Miami Visual Collective

IMOGEN CUNNIGHAM: Ahead of her Time

Of all the cultural activity Madrid has to offer in the Fall, I made a point to visit the exhibit of the great American photographer Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976) at the Fundación Mapfre.

©Imogen Cunningham

The exhibit is a retrospective of the life of this prolific artist, who in her 93 years of life, created trends ahead of her time. An exploration of the scope of the work of Cunningham is also a travel through the great periods of 20th century photography.

Cunningham was ahead of her contemporaries in subjects such as the human figure, dance, and the environmental portrait. Despite having been born on a farm in Oregon, her parents encouraged her to pursue higher education. She got a degree in chemistry and, subsequently, moved to Germany to study photography on a scholarship in 1909.

The beginnings of her career are marked by soft pictorialist images. Later, she transitioned into work on the modern architecture of the 1920ʼs, which led her to a stage of experimentation with botanical forms and nature in which she played with light in order to create interesting forms.

©Imogen Cunningham

In the 1930ʼs, while working with Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression, she contributed to the development of what is now known as street photography; through it she documented that period in history through her portrayals of the characters of the street.

©Imogen Cunningham

During these years, her portraits also made her one of the precursors in the environmental portrait, photographing her subjects in their element.

Cunningham was also a pioneer in the photography of the human figure. At the end of the 1920ʼs she began to photograph nudes, fracturing them and playing with light and volume as she had previously done in her work with plants. The works were controversial, especially those which featured male nudes.

©Imogen Cunningham

She gained notoriety with her work on dance and her series on the great dancer and choreographer Martha Graham led her to be hired by Vanity Fair to photograph several Hollywood celebrities.

©Imogen Cunningham

It is necessary to emphasize the great legacy that Cunningham left on the history of photography as an artist cannot be pigeonholed into any single photographic genre of the 20th century because she dealt in almost all of them.

Self portrait at the beginning of her career / Cunningham near the end of her life with nude model. Photo by Jodi Dater

Written by Lucrecia Diaz.

Lucrecia is a Miami Visual Collective Member and is currently working in Madrid, Spain.

See more of Lucrecia’s work at her website


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