Imogen Cunningham - I can always stay with people, because they really are different
“Ansel [Adams] once said to somebody that I [Cunningham] was versatile, but what he really meant was that I jump around. I’m never satisfied staying in one spot very long, I couldn’t stay with the mountains and I couldn’t stay with the trees and I couldn’t stay with the rivers. But I can always stay with people, because they really are different.” - Imogen Cunningham in Dialogue With Photography by Paul Hill.
Imogen Cunningham’s career spanned just shy of 70 years. She was one of America’s finest photographers and one of very few great portrait photographers. Her breadth and versatility stood the test of time, shooting everything from botanicals, soft-focus Pictorialism, sharp modernism, portraits through to street photography.
The one thing that was constant in her photography was that she photographed using an authentic woman’s eye. This was indeed remarkable given that her time was significantly dominated by photographs produced from the viewpoint of the male gaze. Cunningham expressed "The reason during the [1920s] that I photographed plants was that I had three children under the age of 4 to take care of, so I was cooped up," Imogen said. "I had a garden available and I photographed them indoors. Later when I was free I did other things."
In stark contrast to her early 1900s soft pictorials, she later (1930s) moved into pure photography which encapsulated a modern style of hard edged, real-world photographs. During this same period she was invited to photograph Hollywood movie stars and Imogen said
"They asked me what I would like to photograph. I said, Ugly men."
Turns out that the only “ugly” man (according to a mainstream media definition of ugly) she photographed was Wallace Beery, so she ended up making portraits of actors such as Cary Grant, James Cagney and Spencer Tracy.
At her very core, Cunningham was a portrait artist, making portraits of people such as Frida Kahlo, Martha Graham, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Dorothea Lange. Cunningham reported that
"the fascinating thing about portraiture is that nobody is alike".
“By the 1940s Cunningham's interest shifted to documentary street photography while she supported herself with commercial portraiture. She began to work almost exclusively with a smaller format camera, and she continued to create hundreds of exceptional portraits imbued with her unique humanity throughout the next few decades.
She actively photographed until just weeks before her death in 1976 at the age of ninety-three.” - Richard Lorenz, Joseph Bellows Gallery, 1992.