National Museum of Women in the Arts
Imogen Cunningham
April 12 1883 - June 23 1976
Photograph of Imogen Cunningham, ca. 1975, by Mimi Jacobs. 13 2/5 x 9 1/2 inches (34 x 24 cm). Photographs of artists taken by Mimi Jacobs, 1971-1981. Archives of American Art, Washington, DC, USA.
Place of Birth:
Phonetic Spelling:
IH-meh-jehn KUHN-ing-ham
Minority status:
White non-Hispanic
Work Type/Media:
Artistic Role(s):
Photographer, Portraitist
Artist's Biography:
Imogen Cunningham, best known for her erotic photographs of flowers and intensely realist portraits, began her photography career as a student at the University of Washington. Her professors noticed her keen sensitivity to scientific photographs which coincided with Cunningham’s decision to study chemistry and botany. Her science background sharpened her attention to detail and the delicate forms of nature. Whether creating romanticized, almost abstract close-ups of plants in her backyard or candid, unaffected portraits, Cunningham captured intimate moments that made her one of the most important American female photographers of her time.

As a photographic chemistry student at the Technische Hochschule in Dresden, Germany, Cunningham further honed her printing skills she learned as an assistant in the studio of Edward S. Curtis in Seattle. She met Alvin Langdon Coburn in London and Alfred Stieglitz in New York on her trip back to Seattle, both of whom became a source of great inspiration.

Upon moving back to the United States, Cunningham opened a studio and achieved prominence for her portraits and pictorial work, especially the wildly romanticized images of her friends. Cunningham married etcher Roi Partridge in 1915 and together with her husband and three sons, moved to Oakland. In California, Cunningham joined Group f/64, a photography group founded by Ansel Adams, Willard Can Dyke, and Edward Weston in 1932. The group name referred to the smallest aperture of a camera lens which produced the sharpest possible image; Group f/64 believed in straight photography and clarity of image and met informally to share and discuss their works. Cunningham’s photographs were exhibited in Group f/64 shows that helped shape the style of West Coast photography.

After divorcing her husband and moving to San Francisco in 1947, Cunningham supported herself through her portrait commissions, sales of her early plant photographs, assignments for magazines, interior design work, and a teaching position at the California School of Fine Arts. Among her sitters were Martha Graham, James Cagney, Cary Grant, Gertrude Stein, Upton Sinclair, and Herbert Hoover, many of whom were photographed for Vanity Fair. In 1975 she created the Imogen Cunningham Trust to run her photography business and reproduce her works after her death. Her photographs, whether of plant-forms, industrial subjects, nudes, portraits, created over almost eight decades, have been internationally acclaimed and exhibited.

Other Occupation(s):
Place(s) of Residence:
Where Trained/Schools:
Technische Hochschule, Dresden, Germany (1909) Private lessons (1907-1909) University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA (1903-1907)
Related Visual Artists:
wife of Roi Partridge student of Edward S. Curtis student of Robert Luther friend of Edward Weston friend of Dorothea Lange friend of Beaumont Newhall friend of Lisette Model friend of Ansel Adams friend of and influenced by Alfred Stieglitz influenced by Gertrude Käsebier influenced by Alvin Langdon Coburn
Fellowships, grants and awards:
Artist of the Year Award, San Francisco Art Commission, San Francisco, CA, USA (1973) Fellowship, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, New York, NY, USA (1970) Photographic Chemistry Scholarship, Techische Hochsule, Dresden, Germany (1909)
Earliest exhibition:
Photographs by Miss Edith R. Wilson, Miss Imogen Cunningham, and Miss Clara E. Sipprell, Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, New York, NY, USA (1914)
NMWA exhibition(s):
A History of Women Photographers
Preserving the Past, Securing the Future: Donations of Art, 1987-1997
Defining Eye: Women Photographers of the 20th Century
Artist retrospective(s):
Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective, Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, NY, USA (1995-1996) The Photography of Imogen Cunningham: A Centennial Selection, The Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA (1983-1986)
Related places
San Francisco (died at)
Portrait of Jesse Dorr Luca