Exhibition Includes Botanical Prints, Nude Studies, Portraits and Street Photography
BOSTON (August 24, 2016)—Over the course of her seven-decade-long career, Imogen Cunningham (1883–1976) established herself as a major figure in the field of Modernism. A rare female in what was still a mostly male world, she co-founded Group f/64 with Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and other San Francisco Bay Area photographers who shared an aesthetic of sharply-focused images and natural subjects. Imogen Cunningham: In Focus, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), showcases the photographer’s range through about 35 works, from her best-known 1920s series of large-format botanical photographs to street photography, still lifes and multiple exposures from the 1930s through the 1960s. Her celebrated work in portraiture is also featured, including self-portraits and iconic photographs of contemporaries. Additionally, the exhibition displays images of Cunningham by others—among them Cunningham and Weston’s portraits of each other at Point Lobos, taken on the same day, and Judy Dater’s famous photograph of Cunningham and her favorite model, Twinka. Imogen Cunningham: In Focus, on view from September 3, 2016–June 18, 2017 in the Herb Ritts Gallery, draws largely from the Lane Collection—one of the finest private holdings of 20th-century American art in the world, given to the MFA in 2012. Presented with support from the Shelly and Michael Kassen Fund.
Born in Portland, Oregon, Cunningham grew up in Seattle and began pursuing photography as a teenager, ordering her first camera from a mail-order kit and using a converted woodshed as a darkroom. Because there were no formal photography programs established at the time, she studied chemistry and botany at the University of Washington and photochemistry in Dresden. From 1907 to 1909, she also worked as a darkroom assistant in the Seattle studio of Edward S. Curtis, known for his documentation of the Native American tribes of North America. After meeting and marrying printmaker and painter Roi Partridge in 1915, Cunningham settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she established herself as a portrait photographer.
Imogen Cunningham: In Focus was organized by Karen Haas, the MFA’s Lane Curator of Photographs.
“As curator of the Lane Collection, I am very excited to have the opportunity to exhibit the work of Imogen Cunningham, one of the truly great American Modernist photographers—who just happened to be female. The range of her work is incredible and I especially look forward to showing her powerful early still lifes, as well as her lesser-known portraits, including those of fellow f/64 photographers Edward Weston and Ansel Adams,” said Haas. “Like many artists in the collection, Cunningham was a personal friend of Bill and Saundra Lane, and that warm relationship led them to acquire many of her most famous photographs, as well as a number of images that are extremely rare.”
Cunningham began attracting attention in the 1920s with her extreme close-ups of botanical subjects, rendering incredible texture and detail with a large-format camera. She was inspired to photograph the “pure” abstract forms found in nature, such as the endlessly repeating rosettes of a succulent seen in Hen and Chickens (about 1929). Among the best-known examples of Cunningham’s botanical prints—often compared to paintings by her contemporary Georgia O’Keeffe—are her exquisite photographs of magnolia blossoms. She produced as many as 100 individual images of them throughout her career, including Magnolia Blossom (Tower of Jewels) (1925, The Lane Collection), which portrays the ornate structure at the center of the flower. Some of her most striking botanical subjects are less classically beautiful—such as the prehistoric-looking aloe plant—but reveal Cunningham’s unconventional thinking and fascination with dizzying degrees of detail and interesting perspectives.
At the same time, Cunningham experimented with highly abstracted nude figure studies. An unusual vantage point in Sunbath (Alta on the Beach) (about 1925–30) transforms the head of a reclining woman, with arms folded across her torso, into a series of abstract shapes. Another close-up, titled Triangles (1928), reinforces Cunningham’s interest in the simplified geometric forms that make up the human figure. These images reflect the distinct style of “straight,” unmanipulated photography championed by Cunningham and like-minded Bay Area photographers. In 1932, the group—including Cunningham, Weston and Adams—was featured in an exhibition at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco and announced themselves as Group f/64, named after the aperture setting on their 8x10 cameras that produced great depth of field and sharp focus.
Cunningham remained friends with Weston and Adams for decades. In 1953, she fittingly photographed Adams in Yosemite National Park, where he produced some of his best-known landscapes. In 1945, Cunningham portrayed Weston on the rocky beach at Point Lobos, California, his favorite place to work during this period. On the same day, Weston captured a warm and humorous moment—Cunningham hovering with her large camera and tripod over his wife Charis. All three photographs are on view in the exhibition.
Cunningham made a living for much of her career as a portrait photographer, often working on commission for magazines and newspapers. The theatrical portrait Martha Graham (1931) is one of 90 photographs that resulted from a Vanity Fair session with the rising figure in the world of modern dance, shot in brilliant sunlight against a dark background. In addition to portraits of prominent figures in the arts—including poet Theodore Roethke, painter Morris Graves and photographers August Sander and Lisette Model—Cunningham also made casual, yet beautifully composed images of students, friends and neighbors. The pensive, but unflinching gaze of a young African American man in Stan (1959) suggests a real empathy and trust between the photographer and the subject, while Nuns at a Calder Show (1953) shows Cunningham’s great sense of timing, which allowed her to document fascinating glimpses into human behavior.
Often, Cunningham turned the camera onto herself. The exhibition features three self-portraits, depicting Cunningham’s reflection in shop windows in San Francisco and Copenhagen, as well as in a carnival funhouse mirror next to her grandchildren. In addition to Weston’s photograph of Cunningham at Point Lobos, two other images of the photographer taken by others are also on view. In 1975, Cunningham appeared in photographer Mike Mandel’s Baseball Photographers Trading Cards Set, a collection of 134 informal portraits, each celebrating a figure in the newly burgeoning field of photography, posed as a baseball player. The amusing cards came in packs of 10, accompanied by a stick of gum, and noted the individual’s “stats” on the back, including favorite camera, paper and developer. Judy Dater’s Imogen and Twinka (1974), meanwhile, presents the photographer with her favorite model, each appraising the other across a massive tree trunk in Yosemite. Dater was one of a younger generation of female photographers who credited Cunningham as having a major impact on their work and on them as individuals.
The Lane Collection
In 2012, the MFA received one of the largest and most significant gifts in its history—the Lane Collection, comprising more than 6,000 photographs, 100 works on paper and 25 paintings. One of the finest private holdings of 20th-century American art in the world, it encompasses an unparalleled collection of photographs—including Charles Sheeler’s entire photographic estate of nearly 2,500 works, a nearly equal number of images by Edward Weston, 500 photographs by Ansel Adams more than 100 photographs by Imogen Cunningham. The Lane Collection also features paintings and works on paper by major American modernists, including Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe, Stuart Davis and John Marin, as well as Charles Sheeler. A number of these works are on view in “Making Modern,” along with Cunningham’s 1931 portrait of Frida Kahlo, taken in San Francisco. The gift was made to the Museum by Saundra B. Lane, who, with her late husband, William H. Lane, has been a longtime Trustee, friend and supporter of the MFA. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is recognized for the quality and scope of its collection, representing all cultures and time periods.
The Museum has more than 140 galleries displaying its encyclopedic collection, which includes Art of the Americas; Art of Europe; Contemporary Art; Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa; Art of the Ancient World; Prints, Drawings, and Photographs; Textile and Fashion Arts; and Musical Instruments. Open seven days a week, the MFA’s hours are Saturday through Tuesday, 10 am–5 pm; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 am–10 pm. Admission (which includes one repeat visit within 10 days) is $25 for adults and $23 for seniors and students age 18 and older, and includes entry to all galleries and special exhibitions. Admission is free for University Members and individual youths age 17 and younger. Wednesday nights after 4 pm admission is by voluntary contribution (suggested donation $25). MFA Members are always admitted for free. The Museum’s mobile MFA Guide is available at ticket desks and the Sharf Visitor Center for $5, members; $6, non-members; and $4, youths. The Museum is closed on New Year’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. For more information, visit mfa.org or call 617.267.9300. The MFA is located on the Avenue of the Arts at 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115.