All posts in “Seattle Fine Arts Society”

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

Before SAM: Publications from the Seattle Fine Arts Society and the Art Institute of Seattle

The SAM Research Libraries’ latest digital collection is a set of publications from two arts societies that preceded the Seattle Art Museum. The Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library holds a collection of bulletins, calendars, announcements, and annual reports that were published by the Seattle Fine Arts Society between 1920 and 1929, and annual reports from the Art Institute of Seattle from 1929-1932 (1932 is the year the Art Institute transitioned to the Seattle Art Museum). Now, this collection of publications has been digitized and is accessible as a raw collection of searchable PDFs on Shared Shelf Commons and as an online exhibition on the Libraries’ site. Though incomplete, this is the first time this collection of publications will be accessible outside of the physical library at SAM.

From 1920–1929, the Seattle Fine Arts Society was the premier group of art enthusiasts in Seattle. From their publications, we learn about the exhibitions, social events, classes, and “field trips” organized by this small-but-growing group of individuals who wanted nothing more than to foster a dedicated arts presence in the city. Without permanent headquarters, and a reliance on society membership, the Fine Arts Society was informal, inexperienced, but passionate and driven by a love of art and a belief in the power of art to transform a city and its residents. The calendars list events full of Northwest artists and collaboration with art students at the University of Washington, and educational events with the goal of sharing a love of art with citizens who, if only educated properly, might care more about art in the city. The Society wished to be an accessible part of the community, and worked tirelessly to bring art and art-centered events to the public for free or at low cost.

By the end of the decade, the Fine Arts Society announced a name change to the Art Institute of Seattle, but a mere three years later would bring a much more drastic change: that of the transformation from Art Institute to established museum and civic institution. The annual reports during the end of the 1920s and early 1930s reveal the kind of funding, planning, and labor that went into making the museum a reality.

With this collection, you are invited to trace the prehistory of SAM, and see the seeds of the very same values that drive SAM today take root. The members of Seattle Fine Arts Society and the subsequent Art Institute of Seattle sought to nurture and spread their passion for art with one another and with the public, even as Seattle Art Museum today brings art to life.

– Kate Hanske, Intern, Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library

Photos: Natali Wiseman