Imogen Cunningham was the quintessential American woman photographer of the twentieth century and an artist whose expansive vision created many great icons of photographic history. From her start in photography at the University of Washington in Seattle about 1906 to her death in San Francisco in 1976, she devoted her life to the pursuit of her craft, participating in many of the trends and developments of half of the history of this scientific art. Her best-known signature images were made between 1920 and 1940, an exciting period of modernist imagery in America.
Cunningham studied at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she developed an interest in photography. Her earliest prints were made in the tradition of Pictorialism, a style of photography that imitated academic painting from the turn of the century. After studying photography at the Technische Hochschule in Dresden, Germany, from 1909 to 1910, Cunningham opened a portrait studio in Seattle in 1910 and soon established a solid reputation. Her commercial portraiture was straightforward, but she continued to produce soft-focused allegorical prints. She married etcher Roi Partridge in 1915, and the couple moved to San Francisco in 1917.
By the early 1920s Cunningham began to change her style, creating close-up, sharply detailed studies of plant life and other natural forms. Her experiments with form allied her with other Modernist photographers at the time, and in 1932 Cunningham joined the association of West Coast photographers known as Group f.64. Like other members of the group, she rejected the soft-focused sentimental subjects that were then popular in favour of images such as “Two Callas” (c. 1929), which conveys a sensuous delight in nature. In the early 1930s, Cunningham worked briefly for Vanity Fair and produced images of entertainers and celebrities. After the breakup of Group f.64, she ran a portrait gallery and taught at several California art schools. A retrospective monograph, “Imogen! Imogen Cunningham Photographs, 1910–1973,” was published in 1974, and her final photographs were published in “After Ninety” in 1977.