Exhibition Texts

Exhibition Introduction

Imogen Cunningham - Biography

Imogen Cunningham - Timeline

Other Wall Texts





“…The imaginative photographer is always dreaming and trying to record his dream.”

  1. Imogen Cunningham

When looking at the photographs of Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976), we encounter images that reflect vital developments in 20th century art and photography. Unusual and rare images are presented alongside iconic ones, revealing why this American artist is one of the most important pioneers of photography. Cunningham is recognized for helping to establish photography as an art form. Never tied to one style of photography or subject, she had a signature view in what she created.

Ignited by Pictorialism, Imogen Cunningham incorporated the nude figure and nature when she began photographing as shown here in Self-Portrait, 1906. Sixty years later Child in Landscape, 1966 – on view for the first time-- is another variation dealing with isolation and nature. The body -- even body parts like hands -- remained an essential visual interest of Imogen Cunningham throughout her life. Pfanzenformen, the botanical still-lifes the artist first made in the 1920s are as sensual as her nudes and known as some of the finest examples of Modernist photography.  Magnolia Blossom, 1925, an intimate perspective of life, isher most popular image. Re-discovered dramatic landscapes and experimental plant studies like the multiple-exposure, Nine Bowls of Echeveria, 1930s imbue Cunningham’s ongoing interest to address Surrealism from different angles.

Imogen Cunningham supported herself through portrait photography, opening her first studio in 1910. Clients and publications, such as Vanity Fair favored Cunningham’s environmental portrait approach over the more formal studio-style. She was a key figure in circles of exceptional international thinkers including artists, writers, musicians and dancers. Cary Grant, Actor, 1932 typically represents her way of working: the photographer used natural light, an informal background and used the garden’s shadows to her advantage. Experimental and collaborative portraits of Man Ray, Frida Kahlo and Martha Graham are juxtaposed with Cunningham’s observations of other artists or art-scenes. Bernard Catchings, 1967 a rare portrait of the African-American painter was re-discovered with other Haight-Ashbury photographs and urban settings like Art Fair, Hanging Work, 1948.

Consistently probing the medium of photography for new artistic expression, Imogen Cunningham worked for over seventy years. Her photographs are seductive and dynamic, inspired by a multitude of sources, making her one of the most experimental photographers in her lifetime. Hand and Leaf of Voodoo Lily, 1972, photographed when Cunningham was 89 is an accumulative statement as so many of her photographs were.  It displays one of nature’s most peculiar plants with stunning and very strong characteristics and acts as a self-portrait. Her hand, like a white-gloved magician, is a gesture of astonishment, not only about what has happened, but what will be. The unseen for Imogen Cunningham was eternally as important as the familiar.

-- Celina Lunsford

SEEN AND UNSEEN: PHOTOGRAPHS FROM IMOGEN CUNNINGHAM consists of silver gelatin prints from the Imogen Cunningham Trust including photographs printed by Rondal Partridge (1917-2015), Imogen Cunningham’s son. The curatorial choice was made by Celina Lunsford, author of Imogen Cunningham, TF Editores / Kehrer Publishing, Madrid/Heidelberg, 2012. The exhibition is a production by Meg Partridge, Director of the Imogen Cunningham Trust, and Photographic Traveling Exhibitions.



Born in Portland, Oregon, Imogen Cunningham moved with her family to Seattle in 1889. She graduated from the University of Washington and worked at the Edward S. Curtis studio. In 1909, she received a scholarship to study photochemistry in Dresden, Germany. Upon returning to Seattle, Cunningham opened a portrait studio and developed her artistic vision. By 1914, she had one-person shows at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, New York and at the Portland Art Museum. In 1915, Cunningham married Roi Partridge, an etcher and the couple moved to the San Francisco Bay Area with their three boys. Partridge began teaching at Mills College in Oakland and Cunningham spent time in her garden photographing plants and her children, as well as making portraits and nudes of students and dancers. In 1929, her photographs were shown in the avant-garde exhibition International Film und Foto Ausstellung in Stuttgart, Germany.

Vanity Fair magazine hired Cunningham from 1933 to 1936 to photograph stars and personalities. While working for the editorial magazines, Cunningham continued to pursue her own artistic endeavors. She exhibited at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum together with West Coast photographers Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Sonya Noskowiak and others under the legendary Group ƒ/64.  In 1934 Imogen’s increase in professional work including an extended visit to New York, led to the end of hermarriage.

In the 1940s, living in San Francisco, Cunningham taught at the California School of Fine Arts, where she became friends with Minor White and Lisette Model.  Cunningham pursued street photography and her interest in observing the city as a stage. When she had a show at the Limelight Gallery in New York in 1956, the tenacious photographer extended her visit, capturing ironic realities and surreal urban landscapes. Following her participation in Photography at Mid-Century in 1959 at the George Eastman House, the museum purchased Cunningham’s photographs enabling her to revisit Europe in 1960 and again in 1961.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the artist made images that symbolically reflected the restlessness of the times, politically and socially. In 1964, Aperture magazine devoted an entire issue to her photographs. While in her eighties, Imogen Cunningham documented the cultural changes of San Francisco and taught at the San Francisco Art Institute.  In the 1970s important organizations acknowledged her achievements with awards and exhibitions: the Smithsonian Institution purchased prints, she received a Guggenheim Grant to print her earlier work and a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was held. In 1973, the Mayor of San Francisco declared November 12th Imogen Cunningham Day. The artist founded the Imogen Cunningham Trust in 1975. The photographs of Imogen Cunningham are held in major international museum collections and numerous publications have been made about her work.



1883 - 1916

Born in Portland, Oregon to Isaac Burns Cunningham and Susan Elizabeth Johnson.

Moves to Seattle with her family; attends art classes with money her father has saved.

Makes her first photographs, subjects of nature in the pictorial style.

1903 -1906     
Enrolls in the University of Washington, Seattle; buys first camera through mail order from the American School of Art and Photography, Scranton, PA.
Photographs herself nude in a patch of dandelions on the campus. Studying botany, her second passion, and majoring in chemistry, Cunningham graduates one year later writing her thesis titled “Modern Processes in Photography”.

Works at the portrait studio of Edward S. Curtis, learning platinum printing, re-touching, and portrait skills; reads magazines such as Camera Work, or The Craftsmen for current photographic praxis and aesthetics; intrigued with platinum printing, travels to Dresden, Germany on a scholarship to study the technique.

Writes (in German) “About Self-Production of Platinum Papers for Brown Tones” as thesis at the Technische Hochschule in Dresden; published in the Photographische Rundschau und Photographisches Centralblatt; meets Alvin Langdon Coburn in London, photographs there and in Paris with a Kodak camera; returns via New York City, visiting Gertrüde Käsebier, whose work inspired Cunningham to become a photographer.
Opens her first portrait studio in Seattle.

Established as a photographic artist, helps found the Seattle Fine Arts Society; corresponds with her new international connections. Interest in Futurists movement; views Marcel Duchamps “Nude Descending a Staircase” at collector Frederic C. Torrey’s home. Writes feminist article “Photography as a Profession for Women” and becomes known for her natural in situ portraits and mystical character portraits in nature. One-person exhibitions occur at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, New York and the Portland Art Museum, Oregon. Marries the etcher Roi Partridge in 1915 and their first son Gryffyd is born. Her allegorical nude photographs in landscapes of Partridge are printed in The Town Crier, becoming a scandal, leading Cunningham to retire these negatives until the 1970s.

1917 – 1940s

Moves with family to San Francisco; twins, Rondal and Padriac are born; works in the Francis Bruguière Studio; becomes friends with Dorothea Lange and Maynard Dixon.

Moves to Oakland where Roi Partridge begins teaching at the liberal arts school Mills College. Students, dancers and international artists become the subjects for portraits and experimental ideas for Cunningham’s compositions. Friendships and photographic discourse start with Edward Weston, Johan Hagemeyer and Margarethe Mather. First exhibit with Weston, Mather and Anne Brigman at Mills College.
After making sharp focused images at Point Lobos in 1920 she begins to create “pflanzenformen” in her garden. Creates her first double exposures and printed negative images. Berkeley Museum of Art exhibits her work; ten of her photographs are included in the international exhibition on modernist photography Film und Foto in Stuttgart, Germany.

Photographs dancer Martha Graham and the artist Frida Kahlo. Begins working regularly for Vanity Fair, specializing in celebrity portraits with her signature informal style. Solo exhibitions at M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco; Julien Levy Gallery, New York; Los Angeles Museum follow. West Coast photographers including Ansel Adams, Willard van Dyke, Sonja Noskowiak, Consuleo Kanaga, Edward Weston and Cunningham exhibit at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum as Group ƒ/64.
Divorces Roi Partridge in 1934.

Travels to New York for Vanity Fair; begins making street photography and photographs Alfred Stieglitz with his own camera. Visits Washington D.C. and Hume, VA to see John Butler, her old Seattle artist friend and model. Upon return to California works in social documentary style at a cooperative lumber camp with Dorothea Lange, Paul Taylor and others in Oroville, CA. Meets and photographs Gertrude Stein in San Francisco and hired by bibliophile A.S. Rosenbach to make portraits of other writers such as Somerset Maugham. More solo shows at Dallas Art Museum and the E. B. Crocker Art Gallery, Sacramento. She is included in Photography 1839-1937 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, curated by Beaumont Newhall.

Included in Pageant of Photography at Golden Gate International Exposition, Treasure Island, San Francisco. Hired by Sunset magazine to take color photographs. Rents out her home in Oakland and moves to Berkeley, while using the studio of Roger Sturtevant in San Francisco. Teaches night classes at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco (today San Francisco Art Institute) where she meets Minor White and Lisette Model. Begins photographing with a medium format Rollieflex camera. Moves to 1331 Green Street to live, where she has her studio and darkroom.

1950s - 1976

Continues teaching and making portraits. Increased interests in surreal street subject matter.  KRON-TV, San Francisco produces a documentary of Cunningham photographing blind children. Presents her essay, Sometimes I Wonder on the psychology of portrait photography to the San Francisco Junior League.  Numerous national solo exhibitions: San Francisco Art Museum, Mills College, Cincinnati Art Museum, Oakland Art Museum. Included in the first exhibition of Limelight Gallery, New York City, she is later given a solo show here in 1956, spending about a month photographing the street life. Edna Tartaul Daniel interviews the artist for the University of California Regional Cultural History Project. Her work is part of Photography at Mid-Century at the International Museum of Photography and Film at George Eastman House, which leads the museum to purchase a large selection of Cunningham’s photographs.

Makes two consecutive trips in her late seventies throughout Europe In 1960 and 1961, retracing her previous journey fifty years earlier, visiting England, France and Germany as well as Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Poland. Meets with Man Ray, Paul Strand and August Sander. Continues teaching and making portraits. Experiments with polaroid film. Aperture magazine devotes an issue to her work. Solo exhibitions of her work are celebrated across the country including at the Chicago Art Institute, the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. and the Henry Art Gallery of the University of Washington. The Library of Congress acquires a large selection of her photographs. She is elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and is the subject of a documentary film by Fred Padula, Two Photographers: Imogen Cunningham and Wynn Bullock and appears in The Bed, a film by James Broughton. Receives an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from California College of Arts and Crafts and teaches a session at Humboldt State College. Photographs youth in and around San Francisco including many nudes of model Phoenix.

Imogen Cunningham: Photographs with an Introduction by Margery Mann, the first extensive monograph about the artist published by University of Washington Press. Awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to print from early negatives; the Smithsonian Institution purchases many photographs and later the Archives of American Art acquires 100s of documents and letters. November 12th is proclaimed Imogen Cunningham Day in San Francisco. The artist photographs elderly people for a portrait photo book project “After Ninety”. She appears on “The Tonight Show”. The Imogen Cunningham Trust is founded. Cunningham receives an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from Mills College in Oakland.

Dies on June 23rd, in San Francisco at the age of 93.

Additional Wall Texts

On-the-Street & Urban Spaces

In the 1940s, Imogen Cunningham took a greater interest in street photography after purchasing a hand held Rolleiflex and subsequently meeting Lisette Model in 1946. At age 73 during a stay in New York, she took to the streets: Chinatown, New York City, 1956 is one of her photographs from this period and on view to the public for the first time. In a documentary approach, as early as the mid-1930s Cunningham photographed workers and passers-by along the Oakland waterfront as seen in Deck hands, Nickel Ferry Oakland, about 1935. Her captivation with faces and expressive gestures continued to play a role in her street photography throughout her later years as in Haight Street, 1968. She composed tight-cropped details or contrasting shapes of lightness on her street-walks, as in Laundry Line, n.d. and she made surreal self-portraits reflected in mirrors or windows, such as the unforgettable Self-Portrait on Geary Street, 1958.  Cunningham’s interest in New Objectivity as in the photograph Shredded Wheat Tower, 1928 is an excellent early example of her critical eye on urbanization and her fascination with architectural forms.

The Body & Dance

The human body and body parts were present at the beginning of Imogen Cunningham’s photography and remained an essential subject for her for over seventy years. In 1915 she made nude images of her husband Roi at the base of Mount Rainier in the pictorial style.

The iconic Cunningham photograph Triangles, 1928 exemplifies what uniquely distinguished her work as modern: sculptural details of the body and anonymous sensual forms defined by lighting and composition. Cunningham’s creativity continued to blossom in her later yearsin particular with the model and muse Phoenix as seen in Phoenix Recumbent, 1968. The photographer also had a renewed interest in body parts --- such as hands—for surreal compositions as in Hands of Hand Surgeon 2, 1973 and Lyle Tuttle, Tattoo Artist, 1976.

When photographing dancers Cunningham enhanced the collaborative process by choosing different distances and atmospheres. Three Dancers, Mills College, 1929 demonstrates the elegance and physical abilities of the simultaneous jumping of the dancers; Gertrude Gerrish, circa 1928 is captured as an apparition within a garden. In 1931, on a sunny afternoon, Cunningham made 90 images of the new star of modern dance, Martha Graham, one spectacular shot after the other, working in close range with the dancer to capture her dramatic gestures. It was these images which stirred the editors of Vanity Fair to hire Cunningham to work for them.

Plant Forms, Still-Lifes, Nature

Shooting outdoors and using available light was Imogen Cunningham’s preferred way of working, no matter what her subjects were. Her gardens were her extended “studio” environment. Cunningham was an amateur botanist and often designated scientific names to her photographs. The Bay Area Mediterranean climate provided an abundant source of flora as subject matter: False Hellebore, 1926 photographed at her Harbor View home in Oakland was one of the “Pflanzenformen” which first gave her international recognition in the 1929 Film und Foto, exhibition in Stuttgart. Also when travelling, she found scenes in nature which fascinated her such as in the spiny trees in Forest in France, 1960.
Beside numerous kitchen objects that appeared in her work, such as Davey Morris Studio, Quail Eggs, 1972, doll parts appear as still lifes as in Doll with Head between Legs, 1972.  She purchased a set of German dolls on her first trip to Europe in 1909-1910 to use as props for children’s portraits and later combined them with surreal still-lifes and portraits.