait studio. Until 1917, when she moved with her artist husband, Roi Partridge, to the San Francisco Bay Area, she created lyrical images in the pictorialist vein. In their effort to establish photography as an art form, early practitioners of this genre evoked the imagery of naturalist and impressionist painters through the use of soft focus, arresting nature scenes, and romanticized subject matter. Pictorialists favored emotional expressiveness over empirical exactness, often depicting scenes from Romantic poetry, medieval legend, or the Bible. Employing simple costuming, artful staging, and dramatic lighting, many imbued their images with allegory.

Because of Cunningham's admiration for the 19th century British artists William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one critic characterized her work from the first decade of the twentieth century as "Pre-Raphaelite." (1) Cunningham herself said she was most inspired during those years by Gertrude Käsebier, whose photographs she saw in the Craftsman magazine.(2)

Cunningham’s artist friends Clare Shepard and John Butler served as compliant models for a series of photographs. They posed in misty woods or at twilight so Cunningham could seek a dramatic, timeless effect. Here, Clare gazes thoughtfully at milkweed seeds drifting up her arm and over her shoulder. Allegorically, the image suggests a woman contemplating her fecundity and capacity for motherhood. In doing so, it recalls work by women photographers such as Käsebier and Julia Margaret Cameron and painters such as Cecilia Beaux and Mary Cassatt.

Cunningham’s reputation, however, is not due to her dreamy early pictorialism but to her later pursuit of a distinctly different vision. After moving to San Francisco, she joined a circle of photographers who rejected soft focus in favor of imagery that was crisp, clean, and exacting – a reflection, they felt, of modernity itself. In 1930, Cunningham, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and several other friends founded the f/64 group in order to promote photographic precision. Cunningham became known for her striking close-ups of plant forms, stark pictures of industrial buildings, and portraits for Vanity Fair magazine.

--Patricia McDonnell, director of the Ulrich Museum of Art

1. Margery Mann, Imogen!, exh. cat. (Seattle: Henry Art Gallery in association with the University of Washington Press, 1973), 11.
2. James Danziger and Barnaby Conrad III, “Imogen Cunningham,” in Danziger and Conrad, Interviews with Master Photographers (New York: Paddington Press, 1977), 39.