From Pictorialist to Modernist

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The New York Sun

Artists successful in one era are often left without an audience when the tectonic plates of culture shift, and a new sensibility emerges: Suddenly artistic strategies that had always worked, don’t work. But Imogen Cunningham, a photographer who excelled in the soft-focus Pictorialist tradition that dominated photography when she learned her craft, became an early exponent of Modernism and flourished. “Imogen Cunningham: Vintage Prints 1910–1973” at the John Stevenson Gallery gives us a rare opportunity to see the full range of this important artist — recognized as important in her lifetime, and deserving of more attention now.

One reason Ms. Cunningham is not better know nowadays is that she was very frugal in her printmaking, so there are just not that many vintage images to be sold in commercial galleries and to find their way into museums and important collections. But she lived a long life, from 1883 to 1976, and, as the title of the Stevenson exhibition indicates, she made photographs for more than six decades.The earliest picture in the show is “Self-Portrait” (1910), a platinum print, 6 3/4 inches by 4 3/4 inches, made from a glass negative she would subsequently destroy when she moved with her family to San Francisco from Seattle in 1917. The young woman in this picture has a worried cast about her eyes: This is the year she opened her portrait studio and began her career as a professional photographer.

Worried, but self-possessed: She was well prepared. Ms. Cunningham bought her first camera by mail order in 1901. She entered the University of Washington in 1903, studied chemistry and supported herself by photography-related work. In 1909, she used a $500 grant from her college sorority to study photographic chemistry for a year in Dresden. When she got back from Germany, she stayed in New York long enough to meet Alfred Stieglitz and Gertrude Käsebier. The latter was the first woman to have her own commercial portrait studio, and it was she who encouraged Imogen to start hers in Seattle.

“Self-Portrait” is replete with Pictorialist mannerisms. Behind Ms. Cunningham is a plaster cast of a classical Greek frieze to indicate her cultural seriousness. She wears a large lace-trimmed pilgrim collar fastened with a cameo brooch as a marker of propriety. A soft lights falls over her right shoulder putting half her face in shadow, and the whole image — except, significantly, her hands — is suffused with soft-focus dreaminess. Five years later, this demure woman would scandalize Seattle with pictures of her husband, Roi Partridge, posing stark naked among the lakes, glens, and scenic overlooks of Mt. Rainier.

Stevenson has all nine of these pictures.They are the first male nudes taken by a woman photographer and, perhaps as a precaution, have a particularly soft soft-focus. In addition to being fuzzy, they seem motivated by an over-the-top Romanticism with Roi bravely cast as a woodland faun. There is something touching in the innocent kitschiness of these pictures. Ms. Cunningham was breaking new ground, as she would continue to do throughout her career, but her sensibility and her technique are not yet fully resolved. Whatever their artistic merit, a Seattle paper charged her with being “an immoral woman” because of them, and two years later she moved to San Francisco.

She arrived in San Francisco with one son and soon gave birth to twin boys. Although much of her time for the next several years was devoted to her children, part of it was spent photographing them. Ms. Cunningham’s pictures of her family are a major achievement, forerunners of the artistic family imagery of Harry Callahan and of Nicholas Nixon’s ongoing family project. Not just her boys, but her father — a Civil War veteran with a long patriarchal white beard — Roi, her mother, other relatives, and the families of friends were subjects.

“My Father and My Sons” (1919) shows her still a Pictorialist, but in “The Twins” (1920s), “Brett Weston” (1922), and “Roi Sketching on Mount Ranier” (1927) a new spirit enters. Although always rooted in the somewhat parochial culture of the West Coast, Imogen had absorbed enough of European cosmopolitanism in Dresden to appreciate the intentions of Modernism. Her work became more abstract, simpler, and in sharper focus. How else could she show the galaxies of freckles on her boys’ faces with such clarity?

The exhibition includes many portraits: “Roi Partridge, A Portrait” (1930s), taken as their marriage was dissolving and showing a less than happy man; “Piano Player, Cornish School” (1935), which foreshadows Arnold Newman’s use of the piano top in his picture of Igor Stravinsky; “Alfred Stieglitz 3” (1935); “Frida Kahlo, Painter and Wife of Diego Rivera” (1933), a woman who seems to have been born to have her photograph taken, and “Morris Graves” (1950), a taut picture Minor White declared “the masterpiece of its time.” The picture of “Rose Mandel” (1949), a student of Ansel Adams’s, is classic Modernism, balancing content and design in sharp-edged lyricism.

And even more than her portraits, the pictures she took of the plants in her back yard and elsewhere moved her toward Modernism. “Black and White Lilies III” (1920’s), “Untitled Plant Form (Bromeliad)” (1920’s), “Leaf Pattern, Carmel Mission” (before 1929), and “Colletia Cruciata” (about 1929) are excellent examples, their simplicity belying their sophistication. Her intent scrutiny of both the flesh and the structure of these plants shows her interest in not just the actual plants, but in their Platonic ideal.Yet far from being sterile abstractions, her flora are erotic, a high pornography of stamen and pistil, the vegetal phallus and yoni. Ms. Cunningham’s plants put one immediately in mind of the similar work by her friend Edward Weston, but hers precede his by about a decade.

Imogen Cunningham was one of the great photographers of female nudes. Stevenson has her own print of “Triangles” (1928), maybe her best-known image in this genre, and “Nude” (1932), another example of her concern with flesh and form. A bonus at Stevenson is some of the “stolen photographs,” or street photography, Ms. Cunningham took when she came to New York in 1956 for her solo show at Helen Gee’s Limelight Gallery. When she died at 93, Imogen Cunningham was still shooting, still experimenting, still finding new ways.

Until November 25 (338 W. 23rd St., between Ninth and Tenth avenues, 212-352-0070).

The New York Sun

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