The Seattle Art Museum presents Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective from Nov. 18 to Feb. 6, 2022. It will be the photographer’s first major retrospective in the United States in more than 35 years. Organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, the exhibition is a visual celebration of Cunningham’s immense contribution to the history of 20th-century photography.
It features nearly 200 works from her seventy-year career, including portraits of artists, musicians and Hollywood stars; elegant flower and plant studies; poignant street pictures; and groundbreaking nudes.
Beginnings in Seattle
Imogen Cunningham (1883–1976) had deep connections to the Pacific Northwest; born in Portland, she grew up in Port Angeles and Seattle. The precocious child of a free-thinking father, Cunningham decided to become a photographer around 1901, while still in high school.
Her father famously asked, “Why do you want to become a dirty photographer?” Yet he built her a darkroom in a woodshed, including the necessary and messy chemical supplies. Her first works were in the soft-focus, Pictorialist style.
Cunningham completed a chemistry degree at the University of Washington in 1907. During these years, she also participated in the artistic scene, becoming the youngest charter member — and only photographer — of the Seattle Fine Arts Society in 1908. She also apprenticed and then worked from 1907-09 at the Seattle studio of well-known photographer Edward S. Curtis. After a year-long fellowship in Dresden, Germany, Cunningham returned to Seattle in 1910 and opened what is considered the first studio for artistic photography in Seattle. Cunningham married a Seattle artist, Roi Partridge, in 1915, and eventually had three sons.
Artist and collaborator
SAM’s iteration of the exhibition highlights Cunningham’s collaborations with artists of many mediums, particularly dancer Martha Graham and sculptor Ruth Asawa. In a section of artist portraits is one of Graham, taken during a 1931 session that resulted in dramatic close-ups of the dancer’s face and body; also in this section is a video of the dancer in her iconic solo Lamentation (1930).
Cunningham was introduced to Asawa in 1950, and the two, though 43 years apart in age, established a lasting friendship. Cunningham regularly photographed Asawa and her looped wire sculptures and wrote on her behalf for a Guggenheim Foundation grant. The exhibition features seven Asawa sculptures alongside Cunningham’s five portraits of the artist and her work.
Another section of the exhibition features examples from Group f/64, a Bay Area association of photographers begun in 1932 that championed a direct and objective approach. In addition to Cunningham, the group included Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Sonya Noskowiak, and more. Also on view are photographs by Gertrude Kasebier, Dorothea Lange, Listette Model, and more; they were all sources of inspiration for or collaborators with Cunningham.
The light within
The exhibition also explores the last 42 years of Cunningham’s life, as the artist continued to face challenges and late-in-life triumphs in her career. It was only in the final 12 years of her life that she finally began to receive attention, with major solo shows in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco; a 1964 Aperture monograph spearheaded by her champion and fellow photographer, Minor White; and a 1970 Guggenheim Foundation grant that enabled her to print a cache of her early glass plate negatives.
During these years, she continued to innovate, gravitating toward street photography and creating cleverly composed examples of the genre. She also taught and mentored young artists, and she became involved in civic issues in San Francisco, as well as the civil rights and the anti-war movements.
At the age of 92, she embarked on a final series focusing on aging, traveling with an assistant to document subjects. On view in this final gallery is Portrait of Imogen (1988), a short documentary film directed by Meg Partridge.
• Closed Monday & Tuesday
• Wednesday–Sunday 10 a.m.–5 p.m.
• Holiday hours on the website
Special Exhibition Prices
• $29.99 Adult
• $17.99 Senior (65+), Military (with ID)
• $12.99 Student (with ID), Teen (15–18)
• Free for children (14 and under)
• Free for SAM Members
• First Thursdays: Free to all
• First Fridays: Free general admission for seniors (65+)
Details are subject to change. For the most up-to-date information on planning a visit, go to seattleartmuseum.org.