Artist to Know: Imogen Cunningham

Liz Catalano
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Three Flower and Portrait Prints Available in Swann Auction Galleries Sale

Imogen Cunningham, Self Portrait with Korona View, 1933. Image from the Imogen Cunningham Trust.
Imogen Cunningham, Self Portrait with Korona View, 1933. Image from the Imogen Cunningham Trust.

Imogen Cunningham, a photographer who rose to prominence in the early 20th century, was faced with the challenge of establishing herself in a traditionally male-dominated industry. “I used to say that Imogen’s blood was three percent acetic acid. She seemed to have an acid reaction to so many things, and she could be very abrupt,” Ansel Adams once said about her.

Despite her sharp professional focus, Cunningham is today remembered for her soft Pictorialist portraits and detailed flower photographs. These regularly attract attention at auction, with one flower print realizing over USD 240,000 in 2010. One of the best-known Imogen Cunningham photos, Magnolia Bud, will be available in Swann Auction Galleries’ upcoming Fine Photographs sale. Before the bidding starts, learn more about Imogen Cunningham, her photography, and her history at auction.

The artist developed an interest in photography while studying chemistry at the University of Washington, later pursuing her craft at the Technische Hochschule in Dresden, Germany. She reportedly finished her studies with only a few dollars in her pocket, gradually scraping together the funds to establish her own portrait studio in Seattle. In this space, she photographed her contemporaries, including Frida Kahlo, Man Ray, and her husband, Roi Partridge. Cunningham also began receiving backlash for her work after photographing male nudes. She replied that though there was “a terrific tirade on my stuff as being very vulgar… it didn’t make a single bit of difference in my business.” 

After moving to San Francisco, Cunningham joined Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and other leading photographers to form Group f.64 in search of “pure” photography. It was during this period that Imogen Cunningham’s photography shifted toward botanicals, especially her famous magnolia flowers. She would later describe these stark photos of buds, blooms, and leaves as “the most common plant, the most common job I ever did.” Her studies of human bodies and artistic portraits follow a similar style of hard-edged Modernism.

Imogen Cunningham, Magnolia Bud (1920). Image from Swann Auction Galleries.
Imogen Cunningham, Magnolia Bud (1920). Image from Swann Auction Galleries.

Cunningham eventually drifted away from plants in favor of the emerging social movements of the 1960s. She photographed the beat poets, everyday people on the street, and the architecture of Paris. However, her botanical prints are still her most popular photos. A 1973 editorial of her work, published in The New York Times, emphasized the “articulated concreteness” of her magnolias, likening them to a city skyline. In 1995, the Times again discussed the intersection of Modern abstraction and romantic irreverence in her work: “Cunningham often showed less devotion to pure form than did other leading modernists… [her photographs are] less strictly geometric but arguably more human than many of Weston’s nudes.” 

Interest in Imogen Cunningham’s landscape and flower photos, which are reminiscent of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings, has sustained in recent years. A 1955 gelatin silver print of Two Callas realized $56,250 in 2016, while Orchid Cactus (Cactus Blossom) reached $150,000 at Sotheby’s in 2019. The edition of Magnolia Bud offered in the upcoming Swann Auction Galleries event is a 1950s print of her original photo. With an estimate of $10,000 – $15,000, this piece shows the tightly-wrapped magnolia against a pure black background. 

Her later career included teaching stints at the San Francisco Institute of Fine Arts and the publication of a book titled After Ninety, filled with her photographs of nonagenarians. Cunningham lived to the age of 93.

Imogen Cunningham. Edward Weston and Margrethe Mather, 3. Image from Swann Auction Galleries.
Imogen Cunningham. Edward Weston and Margrethe Mather, 3. Image from Swann Auction Galleries.

Two other Imogen Cunningham photos will be presented in this auction, including a dramatic 1970 print of a rubber plant. Sharp diagonal lines bisect the composition, while the white edge of a leaf forms a gentle curve on the right. An example of Cunningham’s portraiture is also available, showing Edward Weston and Margrethe Mather. It was taken during a formal sitting in 1922. Weston had met Mather ten years before, developing a close relationship with his studio assistant and most frequent model. In this piece, the two subjects look away from the camera in opposite directions.

The upcoming auction will also include the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Horst P. Horst. Bidding for over 300 of these photographic lots will begin at 10:30 AM ET on June 11, 2020. Visit Swann Auction Galleries for more information.

UPDATE JUNE, 2021: Swann Auction Galleries held its Fine Photographs sale in June of 2020. Several lots met or exceeded their high estimates, including photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Klein, and Lucas Samaras. While the Imogen Cunningham landscape and portrait photos did not sell, some of her works performed well later in the year. Stair auctioned a 1961 print of Cunningham’s Magnolia for $7,040 in July. More recently, Cunningham’s Triangles appeared in a 50-lot auction celebrating 50 years of Sotheby’s Photographs department. The print sold for $189,000 against a $150,000 to $250,000 estimate.

With the recent 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States, some in the art world are revisiting early women pioneers in various fields. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York will sponsor a major tribute to women photographers in the summer of 2021. The planned show, titled ‘The New Woman Behind the Camera,’ will spotlight Imogen Cunningham’s photography alongside that of Berenice Abbott, Lola Álvarez Bravo, Consuelo Kanaga, Dorothea Lange, and others. “The New Woman of the 1920s was a powerful expression of modernity,” The Met states. “The exhibition seeks to reevaluate the history of photography and advance new and more inclusive conversations on the contributions of female photographers.”

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