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It’s easy enough to develop the illusion that the legendary names venerated throughout the history of photography were somehow so different from ourselves. While’s it’s certainly true that the photographic climate has changed, we still share the same passion for the art as those who clicked shutters fifty years or even a century ago. Many of them faced the same challenges, inspirations, successes and failures as we do. Perhaps that’s why I love learning more about the giants of photography and applying lessons from their work to my photos.
In this installment of “Lessons from the Masters,” we’re going to take a closer look at the work of the estimable Imogen Cunningham. Her determination and herculean achievements placed her working alongside other formative photographers of the 20th century. The contributions she made to photography as an art helped shape the photographic landscape we know today.
Named after the heroine of the Shakespearean play Cymbeline, Imogen Cunningham entered this world on April 12th, 1883. Born to rather paradoxical parents (her father a spiritualist and her mother Methodist) in Portland, Oregon she was a self-described “ill-tempered” child.
When she was 18 years old, she saved enough money to purchase (via mail order) her first camera in 1903, a 4×5 type, along with a box of glass plate negatives. She then began teaching herself how to make photographs. Cunningham knew photography would be her life’s work although her path would not be a direct one.
Following her graduation from the University of Washington with a degree in Chemistry in 1907, Imogen worked with Edward Curtis at his Seattle studio. There, she honed her skills in the darkroom while printing his iconic images of Native Americans and the American West.
Two years later, Cunningham received a $500 grant which enabled her to continue her studies abroad in Germany. During this time she developed theories on photographic chemistry still practiced today.
On her return to the west coast from Europe, Imogen made a familiar pilgrimage which other notable artists of the time often made and ventured to New York City for a meeting with the legendary Alfred Stieglitz at his “291” gallery. Stieglitz introduced her to Gertrude Käsebier who was the first professional female commercial photographer at that time.
After this influential meeting, Imogen committed her energy to photography. She opened a studio in Seattle, Washington and soon made a name for herself through portraits.
It was this studio where Imogen made her living while finding time to delve into more personal work before relocating to California in 1917. Unfortunately for us, she left the majority of her photographs and negatives behind, so there isn’t a large wealth of examples from that period of her career. In 1929, the Film und Foto Exhibition in Stuttgart, Germany, included a ten-piece selection of Cunningham’s work. The fabled Group f/64 would form a few years later to which Imogen was a founding member. Other founding members included her friend Edward Weston as well as Henry Swift, John Paul Edwards, Sonja Noskowiak, Ansel Adams and Willard Van Dyke. Over the years, Imogen Cunningham’s body of work would be as eclectic as it was groundbreaking.
After living an extraordinary life of photography, Imogen Cunningham passed away on June 23rd, 1976 in San Francisco, California at the age of 93.
Now that you know a little bit about the person, let’s dig a little deeper. We’ll look at a few of the many the lessons you can learn from the life, work, and attitude of Imogen Cunningham which can help to improve your photography.
Imogen Cunningham’s choice in subject matter was ‘diverse’ to say the least. From her earliest pictorial work to her self portraits and nudes, it’s safe to say that the idea of sticking to one subject or even one genre for that matter was not something that held back the creative spirit of Imogen Cunningham. She believed that photographs presented themselves to her organically.
She seldom went “looking for things to shoot,” instead preferring to allow the subject matter to appeal to her aesthetic awareness. I mean, come on, she was even one of the early practitioners of street photography before there was street photography!
Many of Imogen’s most iconic photographs gravitated towards the use of light and shadow to present common scenes in an extraordinary way by accentuating texture and shapes. She could look past what a subject was to see what it could be. This beautifully simplistic aesthetic is one of the reasons so many Cunningham prints carry a timeless appeal.
Sometimes we find ourselves concentrating so vigorously on obtaining a particular photograph that we overlook other opportunities to produce great work. While it’s true that we can and should visualize how we want the final image to appear, the process is often helped along if we remain flexible.
Don’t allow yourself to be mired down by one particular subject or location. This is especially true for us today while bombarded by social media accounts producing visually similar photos according to a theme rather than personal expression. This leads to an almost unconscious dulling down of creativity.
Photograph anything and everything that you please – even if might not fit with what you generally shoot.
One of my favorite quotes from Imogen Cunningham goes like this:
“…you can’t expect things to be smooth and easy and beautiful. You just have to work, find your way out, and do anything you can yourself.”
Without a doubt, Imogen was a strongly independent, capable and witty woman who pursued her work with an intensity of purpose. At the same time, she was human. She faced challenges, hardships, and fear just as we all do.
The key to overcoming your self-doubt is to keep moving forward. I think that’s what Cunningham was getting at here. It’s not that we should strive to be fearless but instead work to be tireless in the face of fear or our lack of confidence.
When it comes to photography, there will always be areas where we don’t feel as knowledgeable or proficient as we would like. However, that shouldn’t reduce you to thinking you will always feel that way. Take it from Imogen. Work hard and accept that you won’t always find yourself in easy situations. But never, never, never give up.
Surrounded by other photographers, like many other defining artists of her time, Imogen loved discussing all aspects of photo work. As a founding member of Group f/64, she understood the value of sharing ideas and concepts with other photographers who approached the medium with the same zeal as she did. They learned from one another and worked to further the craft.
One of the most enlightening and enjoyable things I have ever done in this regard was to start the ongoing ITOW (In Their Own Words) Project. This project consists of interviewing other photographers that I either know personally or interact with on social media. The insights gained through these discussions continue to help deepen my own appreciation for the way other people see photography.
Whenever possible, take the time to get to know other photographers and discuss photography openly and honestly. This doesn’t mean you have to strike up a conversation with anyone you see is carrying a camera, but it’s always interesting to examine how other people go about making their images and why.
Worldwide communication has never been more extensive or readily available. We have the capability of connecting with people whom we would have never known existed otherwise. One of the greatest assets we have for growth in our work is by interacting with other people who appreciate the value of photography.
Having been fortunate enough to view some of Imogen’s original prints, it’s easy for me to understand why she was, and still is, one of the most influential and accomplished photographers of all time. Along with other pioneering photographers, we owe a debt of gratitude to Imogen for helping advance photography to the incredible medium we know today.
The lessons we can learn from her work extend well beyond the photographic. She helped show that beauty is found in places and objects we see every day and that we can accomplish almost any goal – no matter how distant it may seem.
I urge you to learn more about Imogen Cunningham, her photographs and her wonderful example of living a full life.
Author’s Note: I would like to extend my immense appreciation to The Imogen Cunningham Trust for permitting the use of many of the photographs presented in this article.