Imogen Cunningham

It started when I stumbled over the iconic photo of Imogen Cunningham: Imogen and Twinka at Yosemite, yet again. It happens a lot. You've probably seen it many times too. That photo is by Judy Dater, and as beautiful as the nude Twinka is in that photo, the most interesting thing in it is Imogen.

Since finding out about Imogen's work, just a few hours ago admittedly, she has become my favorite photographer.

Imogen could capture depth where others could only capture surface. Take for instance the case of Joan Blondell. She was a Hollywood actress in the 30s. Do an image search for her. She was beautiful right, but in that Hollywood way where she almost didn't seem real. Now compare those stills and promotional photos to the photo below.

Joan Blondell, 1933

Here Joan is a real person, in a room with a light, a camera and Imogen. And she's more beautiful than a fleet of Hollywood producers ever managed.

But that's not the only thing to love. Imogen studied the chemistry of photography, and you can feel the process in her work. You can almost still smell the developing fluid on Gas Tanks even though it's just a jpeg.

Gas Tanks, 1927
Even very early she was playing around with process. I am in love with this pair of prints. They're obviously made from the same negative. The line between night and day is decided in the darkroom.

Morning Mist and Sunshine, 1911

In Moonlight, 1911

And this Magnolia Bud. Can you not just feel the room around it?
Magnolia Bud, 1920s

Most photographers would soften that light, to hide it's source. They wouldn't want you to think about the light, they'd want you to think about the Magnolia.

But Imogen lets it shine through. We still think about the magnolia, but then we do think about the light. Maybe it's a normal desk lamp, an anglepoise. From there we think about the room. The curtains are drawn so that lamp's voice will shine bright. A black cloth is draped behind the subject. Pointed at the table is the camera on it's heavy wooden tripod. And bustling around all of it, adjusting, checking and finally capturing the image is Imogen.

Like the portrait of Joan Blondell we can feel Imogen's presence in her photos, regardless of the subject. Most photographers try their best to remove themselves from their photos. Imogen has put more of herself in Magnolia Bud than most photographers ever manage in self portraits. And that's what makes her so special.

I'll leave you with some more of my favorites.

Edward Weston and Margrethe Mather 3, 1922

Her and Her Shadow, 1931

This portrait of Man Ray reminds me more of Nude Descending a Staircase than that Man Ray picture.

A Man Ray Version of Man Ray, 1960

Oil Tanks, 1940

The lady herself. One of many self portraits.
Self Portrait, 1933

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