Art museum

At the Seattle Art Museum, the art and influence of photographer Imogen Cunningham


Today we hear about a major photography exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum. This is a retrospective of Imogen Cunningham, one of the most influential female photographers in American history.

To learn more about Cunningham and his photos, Kim Malcolm of KUOW spoke with Carrie Dedon, associate curator of modern and contemporary art at SAM.

Kim Malcolm: A lot of Cunningham’s images are very clean and modern, but she was born in 1883. Tell us more about who she was.

Carrie Dedon: She was only an emblematic and imposing figure of American photography in the 20th century. She did not stop working until her death in 1976, at the age of 93. This exhibition as a retrospective really shows the full spectrum of this incredibly long and varied career, in which she has never stopped experimenting stylistically and technically, never stopped innovating, always pushing the limits and was really up to date. avant-garde of conversation and photography over these seven decades.

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Some of us may not be aware that she grew up here in Seattle. Tell us a bit about his life here in the Pacific Northwest.

She spent the first formative period of her life here in the Northwest. She was actually born in Portland, Oregon, and moved to Seattle with her family when she was very young. She attended school at UW. She wanted to be a photographer, but UW didn’t offer art classes at the time, so she studied chemistry as a way to learn the science behind the medium.

How was Cunningham influenced growing up here in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest?

His first images were very directly influenced in particular by the landscape of the Pacific Northwest. At the beginning of her career, she worked in that international and very popular style of photography called pictorialism, which was defined by these blurry images, of mythological or biblical type, of staged scenes taking place in bucolic or romantic landscapes. Misty weather and the rugged Pacific Northwest backdrop gave this international style a unique perspective.

Then she moved to California. What happened?

In 1917, she moved to San Francisco and we can see this real stylistic break with pictorialist fashion. It was a time when many West Coast photographers were thinking about a new modernist aesthetic. Photographers like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston advocated for an emphasis on taking pictures, using photography to show the world as it was. You emphasized the clarity and precision of the images, the dramatic use of lighting and a close cropping of the subject. Cunningham, along with these other photographers, was at the forefront of championing this new aesthetic.

From there she developed her best-known work, her botanical studies, largely because of her location. She was a mother of three young children, and with the realities of that, she must have photographed things near her home. She turned her camera to the flowers growing in her own garden, with a dramatic, modernist take on these botanical studies.

Tell us about its impact and its legacy.

She was constantly evolving, constantly working and meeting other artists, both in the field of photography and beyond. She was an outstanding vocal champion for women, especially in the arts and especially in photography. As early as 1913, she published an essay entitled Photography as a Profession for Women, in which she advocated for the place of women in the field, and she constantly advised and supported other women artists.

You will see in the exhibition, some works of other contemporary photographers, but also of artists working in other mediums with whom she has forged particularly close personal and professional relationships, such as the great sculptor Ruth Asawa, and the fantastic dancer. and choreographer Martha. Graham. She had this impact in the field of photography, but in the broader spectrum of art history, her images, but also her support and advocacy for women in the arts, was really crucial.

This interview has been edited for clarity.