Clare and Floating Seeds, 1910
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
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
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