All posts in “Imogen Cunningham”

Object of the Week: Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture

Though this 1957 photograph is by Imogen Cunningham, its subject is Bay Area artist Ruth Asawa (1926–2013). For decades Asawa has been little known beyond the West Coast, and is all too belatedly finding herself rewritten into the history of American art. Rather than concentrate on photographer Cunningham, this post focuses on Asawa, her diaphanous wire sculptures, and her complex identity as a Japanese-American woman artist.

Cunningham’s photograph is a quiet yet evocative image: Asawa sits with her face occluded by the semi-transparent curvature of one of her hanging wire sculptures. She’s surrounded by her four children, ranging from toddler to six years old. Each, including Asawa, is engaged in and absorbed by his or her own activity: reading, playing, observing, drinking, and making. The iconic photograph has often been read in gendered terms, focusing on Asawa’s demonstrated domesticity, femininity, and passivity. Like too many women artists, Asawa has been positioned primarily as a wife and mother—identities that override her identity as an artist, which can and should include these other identities. As curator Helen Molesworth discusses in her recent paper delivered last month at the Smithsonian, “Ruth Asawa: ‘San Francisco Housewife and Mother’,” this image has additional import, positioning art making as a social activity, and Asawa, therefore, as a citizen above all else.

As a child, Asawa would draw and make art while in a World War II internment camp with her Japanese parents. She was not an outside or self-taught artist though, for she attended Black Mountain College and studied for three years and two summers (1946–49) with Josef Albers, Merce Cunningham, and Buckminster Fuller, among others. For Asawa, “Black Mountain gave you the right to do anything you wanted to do. And then you put a label on it afterwards. I think that’s the nice thing about what Black Mountain did for its students. It was like they gave you permission to do anything you wanted to do. And then if it didn’t fit they’d make a category for you. But I think Black Mountain helped make something with weaving and with printmaking, and it gave people the freedom to make something of each category.”¹

Black Mountain was a transformative place and time for Asawa, creatively as well as socially: incorporated into Black Mountain’s utopian environment was an attitude that expanded what art can do for society. Therefore, to be an artist is to be a citizen—engaging actively in the world and making choices alongside others.² Though Cunningham’s photograph captures Asawa in her home, surrounded by her four (of six) children, central to the visual narrative is her artwork, which is inextricable from her role as an artist, wife, mother, and citizen.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture, 1957, Imogen Cunningham, Gelatin silver print, 10 3/8 x 10 3/8 in. (26.4 x 26.4 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 89.43
¹Ruth Asawa, “Oral history interview with Ruth Asawa and Albert Lanier, 2002 June 21-July 5,” interview by Mark Johnson and Paul Karlstrom, Archives of American Art, https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-ruth-asawa-and-albert-lanier-12222#transcript.
²Helen Molesworth, “Ruth Asawa: ‘San Francisco Housewife and Mother’,” filmed September 12, 2018 at Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., video, 1:07:05, https://americanart.si.edu/videos/clarice-smith-distinguished-lecture-series-scholar-helen-molesworth-154476.
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Object of the Week: Shredded Wheat Factory with Ford

Photographer Imogen Cunningham (American, 1883–1976) is best known for her portraits, nudes, and photographic examinations of plants. So how does this photograph of a cereal factory fit in?

Born in Oregon in 1883, Cunningham moved with her parents to a communal farm in Port Angeles, Washington as a very young girl. In 1889, the family moved to Seattle creating their homestead in a forest atop Queen Anne Hill. She studied at the University of Washington, receiving a degree in chemistry. Her thesis was titled, “The Scientific Development of Photography,” and she had spent the latter half of her senior year studying the work and methods of Edward S. Curtis. Upon graduation, she was determined to make platinum prints (a photographic printing process using the metal, platinum) and secured a position working in Edward Curtis’s studio from 1907-1909. Although working in his studio, she rarely had contact with Curtis who was often away working on his monumental work, The North American Indian.[1] There she learned not only platinum printing, but also how to spot negatives, create studio portraiture, and run a studio.[2]

After a trip to Europe where she studied with Robert Luther, a renowned photochemist at the Technische Hochschule in Dresden, she returned to Seattle, established her own studio, and began to exhibit and become involved in the Seattle and national art scenes. She was involved with the Society of Seattle Artists, the Pictorial Photographers of America, and, importantly, the Seattle Fine Arts Society.[3] During her time with the Seattle Fine Arts Society, she met and married her artist husband, Roi Partridge, in 1915. A few years later the family (they now had three sons) moved to San Francisco, and then, in 1920, Partridge accepted a position at Mills College and the family moved to Oakland.

Before 1920, Cunningham was firmly part of the Pictorialist movement which had “succeeded in placing photography within the realm of art” and whose work was often associated with beauty and soft focus. The photographs of her husband at Mount Rainier are examples of her working in this style. However, by the late 1920s, Cunningham’s artistic photography had diverged completely from her soft-focus Pictorialist work, and was beginning to express a more fully formed Modernist vision, reducing nature and structures to their simplest shapes and forms.[4] It is during this period and into the 1930s that she becomes associated with the Precisionists, a group who were responding to the radical, industrial changes in the country and turning to machine forms and industrial landscapes as visual resources for their work.[5]

In 1928, living in Oakland, she photographed the Shredded Wheat Factory located at 14th and Union Streets. And, although the factory had been built more than a decade before Precisionism declared beauty in industrial forms, the surrounding community was already thinking about its modern, appealing look:

“Practically no complaint has been heard from nearby property-owners over the location of the million-dollar Oakland factory of the Shredded Wheat Co. on land bounded by Twelfth, Fourteenth, Poplar and Union Streets, in a strictly residential district. It is not expected that the proposed artistic buildings, surrounded by beautiful grounds will have a deteriorating effect on the value of residence holdings.”[6]

The beauty of the industrial landscape is captured in the sleek lines of the factory’s geometric towers and the shadows that extend from known and unknown subjects. And, by including an electrical/telephone poll and a Ford automobile, Cunningham reinforces other aspects of modern life. Other photographs of the site exist in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Imogen Cunningham Trust (here, here, and here). However, SAM’s Shredded Wheat Factory with Ford is unique in that it’s the only one in the Shredded Wheat Factory series where Cunningham includes a natural object—a tree—front and center within the composition.

In Celina Lunsford’s opening essay for the catalogue to the Imogen Cunningham exhibition at the Fundación Mapfre (Madrid) and Kulturhuset Stockholm, she recognizes: “Imogen Cunningham was a true artist: throughout her long life she embraced the diverse developments of photography and the liveliness of the changing time in which she lived.”[7] Shredded Wheat Factory with Ford, a work of Precisionism, along with Cunningham’s other photographs of various pictorial styles in SAM’s collection, clearly demonstrates her wide range, a lifetime commitment to developing her work, and importance as a pioneering American woman photographer from the West Coast.

– Traci Timmons, SAM Librarian

[1] Richard Lorenz, “A Life in Photography,” in Amy Rule, ed., Imogen Cunningham: Selected Texts and Bibliography (Oxford, UK: Clio Press Ltd., 1992) 1-3.
[2] Celina Lunsford, “Imogen Cunningham: Modernist and Visionary,” in Celina Lundsford et al., Imogen Cunningham (Madrid: Fundación Mapfre, 2012), 12.
[3] Lorenz, 3-5. The Seattle Fine Arts Society ultimately became the Seattle Art Museum.
[4] Lunsford, 30.
[5] Karen Tsujimoto, Images of America: Precisionist Painting and Modern Photography (San Francisco; Seattle: SFMOMA; University of Washington Press, 1982), 86.
[6] “Factory Invades a Residence Section” in The Oakland Tribune, June 7, 1914.
[7] Lunsford, 11.
Image: Shredded Wheat Factory with Ford, before 1929, Imogen Cunningham, gelatin silver print, 9 1/2 x 7 1/2 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 88.9 © (before 1929), 2009 Imogen Cunningham Trust
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SAMart: Ruth Asawa, in memoriam

A key element in Imogen Cunningham’s photography practice was interaction with fellow artists. This began during her years in Edward Curtis’s Seattle portrait studio, and endured through her many decades of work.

After leaving Seattle, Cunningham lived and worked in San Francisco, where she forged a close friendship with American sculptor Ruth Asawa. Asawa’s woven, hanging sculptures figure prominently in Cunningham’s photographs from the 1950s, recurring motifs that are now associated nearly as closely with Cunningham as they are with Asawa.

In Memoriam: Ruth Asawa, 1926-2013

Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture, 1957, Imogen Cunningham (American, 1883-1976), gelatin silver print, 10 3/8 x 10 3/8 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 89.43, © (1957), 2009 Imogen Cunningham Trust. Not currently on view, but accessible at www.seattleartmuseum.org/emuseum.
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SAMart: A Cunningham way of looking at the world

Imogen Cunningham is an artist who is revered for radically altering the traditional still life. Like fellow artists Georgia O’Keeffe, Margaret Bourke-White, Ella McBride, and Lola Alvarez Bravo, Cunningham conceived of and portrayed objects in ways that defied conventional picture making. These artists brought plants and constructions alike up close, reducing them to abstract shapes and patterns. Having liberated the portrayal of things from the mundane act of description, they asserted the role of the artist in selecting forms for visual impact, in altering the viewer’s perception, and transforming familiar objects into mysterious works of art.

Cunningham’s style changed throughout her career—her early pictorialist work developed into a mature, modernist aesthetic. Inspired by surrealism, she enjoyed manipulating images both in the camera and the darkroom. The world was a feast for her eyes, and Cunningham captured this vision with curiosity and enduring vitality that continues to resonate today.

Mendocino Motif, 1965, Imogen Cunningham (American, 1883-1976), gelatin silver print, 11 1/2 x 9 1/2 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 89.66, © (1965), 2009 Imogen Cunningham Trust. Currently on view in the Modern American art galleries, third floor, SAM downtown, as part of Elles: SAM.
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