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SAM Creates: Through Imogen Cunningham’s Lens

Imogen Cunningham’s photograph, Magnolia Blossom, Tower of Jewels, looks closely at its subject. Through her use of macro photography—making an object appear larger-than-life—Cunningham isolates the flower from its context and transforms an everyday subject into a work of art. Her contemporary, Georgia O’Keeffe, used similar strategies in her paintings, magnifying a flower’s inner structure in order to emphasize shape and form. Look around at your houseplants, head outside to the yard, or go on a stroll to find your inspiration. 

Cunningham would have likely used a 4×5” camera and her chemistry degree from the University of Washington when she created her botanical prints. Luckily, most of us can use our smartphone cameras, which are a lot smaller, lightweight, and instantly “develop” our images.

National Museum of American History
Camera, view, American Optical. PG*4626A.

Before you start, take a minute and clean your camera lens. You can clean the lens with a microfiber cloth or a cotton swab moistened with distilled water can also take off stubborn grime.

Start your walk or find a spot to sit and be still. Take a few minutes—or steps—and observe your environment. What are you drawn to? Get closer to an object. Is there an interesting macro photography subject to explore?

Once you find your subject, move your phone as close to the object as you can to remove any context like a neighbor’s house, your fence, or the couch.

As you’re discovering your composition, consider the rule of thirds, which divides an image into nine equal rectangles and places points of interest where grid lines intersect. You can overlay a grid in your camera viewfinder by selecting it as an option in your phone’s settings. 

After choosing your composition, explore the focal plane, or angle at which you’re shooting your camera, by moving your phone above, in-line, and below the subject. The most common issue in macro photography is misalignment or a poor positioning of your camera lens, resulting in a blurry photo. To achieve the best focal plane, touch your smartphone screen directly where you want the emphasis of your composition to be. This will focus the lens and automatically adjust the light settings to that specific area. 

Once you’re done shooting, use your phone’s editing tools to enhance your work. Test out how your image looks in black and white or silvertone for an extra nod to Cunningham’s process!

Save and share your work by uploading to social media using the hashtag #StayHomewithSAM. 

Want to take the work further? Do a drawing of your photo, abstracting the subject like Georgia O’Keeffe or evoke your inner Emily Dickinson and write a poem inspired by your botanical imagery. 

Kelsey Donahue, SAM Assistant Manager for Gallery Learning & Lynda Harwood-Swenson, SAM Assistant Manager for Studio Programs

If you value the ways SAM connects art to your life, consider making a donation or becoming a member today! Your financial support powers Stay Home with SAM and also sustains us until we can come together as a community and enjoy art in the galleries again.

Image: Magnolia Blossom, Tower of Jewels, 1925, Imogen Cunningham, gelatin silver print, 11 1/4 x 8 1/4 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 89.67 © (1925), 2009 Imogen Cunningham Trust.

Docents Defined: Celeste Ericsson

Get more intimate with SAM’s collection by becoming a docent! Docents will learn about our global collection of artwork and then share their knowledge and passion for art with a diverse range of visitors. No experience necessary! SAM docents have a wide range of reference points and experiences that they each bring to the art in SAM’s collection and that is what makes our public tours so unique. Making room for new perspectives is how we continue to offer engaging and informational tours throughout the year. Here’s a chance to get to know Celeste Ericsson, just one of our many docents who volunteers their time at the museum. Are you interested in becoming a SAM docent and leading tours of the museum? Apply now! Applications are accepted through July 12 and new docents start training in fall 2017!

SAM: Tell us about yourself. Why did you become a docent?

Celeste Ericsson: I’ve always loved art museums ever since I was a child growing up in New York City. My favorite New York museums were/are the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cloisters. I have always been interested in history in general, and in symbolism/iconography. As an illustrator and a graphic designer, a knowledge of art history and art movements both inspires me and helps me to communicate in my artwork.

What’s the best part of being a docent?

I get to share my interests with others, and I love doing it with kids. I’m constantly adding their insights to my tours. I do like talking with adults also. In order to communicate clearly, I have to figure out the most important things I believe about art and art philosophy. And in order to make things relevant I need to figure out the connections and the contexts for the art I’m touring so that the pieces do not become disembodied objects. In other words my docent work clarifies my own understanding of art.

What work of art is your favorite to tour?

The works of art that are my favorite to tour definitely differ from the works I’m personally drawn to. I’m drawn to the Archaic Greek Antefix with Medusa or Akio Takamori’s Blue Princess. For art to tour I liked Cai Guo-Qiang’s Inopportune Stage One, definitely a favorite before it was deinstalled last winter. Aesthetically, I found it horrifying, but it tells the story of art so clearly. I can’t think of even one class that it did not connect to, or who failed to figure out the story of a car flipping and exploding.

I’m finding that kids are really drawn to John Grade’s Middle Fork also. My favorite description from a third grader is that it looks like a Jenga game.

What’s your most memorable touring experience?

My favorite touring experience lately was Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series for kindergarten, no less. I hadn’t expected the kids to get it, but the themes of having to leave home and everything familiar, and the theme of fairness really resonated with them. They created the most amazing drawings afterwards. A couple were very personal, and the kids were kind and appreciative of each other’s creations.

What advice do you have for people considering applying to the docent program?

This is a hard one to answer, but I’d say to be in it for how art can be inspiring. Really try to find those paths of wonder and fun for the kids. Discover your own genuine voice. Finally, it’s great to not take oneself too seriously, and to have a sense of humor.

– Kelsey Donahue, Museum Educator, School & Educator Programs

Docents Defined: Karthik Jaganathan

SAM is now recruiting new docents to start training for the reopening of the Seattle Asian Art Museum. You don’t need to be an art historian or a former teacher to apply! In fact, SAM docents have a variety of interests and experiences. Having a diverse group of docents is how we’re able to offer tours that are engaging to all visitors. Read below and find out more about some of the docents who volunteer their time at the museum.

Want to join Karthik Jaganathan in connecting art to life? Apply now to the docent program. Applications are accepted through May 19.

SAM: Tell us about yourself. Why did you become a docent?

Karthik Jaganathan: I grew up in Tamil Nadu, a state at the southeastern tip of India, across the Bay of Bengal from Sri Lanka. When I graduated from college, I wanted to travel—I’d never been more than 500 miles from my home town. I applied to graduate school at Purdue University. Purdue was a shock weather-wise. I grew accustomed to the cold, but the snow lingered in Indiana even after winter. After graduating, I was ready to move to a more temperate climate. I loved the beauty of Seattle (although the rain sometimes gets to me). I’ve now worked at Microsoft for 15 years, mostly developing security products for Windows, Bing, and Azure systems. I like to stay active and since moving to Seattle I’ve been involved in the Rotary and the Junior Chamber of Commerce, taught yoga, and even tended bar at the Jet City Improv. I wanted to learn more about art and was looking for something different to be involved with, which is what drew me to SAM’s docent program. I’ve been a docent since 2007.

What’s the best part of being a docent?

I like having the opportunity to attend special events when I’m leading private tours. The museum is a great place to make friends, too! I’ve enjoyed getting to know many of the museum’s security guards.

What work of art is your favorite to tour?

My artistic taste has been evolving. As a docent I get to tour works that range from old masters to modern art. Modern art wasn’t something that I appreciated when I first became a docent, but the Picasso exhibition was one of the first things I toured—it was my entryway into modern art.

What’s your most memorable touring experience?

I just finished leading public tours of Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series. This was one of my favorite exhibitions. Some weekends visitors were waiting in long lines to see this work!

What advice do you have for people considering applying to the docent program?

You’ll have the chance to get to know all of SAM’s collection, which consists of more than 24,000 objects!

Kelsey Donahue, Museum Educator, School & Educator Programs