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Imogen Cunningham (American, 1883-1976)


Also known as:  Partridge, Imogen Cunningham

Birth Place: Portland (Multnomah county, Oregon, United States)

Imogen Cunningham was an American photographer born in Portland, Oregon on April 12, 1883; she passed away at age 93 in San Francisco on June 23, 1976. Cunningham is best known for her botanical photography, a love for which she developed while in her college chemistry class serving as a secretary for a professor and often making slides for the botanists. With a central focus of flowers composing much of her work, Imogen spent two years, from 1923 to 1925, working on an in-depth, and now famous, study of the magnolia flower. While botanical photography is the area most associated with Cunningham, she changed subject matter frequently and also did nudes, portraits, and industrial landscapes.

Ms. Cunningham is also quite well-known for her portraiture and pictorial work, such as the famous photograph "The Dream" taken in 1910. "The Dream" was part of a collection of soft focus photographs, which were exhibited in Seattle where she lived at the time. Once she married Roi Partridge in 1915, she shifted her work to nude photography, often using her husband as a model. A series of her nude work was presented by the Seattle Fine Arts Society.

Cunningham's interest in the human body led to her employment at Vanity Fair where she photographed stars without any make-up. She stayed at this job despite her husband's disapproval, ultimately leading to their divorce in 1934. After leaving Vanity Fair and moving to San Francisco, Cunningham changed subject matter again, turning to street photography and industrial landscapes.

In addition to being a photographer, in 1945, Cunningham accepted a position at the California School of Fine Arts, where she taught sporadically for 13 years on the recommendation of renowned photographer Ansel Adams. During this time, she still continued to work on her portraits and industrial landscapes, and she even toyed with Polaroid film.

As tribute to her life's work, Imogen Cunningham was elected a Fellow of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts by the California College of Arts and Crafts. Her photographs have been exhibited at the Rencontres d'Arles festival in France, the Witkin Gallery in New York City, and the Smithsonian Institution. There are also six books and one film, Portrait of Imogen, commemorating her art.

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