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The Sensual Symbolism of Imogen Cunningham

Imogen Cunningham
Imogen Cunningham, “The Supplicant” (1910) & “On Mount Rainier” (1915) (all images courtesy 21st Editions/Imogen Cunningham Trust)

For a young woman in the early 20th century, photographer Imogen Cunningham had a bold eye for the touch and movement of the nude human body. With a close eye for detail and an unwavering gaze, she also created striking images of flowers and straight-forward portraiture. A trilogy of artist books are currently exploring her eye for the quiet and haunting.

Imogen Cunningham
Imogen Cunningham, “Veiled Woman” (1910)

The first book in the trilogy being produced by 21st Editions with the Imogen Cunningham Trust was released last March and concentrated on her botanicals and shapes of the human body, and the second is now being produced focusing on her early Symbolist work. Called  Imogen Cunningham: Symbolist with Poetry and Prose by William Morrisit places a series of her photographs from between 1905 and 1916 alongside work by 19th century writer William Morris, whose darkly toned poems echo in the odd ethereal work of Cunningham’s photographs. It’s not a cheap book by any means at $8,500, but the photographs are carefully printed with a gum-arabic platinum process on handmade paper and the collection includes loose prints, so it’s really a handcrafted work of art.

As John Woods writes in his introduction:

It would be interesting to try to guess which of Morris’s poems inspired the individual Symbolist photographs she created, but it would only be guess-work. As someone who has long studied and written about Symbolist and Pictorialist photography, I tend to think — or guess — it was not so much individual poems that were the inspiration as it was their feel and sensibility, the fading perfumes of an old century.

While her career spanned seven decades and is entwined with artists like Edward S. Curtis and Edward Weston, her influence on the modernist look of photography is sometimes overlooked. However, last week a retrospective opened at Kulturhuset in Stockholm, with about 200 photographs, some published for the first time or rarely on view, including some from her Symbolist era such as a self portrait of the artist sprawled naked on dandelion-dotted grass. Since the first book in the trilogy, Imogen Cunningham: Platinum/Palladium, sold out its incredibly limited 35 copies in days last year, there’s definitely a both renewed and dedicated love of her work.

Imogen Cunningham, "Datura"
Imogen Cunningham, “Datura”

Born in Portland, Oregon, Cunningham actually lost interest in her earliest experiments with photography, but while at the University of Washington in 1906 she was inspired by another groundbreaking woman photographer, Gertrude Käsebier, to start again. Yet she was initially interested in the chemistry behind the photography, even working with her chemistry professor in college on unraveling its processes. Upon graduation in 1907, she started working for the influential Edward S. Curtis and would go on to open a portrait studio of her own. There in the 1920s, her nude photography would harken back to these earlier Symbolist experiments of the beautiful symmetry and tension there can be between bodies and nature.

Imogen Cunningham
Imogen Cunningham, “The Wood Beyond the World” (1910)
Imogen Cunningham
Imogen Cunningham, “The Dream” (1910)

Imogen Cunningham: Symbolist with Poetry and Prose by William Morris is available from 21st Editions for $8,500.

The retrospective on Imogen Cunningham’s photography at the Kulturhuset (Sergels torg, 111 57 Stockholm, Sweden) shows through September 8. 

 

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