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Imogen Cunningham's 'Botanicals' on view at Oceanside Museum of Art

December 26, 2010 | 11:00 am

Imogenmagnolia If you ask people to name some of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, the name Imogen Cunningham doesn't usually come to mind. Although modern art enthusiasts may not be familiar with her work, among her peers, including Ansel Adams and Edward Henry Weston, she was a respected master at her craft building a career that spanned seven decades.


The Oceanside Museum of Art is giving audiences a chance to acquaint themselves with Cunningham's series of black-and-white florals with "Botanicals: The Photography of Imogen Cunningham," opening Jan. 9.

"Photography provided a respectable career opportunity for women outside the home at the time [1910]," said Teri Sowell, director of exhibitions and collections at the museum. "She had three kids in two years and couldn't travel as easily as most photographers so she focused on what was accessible to her. She was an avid gardener and member of the botanical club, so it was a natural progression. She was known to say during this time that she had one hand in a dishpan and another in a darkroom."

Born in 1883 in Portland, Ore., Cunningham developed an early interest in photography studying at the University of Washington in Seattle. She majored in chemistry after she was advised that she should have a scientific background if she wanted to be a photographer.

ImogencallasAfter graduation she worked in the Seattle portrait studio of Edward S. Curtis, where she learned the techniques of platinum printing. Cunningham then traveled to Germany to study photographic chemistry.

Her first solo show was held at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences in 1914. It wasn't until the '20s that she began to fully explore plants and flowers and began an in-depth study of the magnolia flower, one of her most recognized botanical photographs.

"She took advantage of the limitations of running a household and taking care of her children," said her granddaughter, Meg Partridge from Lopez Island, Wash. She is also director of the Imogen Cunningham Trust.

Forty images from Cunningham's botanicals collection are showcased. To contextualize her innovative techniques, photos from her contemporaries such as Adams and German photographer Karl Blossfeldt are on view in a separate gallery.

"It's a unique combination of architectural weight and more lyrical surface rhythms," said Sowell, referring to the botanical images. "She created magic when she isolated her subject, minimalized the background and moved the camera in close while maintaining sharp focus. This became her style."

ImogenAnsel In was at her exhibition in 1931 at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco that she met and photographed dancer Martha Graham for Vanity Fair. She then began regular assignments for the publication photographing stars without makeup in a straightforward, no-nonsense approach.

In 1945 Adams offered Cunningham, along with Dorothea Lange and Minor White, a faculty position at the first fine art photography department at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco.

"Although she was known among her peers, she didn't have the same relationship to the art world as other photographers," Partridge said. "She finally got the recognition for her body of work in the '60s and '70s and lived long enough to see it." Cunningham continued to work until shortly before her death at 93 in 1976.

 The exhibition runs through May 22.

Oceanside Museum of Art is located at 704 Pier View Way Oceanside, 760-435-3720

Open Tue-Sat 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sun 1 p.m.-4 p.m.

 -Liesl Bradner

Images: top Imogen Cunningham, Magnolia Blossom 1925, Silver Gelatin. © The Imogen Cunningham Trust. Right: Imogen Cunningham, Press Two Callas, about 1929, Silver Gelatin. From "Botanicals: the photography of Imogen Cunningham," at the Oceanside Museum of Art.  ©The Imogen Cunningham Trust. Bottom left: Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham Awarding Jerry Uelsmann The title of Honorary West Coast Photographer At Weston Beach, Point Lobos.Copyright Ted Orland, 1969. Archivally processed gelatin silver print