A little late in Imogen Cunningham’s life, a young photographer asked her, “What should I do to become more famous, to get my work appreciated?”
“You have to live longer,” Cunningham replied. (The artist receiving the advice? Ruth Bernhard.)
A joke, surely, about the art world’s tendency to appreciate women’s artistic contributions only after they’ve entered the final chapter of their lives, the line nonetheless contained an obvious truth to Cunningham. It wasn’t until 1960, as she approached her late 70s, that she experienced the first real financial success of her decades-long career, one of the most influential in the history of the photography.
Calling Cunningham underrated or overlooked might be inaccurate; despite the little money she earned, she is rightly considered among the greats of the 20th century. Still, his name doesn’t sound as familiar as, say, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, or Dorothea Lange.
There’s a reason for that, says Paul Martineau, curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum, who just organized a major retrospective of Cunningham’s work.
The name of each of these photographers, all friends of Cunningham, is accompanied by a specific image. For Adams, it is the western mountainous landscape; for Weston, the fleshy pepper. Cunningham, on the other hand, “didn’t do one type of picture,” Martineau said. This is the paradox at the heart of his legacy: the quality that separates his art is the reason people underappreciate him.
“You can’t really put a label on Imogen,” he continued, calling Cunningham a “pioneer in the field of women.”
“She wasn’t satisfied with anything…She didn’t dwell on things over and over again like some artists. She was always striving to innovate, learn more and experiment.
Cunningham’s ability to reinvent is on full display in the Getty retrospective, which spans six decades and some 180 prints (about three dozen of which were made by contemporaries like Judy Dater, Lisette Model and Alfred Stieglitz).
Included are her earliest pictorial experiments, made in her late 20s and 30s while living in Seattle with her then-husband King Partridge; her carefully studied botanical photographs she made when she moved to the Bay Area in 1917; the richly detailed images she produced while working alongside Sonya Noskowiak, Paul Strand and the other artists with whom she co-founded f/64; and many other bodies of works.
And yet, while the exhibition instantiates the stylistic range of Cunningham’s images, it also highlights the subtle artistic tendencies that bind the works together. These are most evident when looking at Cunningham’s work in portraiture, a constant throughout his career.
Make photos of his children or editorial portraits of celebrities for vanity lounge, Cunningham preferred an intimate approach devoid of artifice. She rarely manipulated her images in the darkroom or even let her models wear makeup.
“Cunningham didn’t like indulging in people’s vanity,” Martineau explained. “She tries to find true likeness rather than making people look good.”
She also had a particular fondness for capturing other creatives on film, such as dancer Martha Graham, painter Frida Kahlo, writer Gertrude Stein and fellow photographer Minor White. Her photos of Ruth Asawa, one of her closest friends, are some of the most sensitive artist portraits you will ever see.
In the early 1930s, she was sent to Hollywood to photograph “ugly men” like Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy and Wallace Beery. Cunningham recalled the mission on the Tonight’s show with Johnny Carson in 1976, the last year of his life.
“Have you considered [Grant] an ugly man? Carson asked the segment’s aging photographer.
“He convinced me that wasn’t the case,” she said knowingly. The crowd burst out laughing.
But for Martineau, Cunningham’s signature portrait was not that of an artist or an actor. It was on her own – and it happened just a few years into her career. the self-portrait, made around 1909shows the young artist in front of a small cast of the Elgin Marbles, sketchbook and pencil in hand.
“It is essentially placed in the trajectory of art history, going back to the ancient Greeks,” said the curator. “It sets the tone for the rest of his career. She considered herself an artist and she wanted to leave something to future generations, something of value.
Indeed, the world may have needed 50 years to recognize her talent, but Cunningham saw it in herself right away.
“Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospectiveis on view through June 12 at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
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