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American photographer who is best known for her portraits and her images of plant life. Imogen was simply BRILLIANT , incredibly creative from a very young age, she was an adventuress and inventor as well as a founding of the group of groundbreaking photographers known as Group f/64. She was also famous for inventing sepia tones in photography…
Died June 24, 1976, San Francisco, California,
Imogen was the daughter of Isaac Cunningham, a self-educated, idealistic, but often struggling individualist, who followed one of those utopian faiths that made people move West. Imogen was born in Oregon and grew up in Washington. She learned early that“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.”
The nearest college, The University of Washington, offered no art classes, but a degree in chemistry was a practical solution for a young photographer. Her thesis, which she wrote in German, advocated the versatility of using of hand-coated printing papers. She described a new method of making platinum photographs, using lead chemistry and brown-toning them. Her formulas are still useful today.
In 1915, Imogen married Roi Partridge, an accomplished etcher. Their first son, Gryffyd, was born that year, and then in 1917, Imogen gave birth to twin boys, Rondal and Padraic.
Dedicated to her responsibilities as a mother, Imogen closed her portrait studio. To satisfy her need for making photographs, she turned her cameras instead to her family. And in a precious hour each afternoon, when her boys were napping, she would make portraits of the flowers in her garden. During the 1920s, developments for Imogen herself were remarkable — and the future of photography was changed. In 1921 her visualization suddenly refined her work, changing her camera focus from long to near, seeking out details and patterns and forms. In portraits, her previous pictorialist style was replaced by an emphasis upon clarity, precision, and persona. By 1923 she was breaking new ground altogether. Her images of seemingly straightforward natural phenomena were also, at the same time, strange nonrepresentational abstractions. She began to experiment with double exposures and multiple, montage printing.
“By 1932 Cunningham was an internationally acclaimed professional photographer…. But Cunningham’s interests were always too eclectic, her attitude too flexible, to be constricted by the rigidity of Group f/64 definitions. In 1934 Imogen and her husband divorced. Her sons were nearing adulthood, so Imogen was able to accept a position with Vanity Fair magazine. While at its headquarters in a month-long trip to New York, she revisited and photographed Alfred Stieglitz in his gallery, and explored the streets of the city, making her first “stolen pictures,” a term she used to describe her street photography. This early documentary imagery became a new direction for Imogen that she explored throughout her lifetime.
These works are empathetic, sensitive portraits rather than photojournalistic records; Imogen did not like to invade privacy or make judgments. “I have no ambition, never did have any ambition, to be a reporter,” she said. “That is something different. I still feel that my interest in photography has something to do with the aesthetic, and that there should be a little beauty in everything.” In her several years with Vanity Fair, Imogen made photographs of politicians, movie stars, artists and writers — President Hoover, Somerset Maugham, Cary Grant, Gertrude Stein among them.
Assignments followed with other magazines including US Camera, LIFE, Sunset, House and Garden and Fortune.
Deep into her Second Prime, in 1956 Imogen had a solo exhibition, and again visited New York and added substantially to her street photographs of the city with a diversity of images that are especially remarkable given her age, 73. Her multiple-exposure portrait of Man Ray in his Paris studio seemed to reignite her fascination for darkroom manipulations. Many of her last works, throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, were new experiments and explorations.
In 1976 Imogen was profiled in a CBS television documentary, and appeared as a guest on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. She received two solo exhibitions, at Stanford University and in San Francisco.
Shortly before publication of her book, After Ninety, on June 23 she passed away at the age of 93.