Happy Mother’s Day! Don’t wait until the last minute to buy all of the moms and moms-to-be in your life a gift. Surprise them with a something meaningful and locally made from SAM Shop! At SAM Shop, you’ll find uncommon objects, contemporary design for your home, jewelry by local artists, and more. Read below for five gift ideas that you can buy in store or online today. Plus, stop by the shop at our downtown location or at the Seattle Asian Art Museum this Mother’s Day weekend to get a free copy of Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstract Variationswith any purchase. Can’t make it to the shop in person? Browse our digital catalogue for even more locally made and crafted gifts and select priority shipping or curbside pickup to make sure your items are delivered in time for Mother’s Day. Questions? Call the shop during business hours at 206.654.3120. As always, SAM members receive 10% on all online and in store purchases.
Ocean Sole Animal Sculptures $18–$124 Available In Store Only
Rhinos, giraffes, lions, turtles, and more—your mom will love one of these friendly animals made from washed up flip flops retrieved from the beaches of waterways in Kenya. With their animal-inspired creations, Ocean Sole recycles over one ton of styrofoam per month and saves over five hundred trees per year. Plus, 10–15% of all profits go to organizing beach cleanups, providing vocational and educational programming, and stepping up conservation efforts in Kenya. Discover the full collection of animal friends and learn more about how your Ocean Sole purchase gives back to low-income communities in Kenya in store at SAM Shop.
Artistic Creations by Marita Dingus $60–$400 Available In Store Only
“I consider myself an African-American Feminist and environmental artist. My approach to producing art is environmentally and politically infused: neither waste humanity nor the gifts of nature.” – Marita Dingus
An in-store exclusive, Seattle-born artist Marita Dingus is a mixed-media sculptor who works primarily with discarded materials to create beautiful and one-of-a-kind artistic creations. Drawing inspiration from the African Diaspora, the discarded materials she uses represent how people of African descent were used and discarded as slaves but still managed to repurpose themselves and thrive in our hostile world. Choose from a diverse selection of handmade earrings and necklaces, or take a trip to SAM Gallery and inquire about purchasing one of her artworks for sale.
Portland artisan Beth Grimsrud loves to sew and reconfigure cast-off materials into new forms. In 2003, she began using upcycled sweaters to make mittens, decorated with original appliqué designs. A one-woman operation, she puts her heart into each and every stitch. Each plush pocket sprite is carefully considered and individually designed, making each one-of-a-kind. Buy them online for $65 to get a set of three small sprites with a matching purse or visit in store at our downtown location to buy individual small and large sprites.
“I was raised in a way of life based on hunting, fishing, feasting, singing, dancing and visual arts. Art has always been communicated as an expression of spirit to the connections to people and the ways of life.” – Paul Windsor
After your visit to Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water at SAM, surprise your mom with a locally printed orca 100% cotton tote bag by Haisla, Heiltsuk artist Paul Windsor. Playing off the themes explored in Our Blue Planet, help your loved ones cut down on their plastic use while supporting the work of a local Indigenous artist.
Imogen Cunningham often took photographs of unsuspecting strangers on the street. Uncomfortable with confrontation, she found beauty in capturing daily public life without interference. At times, she used windows, spun around, or bent over and pretended to be searching for something in her purse to distract from the sound of her camera’s click. She called these surreptitious photographs “stolen pictures.”
Double Image, Sutter St. and Fillmore marks a stark contrast from Cunningham’s typical street photographs. In this image, her subject—a Black woman dressed in a long coat, stockings, and heels—has spotted Cunningham. Waiting for the bus, her right eyebrow is raised as she looks directly into the camera.
The woman’s stare is intensified as the image is cleverly reflected off of a storefront window, dividing the composition down the center, and creating a “doubled” illusion. Cunningham was fascinated with this effect and often used mirrors or glass to create this perspective.
In this audio recording produced by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Chris Johnson, chair of the photography department at the California College of the Arts, discusses Cunningham’s “stolen pictures” and the changing dynamic shared between Cunningham and her subject after being spotted. Tune in to all 13 recordings as part of the free smartphone tour of Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective when you visit the exhibition at our downtown location through February 6.
Double Image, Sutter St. and Fillmore, ca. 1940
Narrator: Taken in Cunningham’s San Francisco neighborhood, this photograph captures two figures waiting for a bus. On the right, a man wearing a hat holds a paper bag. In the center, a woman stands dressed in a winter coat with her purse at her feet.
Chris Johnson: She’s giving Imogen a very strong direct gaze and there’s nothing reticent about that gaze and I think Imogen liked that because she was a strong outspoken woman herself.
Narrator: The image is doubled in the reflection of the storefront window on the left. Cunningham was fascinated with this effect, something she first encountered in the compositions of eighteenth-century Japanese prints. She often used mirrors or glass to create this perspective. The doubling effect places the woman in the center of the image and creates a dynamic between individuals, including the photographer.
Chris Johnson: The implied relationship between the photographer and the woman who’s giving her that gaze… between the black woman and the white man who is presumably ignoring both of them,Imogen and this black woman are in their own world. The white man is in his other world. He has his back turned to us. So Imogen is affirming her allegiance to this black [woman] and I really think the meaning of the image resides there.
Narrator: These “stolen pictures”, as Cunningham called her street scenes, were sometimes taken without the subject’s knowledge and represented a stylistic departure for her. But in this case, the central figure directly confronts Cunningham, and us.
Chris Johnson: Isn’t this a clear example of photographic seeing, you know, the way that the camera sees differently than the way eyeballs see?
“Imogen was always after capturing a moment in time. It wasn’t a perfect moment—it was just a moment that spoke to her.”
– Meg Partridge
Hear Meg Partridge, Imogen Cunningham’s granddaughter and Director of the Imogen Cunningham Trust, discuss one of her favorite Cunningham photographs, Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture. Capturing Asawa at work in her studio with her young children beside her, the photograph, explains Partridge, illustrates the close relationship Cunningham shared with the Asawa family and marks a contrast from many of the major themes Cunningham explored throughout her career.
Accompanying this image in the exhibition are seven sculptures created by Ruth Asawa herself. On view for the first time in Seattle and exclusive to this venue, the works demonstrate the inextricable link between these two artists as Cunningham’s photos of Asawa’s sculptures gained widespread attention for the artistic pursuits of both women.
Hands play a prominent role in the work of Imogen Cunningham. Many of her most recognizable photographs focus on the movement of hands and their connection to the body. In Hand Weaving with Hand, the shadow of a hand with spread fingers protrudes from the lower left side of the image. Although the majority of the photograph is composed of a thin, rumpled fabric with vertical stripes, it is the ambiguity of this shadowed hand which captures the viewer’s attention.
Tune in to this audio recording to hear nonbinary Black transfem choreographer and dancer Randy Ford explore Cunningham’s use of hands throughout her work and relate it to her own dance production, Queen Street. Hear this and other audio recordings as part of the free smartphone tour of Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospectivewhen you visit the Seattle Art Museum.
Hand Weaving with Hand, 1945
Narrator: While the right side of this photograph is dark, filled with billowing folds of a draped cloth, the left portion is backlit, and the fabric hangs flat. Behind the weaving, a light silhouettes a hand with fingers splayed. This hand is what first caught the eye of Seattle native Randy Ford, a dancer and choreographer.
Randy Ford: So I just think the hands are very interesting. You know, we create a lot of things with our hands. You know, we draw. We open doors. We close doors. We celebrate with our hands. They just play a really huge part in our lives and choreograph what we do every day. I don’t think of dance as just something that you do with your legs and your body and your torso. You know you can do a lot of expressing with just your hands, which is probably just why I again gravitated toward this shadow of a hand on this masterpiece of a sheet. The hands really kind of direct us a lot of places.
Narrator: In her portraits, Cunningham often zeroed in on hands—tickling the keys of a piano, delicately playing a violin, or shaping the rim of a clay pot. This singular, open palm appears to almost clap the suspended weaving. Is this the hand that made it? Is it presenting the cloth proudly… lovingly? As with so many of Cunningham’s photographs, the layering—in this case of fabric, lighting, and shadow—and ambiguity allow for multiple interpretations. Randy Ford, who recently told her own complex transition story in her dance production, Queen Street, can relate.
Randy Ford: I love making work that, is definitely visually appealing, but I also want people to realize what they’re looking at or maybe where their feelings are coming from. There’s definitely just a lot of depth within this simple-looking image and that’s why I chose it. It was very simple but still complex. It had like a little bit of a story. It invoked something about creation for me as a choreographer and director and an artist myself. I always kind of just wonder what are the beginnings of things? You know, things aren’t just the way they are just because they appear to us.
– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator
Photo: Hand Weaving with Hand, Imogen Cunningham, 1945. Gelatin silver print, Image: 13 1/4 x 9 1/2 in. Collection of The Imogen Cunningham Trust.
With photography becoming a more common medium than ever before, what can we learn from 20th century photographers like Imogen Cunningham’s whose careers were built on the use of film cameras? In partnership with South End Stories and Mr Santos Creations, this video follows three students from Baile Dior Studios—Yizjuani Watson, Andre Yancey, and Neveah Thompson—as they explore SAM’s ongoing special exhibition, Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective, draw personal connections, and respond through dance. See Cunningham’s works on view at our downtown location through February 6, 2022!
Terrence Jeffrey Santos Regional Emmy Awardee for Cinematography (2016), The Otherside Documentary Design Director of Video Production, UW Athletics Marketing Department (2010-2015) @filipinxfoodseattle @musangtinos @anaktoykompany @loveandpicnics
Donte Felder is the founder and Executive Director at South End Stories where they focus on Trauma-Informed Arts Practice: Healing Through History and Creativity. Donte is a former SPS educator and has been the recipient of WEA’s Humanitarian Award as well as Washington’s Golden Apple Award. Donte comes from a family of seasoned educators and community leaders focused on pursuing social justice by developing anti-racist and anti-oppression practices in schools and communities. More information about Donte and South End Stories can be found at: https://www.southendstories-artsed.com/.
TiQuida “TQ” Spellman has been involved in dance and performing arts for over 20 years. The founder of Baile Dior Studios (Dance Golden Studios), the Pacific Northwest’s first dance studio to specialize in J-sette Majorette dance and focused on connecting youth to the benefits of attending historically Black colleges and universities. A love of performing arts, dance, and a degree in Educational Studies guides TiQuida’s mission to provide youth with self-esteem and courage to showcase their talents, creativity, and imagination. TiQuida works as an Arts Education Consultant and teaches a host of dance classes for youth and adults.
What’s poppin’ y’all, the name is Andre, but I prefer to go by Drizzy Dre. I’m 21 years old, born and raised in Kent, WA. You’ll either catch me laughing, or attempting to make someone else do so. I love to dance and teach, but my passion is for Majorette.
Hi my name is Yizjuani Watson and I am 14 years old. I attend Renton High School. My favorite color is purple. I enjoy art because it gives you another vision of life. The main part of art I enjoy is physical art because it helps you physically express yourself. The type of physical art I do is dance. Dance is my passion, I have danced for 7 years. The reason I dance is because it is a physical art that lets me know that being unique and out of the ordinary is okay.
Hey y’all! I’m 19 yrs old and I was born and raised in Seattle, WA. My name is Neveah, but everybody calls me Veah. My favorite thing to do is to create choreography in the studio with my peers.
In June 1920, Imogen Cunningham’s husband, Roi Partridge, accepted a teaching position in the art department at Mills College, a private liberal arts school for women in Oakland, California. With their three young sons, Cunningham and Partridge moved from San Francisco to an old house situated near campus which initially had neither plumbing nor electricity.
While in Oakland, Cunningham established herself as a well-educated woman and progressive role model in the community. She offered Mills College students uncensored advice about their professional aspirations and her home came to be recognized as a safe haven for private discussions about sexuality and family planning.
One important stream of income for Cunningham at this time was photographing Mills College student portraits, dance performances, and campus architecture. Her photograph, Mills College Amphitheater (ca. 1928), captures the curved concrete design of the college’s outdoor auditorium. The image, likely inspired by the work of American photographer Paul Strand, plays with abstract geometric forms created by sunlight and shadows.
In this audio recording from the free smartphone tour of Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospectiveat the Seattle Art Museum, nonbinary black transfem choreographer and dancer Randy Ford discusses the significance of this image within Cunningham’s larger body of work. She points out Cunningham’s decision to forgo photographing the amphitheater’s stage, opting instead to play with the shadows and sunlight of the empty audience.
Mills College Amphitheater, ca. 1928
Randy Ford: My name is Randy Ford. I use she/her and goddess as pronouns, and I’m a nonbinary Black transfem, just out here trying to live and make art that’s going to change the world.
Narrator: Imogen Cunningham’s photo of an outdoor amphitheater reminded Randy, a choreographer and dancer, of the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in Seattle where she staged her first full-length performance, Queen Street.
Randy Ford: I’m also a Greek drama nerd, and so this just looks like a Greek amphitheater like back in the day. It looks like a coliseum.
Narrator: The photograph was actually taken at Mills College, a women’s liberal arts college in Oakland, California, where Cunningham’s husband taught. She often photographed architectural elements on campus, including the amphitheater. There is no stage in Cunningham’s abstract interpretation. Instead, we see only curved concrete rows and rectangular steps highlighted by sunlight and shadows.
Randy Ford: Cunningham was very much just like, yeah, you know, the audience is the show. It’s not always about what’s on stage. It’s kind of like what’s the environment? What’s the tone? What time of day is it? Was this right before the performance? Was this an empty show where no one showed up? Audience plays a huge role in live performance. As a live performer, I live for an interactive audience. Just let me know you’re here. Let me know you feel me because, performers are also humans.
– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator
Photo: Mills College Amphitheatre, Imogen Cunningham, ca. 1928, Gelatin silver print, Image: 8 1/8 x 12 1/4 in, Collection of Gary B. Sokol.
“‘Chronology is something that is imposed onto history,’ said Theresa Papanikolas, curator of American art at the Seattle Art Museum. ‘It gets to be a little deterministic.’ Papanikolas said that viewers can expect a very different kind of gallery experience. She is particularly excited for Red Star’s installation, which is still being completed but will ‘conjure ideas of portraiture, landscape, and Seattle’ while also ‘literally bringing Indigenous voices into the gallery.’”
Gemma Alexander for the Seattle Times on “Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer,” playwright Cheryl L. West’s one-woman show now playing at Seattle Rep.
“I believe stories come along to show you something. This one encouraged me on my courage journey. Who would have known that it would happen during a time when we were all really looking for hope, when we were looking for that sort of resilience of spirit?” asks West. “She was such an inspiring woman. So the show asks the question, ‘What can we do at this point?’”
In 1950, Imogen Cunningham’s son Randal introduced her to Japanese-American artist Ruth Asawa. Despite their 43-year age difference—Asawa was 24 and Cunningham was 67 at the time—the two artists quickly developed an unbreakable bond.
“Asawa and Cunningham placed a priority on relationships and refused to choose between the life of family and their art,” explained art historian and curator Daniel Cornell of their friendship. “They shared a similar fate as the critics who labeled their work feminine as a way to suggest its inherent inferiority to the work of male artists.”1
Over the next two decades, Cunningham and Asawa’s careers regularly intertwined. For the cover of the June 1952 issue of Arts & Architecture magazine, Cunningham photographed a few of Asawa’s wire sculptures, developed four individual prints, and mounted them on a single board. In 1964, Aperture magazine used a photograph Cunningham had taken of another of Asawa’s sculptures on the cover of its winter issue.
In a drafted letter recommending Asawa for a Guggenheim Foundation grant, Cunningham wrote of her friend: “However remote and obscure Ruth Asawa’s project may seem to most of us, I have very strong reasons to believe that she can achieve a real improvement in building ornament by carrying it out… To me, she is what I call an unfailingly creative person and there are very few of them.”2
Listen to this audio recording to discover the backstory of one particular photograph Cunningham took of Asawa and her family in 1957. Produced by the Seattle Art Museum, this recording includes a discussion by Japanese and Chinese Canadian photographer Kayla Isomura on the significance of Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture and its influence in her own work. Learn more about this image from SAM’s personal collection and Ruth Asawa’s legacy here, then see it on view alongside Ruth Asawa’s sculptures now in Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective at SAM through February 6.
Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture, 1957
Narrator: Photographer Kayla Isomura.
Kayla Isomura: I really enjoyed this image actually because of how candid and sort of natural it is, and it’s so every day in a way, but there’s also this interesting juxtaposition of just the art that takes up so much of the space. I’m not even sure if I should be looking at the sculpture or the kids, but I think just all of that put together, for me it just seems very intriguing as an image.
Narrator: Cunningham often photographed Asawa’s sculptures, but this image incorporates the domestic studio. Beneath the central sculpture sits a baby drinking from a bottle and a girl with a stick. Partially hidden by the suspended work, a third child watches as his mother pulls wire from a spool to begin another looped sculpture. A fourth child crouches on top of a low table.
Kayla Isomura: It doesn’t feel like the family or the kids are necessarily aware that the camera is there. They’re just kind of doing their own thing.
Narrator: Like her sculptures, in which open weaving reveals forms inside the forms, multiple facets of Asawa’s life are on view. You can see several of Asawa’s sculptures in this gallery. Asawa, her parents, and five siblings were among approximately 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent incarcerated during World War II. In her work, The Suitcase Project, Kayla, a fourth-generation Japanese and Chinese Canadian, asked Japanese Americans and Canadians what they would pack if they were forced into an internment camp. The process raised questions about the complex relationships among artist, subject, and identity.
Kayla Isomura: Something that in recent years that I’ve really come to consider is this sort of question of who is allowed to do this work. Do you have that connection, or do you feel this as part of your identity if this is what you want to do? Or can you work with somebody who has a closer connection if you do not?So is it enough that the subjects in their work, are maybe being represented? Or, does it matter equally as much that the person behind the work, you know, has that direct connection, to whatever it is that they’re documenting? And I think those are the questions that I have.
“Folding, wrapping, layering, and weaving are part of some of life’s most important events in Japan: birth, marriage and death. At such significant times in one’s life, the care taken to fold, wrap and layer shows respect and consideration. This carefulness, and astounding craftsmanship, is on full display at the exhibition.”
“This is so, so, so important for giving voice to people who might not have a voice in our society,” [Shunpike Executive Director Line] Sandsmark said. “I’ve been in many situations where I’ve been able to see how impactful the arts are in really supporting a healthy society. It’s a wonderful way to make the space available and accessible to people, to artists, who have lost so much space, who have been displaced because of gentrification, to focus on and create more opportunity for those who have had less opportunity in the past.”
The lede from Artnet’s Sarah Cascone: “A year ago, before the smoke had fully cleared after a group of insurrectionists stormed the Capitol building, curators and historians were already grappling with the complicated question of how best to preserve the historical record.” Read the rest about the rapid-response collecting for January 6 artifacts.
“The 717-gigapixel photo allows viewers to zoom in on Captain Frans Banninck Cocq and see how the 17th-century master put the tiniest of white dots in his eyes to give life to the painting’s main character. It also shows the minute cracks in his pupils, brought on by the passage of time.”
In Self-Portrait with Grandchildren in Funhouse, Imogen Cunningham captures a moment of joy with two of her young grandchildren, Joan and Loren, as they experiment with the effects of a warped mirror. Despite the playful nature of the image, Cunningham remains stoic in photographing herself. Her face points down as she looks into the viewfinder of her black and silver-lined rectangular camera which she steadies with both hands. She is small in comparison to her grandchildren, whose elongated arms stretch the entirety of the image, but identifiable by her white hair, gemmed cap, and metallic glasses.
Tune in to this audio recording to hear Imogen Cunningham’s granddaughter, Meg Partridge, discuss Cunningham’s relationship with her grandchildren. Produced by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Partridge describes how this image came together and emphasizes Cunningham’s signature artistic style. Listen to this and other audio recordings as part of the free smartphone tour of Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospectivewhen you visit the exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum through February 6, 2022.
Self-Portrait with Grandchildren in Funhouse, 1955
Narrator: An outing with two of her granddaughters and a fun house mirror provided Imogen Cunningham with an irresistible subject. Meg Partridge, granddaughter of Imogen Cunningham.
Meg Partridge: Imogen was really being very playful as she always was with photography.
Narrator: Partridge was only two when this photograph was taken, and too young to tag along. Instead, we see her older sister Joan, in the middle with both hands raised, and her cousin Loren, on the right with a hyper-elongated arm.
Meg Partridge: Imogen did not spend a lot of time taking grandchildren places and doing grandmotherly-like things. She enjoyed children once they became, as I would say, of interest to her. They could be articulate. They could have opinions. They could share thoughts.
Narrator: Cunningham worked while raising her three sons, and continued to do so once their children came along.
Meg Partridge: Looking at her work, you can see some of the same subjects coming in again and again. So we see many photographs of Imogen looking into her camera and photographing herself in a reflection or often in a shadow as well.But another is a very sort of surrealistic view that she took with her camera.
Narrator: Unlike the distorted versions of her granddaughters, her reflection in the self-portrait remains relatively true. We get just a glimpse of her grey hair beneath an embroidered cap and one-half of her eyeglasses, as her hands adjust the dials on her ever-present rolleiflex camera.
Meg Partridge: She was able to capture great shots that were unexpected because she had a camera around her neck and she just always wore it.
Around 1901, Imogen Cunningham purchased her first camera. Aware of his daughter’s interest in photography, Cunningham’s father, Isaac Burns Cunningham, built her a darkroom in a woodshed on their property in Seattle. With her photography career in full bloom, Cunningham returned to the site of the original darkroom more than 30 years later to photograph her first and biggest supporter, her father.
Seated on a log in front of split wood, Cunningham intimately captures her aging father. In this recording produced by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Meg Partridge, the granddaughter of Imogen Cunningham, reflects on Cunningham’s loving relationship with her father and reveals the supportive role he played throughout her career. Listen to this and other audio recordings when you visit Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospectiveat the Seattle Art Museum.
My Father at Ninety, 1936
Meg Partridge: In all the photographs Imogen took of her father, you can just see that relationship between the two. You experienced that relationship a bit when you look into the eyes of Isaac Burns in this photograph.
Narrator: Cunningham had a host of ways for getting her subjects to relax and reveal a bit of themselves. She’d chat them up, catch them off guard, or mesmerize them with her own fluid, busy movement, all in order to, as she once said, “gain an understanding at short notice and at close range.” But with this sitter, those techniques weren’t necessary. Her father’s guard was never up.
Meg Partridge: Imogen was very close to her father. I think there was a real similar interest in their curiosity and their intellect and their pursuit of information.
Narrator: Isaac Burns Cunningham was a freethinker. His formal education was interrupted by the Civil War, yet he was a voracious reader and a student of all religions. He supported his large family with a wood and coal supply business. In his daughter, named for the Shakespearian character he found most noble, he nurtured a love of nature and art, buying her first set of watercolors and arranging painting lessons on weekends and summers.
Meg Partridge: This is from a very low-income, frugal family that didn’t have a lot of extra money to spare. Isaac Burns also made her a darkroom in his woodshed. So that’s how Imogen got started actually processing her own work as a teenager in Seattle.
Narrator: Like her father, Imogen Cunningham lived into her nineties. When asked in an interview two months before her death at age ninety-three which one of her photographs was her favorite, she replied, “The one I’m going to take tomorrow.”
In this soft-focused black and white photograph, a woman is visible from the waist-up. She sits in three-quarter profile and wears a loose, white robe which emphasizes her pale skin. This woman, who glows in contrast to the dark, hazy background which surrounds her, is miniaturist painter Clare Shepard.
Imogen Cunningham photographed her friend, Shepard, at the peak of the pictorialist movement. This movement saw photographers approach cameras as a tool—similar to a paintbrush—that made an artistic statement. Rather than capturing the real, pictorialism emphasized the beauty of a subject and an image’s composition.
In this audio recording produced by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Chris Johnson, chair of the photography department at the California College of the Arts, considers the pictorialist approach Cunningham took in creating The Dream (Nei-san-Koburi)and the romantic feelings it relays. Listen to this and the rest of the audio tourwhen you visit Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective at our downtown location as part of the exhibition’s free smartphone tour.
The Dream(Nei-san-Koburi), circa 1910
Chris Johnson: It’s a kind of a classic, romantic, pictorialist image of a young beautiful woman.
Narrator: Chris Johnson, chair of the photography department at the California College of the Arts.
Chris Johnson: You can see that Imogen is very sensitive to the falling of light and shadow over this young woman.
Narrator: The atmosphere around her, seems to glow. Diffused light falls on her headscarf and the folds of her painter’s smock. Her eyes are half closed, as if in a trance. The close framing of the portrait keeps the background abstract. The subject is Clare Shepard, a friend and miniaturist painter.
Chris Johnson: Imogen, in her heart of hearts, was really a romantic and a romantic takes her feelings very seriously so her feelings as she was projecting them on to this young woman are pretty clear.
Narrator: The otherworldly portrait hints at Shepard’s rumored abilities as a clairvoyant. The image exemplifies pictorialism, an approach that prioritized beauty and expressiveness, composition and atmospheric effects. The movement rejected the realistic, documentary nature of photography and instead looked to painters as artistic influences.
Chris Johnson: One of the ideas behind the pictorialists was that you would use the soft-focus technique as a trope to indicate dreamy, romantic, ethereal, spiritual qualities. She’s catching this moment when Claire is lost within thought and it intends to try to draw us into the mood space that she’s occupying using pictorialist soft-focus as a formal strategy.
Narrator: When Cunningham took this portrait around 1910, Pictorialism was at its peak. Cunningham had recently opened her own studio in Seattle after studying photographic chemistry in Germany. The photograph marked a specific, early period in her career.
Chris Johnson: All of her photography subsequent to this phase is in marked contrast to the visual effects of this image.
“But [Cascadia Art Museum curator David F.] Martin…said he’s had issues getting major museums to accept Nomura’s work, always getting the same response: that the paintings would better fit in a Japanese historical museum. This bothers Martin, who views Nomura as an American artist. ‘He was integrated in the art society here,” he says. “Why should I separate him by his ethnicity?’”
“Although each shop shares its sensibility—and its profits—with the larger institution it is attached to, many of the smaller and funkier museum shops stuff their shelves with eccentric trinkets that echo the museum’s aesthetic more in spirit than in substance.”
While teaching at the California School of Fine Arts in 1957, Imogen Cunningham overheard her friend and co-worker Dorothea Lange give her students an assignment: photograph something you use every 24 hours. Inspired by the simple prompt, Cunningham returned to class the next week with a new photograph she had taken titled The Unmade Bed.
Listen to an interpretive analysis of the work from Cunningham’s close friend and collaborator Judy Dater. From the perfectly rumpled sheets to the spread out piles of bobby pins, Dater discusses how this image acts as a self-portrait of the artist and explains the reason why Cunningham often gifted a print of this image to newlyweds.
This audio recording is part of the free smartphone tour of Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospectiveat the Seattle Art Museum. Tune in to all 13 recordings when you visit the exhibition at our downtown location.
The Unmade Bed, 1957
Narrator: A rumpled sheet and blanket are thrown back to reveal a pile of hairpins and another of bobby pins. Subtle gradations vary from the crisp white sheets exposed by sunlight, to the grey wool blanket with a shimmery trim, to the completely dark background.
Judy Dater: I can’t look at that photograph and not think of it as a self-portrait, a very personal self-portrait.
Narrator: In 1957, Dorothea Lange, best known for documenting the Great Depression, was teaching at the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute. Cunningham was also teaching there when she heard her friend and fellow photographer give her students an intriguing assignment.
Judy Dater: And the assignment that, apparently, that Dorothea Lange, gave the class that day was to go home and photograph something you use every twenty-four hours. And so Imogen went home and made that particular photograph. And then when she came back the following week, she brought that in as her example.
Narrator: Did she intend it as a self-portrait? After all, those are her hair pins. Do they signify the letting down of one’s hair or one’s guard? Cunningham never said as much, but she did ascribe one message to the image.
Judy Dater: She sometimes would give that photograph to people as a wedding present so that the husband would know that the wife was going to be busy, that she had things to do, and not to expect the bed to always be made.
Narrator: Cunningham may have deliberately arranged the sheets and hairpins, or perhaps she happened upon the unmade bed exactly as she left it. For photographer Judy Dater, that’s irrelevant.
Judy Dater: She saw it and she was at the right angle at the right moment, and she knew what to do with it.
“As a woman artist on the cutting edge of her field, Cunningham’s story is an important one to tell,” says Carrie Dedon, SAM’s Assistant Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art. “She undertook artistic collaborations with Ruth Asawa and Martha Graham, and I hope viewers leave not only with an understanding of Cunningham’s innovation and experimentation, but also her collaborative and charismatic spirit.”
“‘There’s so much evidence that she embodies the ethos of a Seattleite—being adventurous, being a free thinker and really embracing nature. And being such a gutsy woman so early on,’ says Elizabeth Brown, an expert in the history of photography, UW lecturer, and former chief curator of the Henry Art Gallery.”
“‘Contributing to the rise and the presence of African American choreographers, to me that is the big legacy. Dani worked tirelessly. I don’t know what’s going to happen with all of that now that dani’s not here,’ said Donald Byrd, artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater.”
“As a Black artist, I want that freedom and liberty for people to experience my painting on their own terms, with or without having a built-in, overly structured narrative of the Black plight attached to it.”
For nearly a decade of her 70-year career, Imogen Cunningham focused on capturing the beauty of botanicals. Having studied chemistry and worked in the botany department at the University of Washington, she wrote her thesis in 1907 on the chemical process of photography while employing a variety of plants as her subjects.
Magnolia Blossom is perhaps Cunningham’s most well-known botanical image. The close-cropped photograph of the flower reveals the cone of stamens and pistils hiding between the petals. Taken as a whole, the image represents a transfixing study of light and shadows within the history of black and white photography.
In this audio recording produced by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Meg Partridge, the granddaughter of Imogen Cunningham, discusses the significance of this photograph within Cunningham’s larger body of work and provides insight on the photographer’s fascination with botanicals. Tune in to this and twelve other recordings as part of the free smartphone tour of Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospectivewhen you visit the Seattle Art Museum.
Magnolia Blossom, 1925
Narrator: This close-cropped image of a magnolia flower fills the entire frame. The petals have completely opened revealing the cone of stamens and curlicue carpels.
Meg Partridge: It’s really a beautifully sharp, focused, large-format image that is a simple subject, but it’s very powerful.
Narrator: For roughly a decade, Cunningham focused her attention on botanical studies. This is perhaps her most well-known example. She had an extensive knowledge of plants—as a chemistry major in college, she worked in the botany department, making slides for lectures and research.
Meg Partridge: She knew the botanical names of all of the plants that she had photographed and all the plants that she gardened with. She spent a good bit of time in the garden. So I think it was more about the relationship she had with her subject—be it a person or a plant—that we really see and respond to.
Narrator: There was a practical aspect to these botanical works as well. Cunningham once explained: “The reason I really turned to plants was because I couldn’t get out of my own backyard when my children were small. I photographed the plants in my garden and steered my children around at the same time.”
Meg Partridge: And she would do it in moments where she had children underfoot, but also a moment to focus. She always used natural light and she often took photographs either inside with a simple backdrop or she even took simple backdrops, a white board or a black cloth, out into the garden to photograph.
Narrator: Cunningham’s full-frame botanicals such as this one were groundbreaking in early modernist photography.
Seattle Magazine is out with its list of the city’s “Most Influential People of 2021,” including art world leaders Michael Greer and Vivian Hua, KNKX news director Florangela Davila, Dr. Ben Danielson, and more.
New! Arts! Publication! Rain Embuscado for The Seattle Times with all the details on PublicDisplay.ART, a new venture from veteran publisher Marty Griswold; the first cover star is SAM favorite Tariqa Waters.
“Seattle-based artist Anouk Rawkson, who is featured in the magazine’s debut, says PublicDisplay.ART serves as a sorely needed platform. ‘With COVID, a lot of the arts suffered,’ Rawkson said in a phone interview. “For any artist, to get your body of work out to the public is a great opportunity.’”
From close friends to strangers, and even the artist herself, photographer Imogen Cunningham found inspiration in capturing the human form in various settings. Taking portraits of those around her, Cunningham aimed to find the “beauty of the inner self.”
Listen to this audio interview to hear Japanese and Chinese Canadian photographer Kayla Isomura discuss the lessons she has learned from Cunningham’s extensive body of work. Paying particular attention to the artist’s 1973 portrait, Morris Graves In His Leek Garden, Isomura highlights the intentional melancholy of the image and shares admiration for Cunningham’s keen ability to capture her subjects in their natural state.
This audio recording is part of a free smartphone tour of Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective, now on view at the Seattle Art Museum. Tune in to this and twelve other recordings when you visit the exhibition at our downtown location.
Morris Graves In His Leek Garden, 1973
Narrator: Like Imogen Cunningham, photographer Kayla Isomura is known for her portraits.
Kayla Isomura: I am a fourth-generation Japanese and Chinese Canadian, with a background as well in journalism, all of which have influenced my interest in multimedia storytelling.
Narrator: Kayla identifies with Cunningham’s goal of finding the “beauty of the inner self” in her portraits. Here, Kayla notes Cunningham’s deft touch with her subject, the painter Morris Graves.
Kayla Isomura: For me, I really like capturing people kind of as they are. Even taking a photo on the spot. Sometimes people will feel self-conscious about that. But more often than not I’m taking a photo of them because there is something about them that is photogenic even if it might not be in the sort of what society might expect. It’s very important that anybody can feel comfortable in front of the camera, or anybody can feel like they’re able to see themself in a photograph.
Narrator: Twenty-three years after Cunningham first photographed her friend Graves, she received a somewhat concerning letter from him. In addition to asking if she would once again take his portrait, Graves wrote, “Like us all, I am undergoing changes that are beyond my comprehension. I am tired of life, and I understand less and less.” Soon after, Cunningham visited Graves at his retreat, a 380-acre property in Loleta, California, where she took this photo.
Kayla Isomura: Something that really stood out to me is how authentic I guess in a way that I feel like this image was captured. Looking at how the photo was taken through the leeks and the contemplative expression on his face, it made me feel like there was more to this too. Like I didn’t know if there’s a sense of even mourning or even loss or maybe he’s just kind of lost in thought in his garden.
Narrator: After developing her photographs, Cunningham sent them to Graves along with her own letter, complimenting his “aura of beauty” and hoping that her portrait would inspire him to paint again.
– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator
Image: Morris Graves in His Leek Garden, Imogen Cunningham, 1973. Gelatin silver print, 8 ¼ x 11 3/16 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of John H. Hauberg, 79.72.
“It is perhaps this quality of reflective quiet that epitomizes Cunningham’s art across time. In all of her photos we sense not only her concentration, but the vibrancy of being in subjects animate and inanimate.”
“It’s not all a bird’s-eye view of hockey either…PacSci’s exhibit emphasizes the importance of broadening the reach of the sport, beyond the predominantly white and male scope. The Kraken have been outspoken in this regard, and some members of its historically diverse staff, as well as its investments in youth programs, are highlighted here.”
“Because of climate change and pandemics and robotization, we will have more refugees in the future, more poverty,” [architect Alexander Hagner] said. Young architects realized that “we have learned a profession in which we can perhaps not save the world.” But, he added, they could “contribute to making it a better place.”
Get excited for your visit by watching this quick overview about the exhibition with Carrie Dedon, SAM’s Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.
Hosted on November 8 as a talk for SAM Members, we’re excited to share this recording of the overview with everyone and offer some context on the important contributions of Imogen Cunningham to photography as an art form over the course of her seven-decade career.
And remember, every First Thursday is free at Seattle Art Museum. Find out more about discounted admission opportunities!
“Cunningham’s headstrong nature would come to define her long career as a fine arts photographer: She never hesitated to experiment, even if it meant sailing against the wind as a female photographer in a male-dominated industry.”
“I want everybody to be a little bit off their rocker, a little bit shocked, a little bit dazzled, a little bit held. That’s what I get to do.” – Barbara Earl Thomas
“Why they give.” In the spirit of holiday giving, 425 Business checks in with local philanthropists about their charity practice. The Banks family is featured; Dr. Cherry A. Banks is a SAM trustee.
For Thanksgiving, Crosscut once again highlights the bounty of Native art on view in the area, including Duane Linklater: mymothersside at the Frye Art Museum, new public art at Climate Pledge Arena, film screenings, holiday markets, and much more.
“You think you’re looking at something that’s very blasé and very familiar and comforting and then it’s something that really jolts you once you actually understand what you’re looking at,” said Lane Eagles, associate curator at the museum. “I think the idea is to sort of lull you into this sense of comfort so that you’re sort of disarmed and that that’s when the reality that every single plate is a dead person hits you.”
“In a 1952 portrait, the sculptor Ruth Asawa holds one of her celebrated wire sculptures in front of her head, forming a rough square. The Seattle show will include a video of a Graham performance and a number of Asawa sculptures. Cunningham formed a close friendship with Asawa that lasted decades, and Carrie Dedon, who curated the exhibition for Seattle’s presentation, notes her ability to connect with fellow artists.”
“It’s no exaggeration to say the Langs assembled a world-class collection with a keen eye, particularly for artists who have only recently been getting their due, including Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell and Philip Guston.”
“Artists move where it’s affordable. So finding places that are affordable so you can live in Seattle eventually again, whether it’s through programs where it’s a multigenerational household or friendships that can acquire property and hopefully build equity, it might be the way…. I really want to see the artists and musicians and creatives find places here. That’s it. I hope we can have places to be.”
“To root the exhibition in the reality of specific historical erasure, the curators created a space that embraces the memory of Seneca Village, a thriving 19th-century New York City community of predominantly Black property owners and tenants. It was situated not too far from the Met, on what is now the western perimeter of Central Park, or what remains the unseated lands of indigenous Lenape peoples, potentially representing multiple displacements and migrations.”
Imogen Cunningham was well known for encouraging the creativity of others and endlessly pursuing inspiration. SAM is honoring this influential photographer by encouraging you to hit us with your best shot.
While Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective is on view at Seattle Art Museum, we’ll announce submissions to four of the defining genres of Cunningham’s career: portraits, botanicals, street photography, and dance. At the end of the exhibition, members of the exhibition advisory board will select their top five favorite submitted images and we’ll feature them here on SAM Blog!
Imogen Cunningham’s striking portraits are among the most celebrated in the history of photography. In her photographs of plant life, Cunningham abstracted the natural world and offered a unique way of seeing through the art of photography. Through avant-garde and candid portrayals of city life in her street photography, Cunningham offered images of diverse communities in San Francisco and beyond. And as champion of other artists, Cunningham’s spark of creative possibility generated a wide sphere of influence as her photographs of dancers brought attention to her own work and the work of dance artists.
When to participate
November 15: Portrait photography
December 6: Botanical photography
December 27: Street photography
January 15: Dance photography
How to participate
Follow us on Instagram & keep an eye out for each genre announcement
Share your photographs with #SAMPhotoClub
Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective showcases the endless innovation and profound influence of this remarkable photographer who pushed the boundaries for both women in the arts and photography as an art form. Nearly 200 of Cunningham’s insightful portraits, elegant flower and plant studies, poignant street pictures, and groundbreaking nudes present a singular vision developed over seven decades of work. Get tickets to the first major retrospective in the United States of Cunningham’s work in 35 years and find some inspiration for your submission to #SAMPhotoClub.
Looking for an art prompt to focus your lens? Check out this activity we created for artists of all ages back when we were in quarantine!
– Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, SAM’s Digital Marketing Manager
“[Mary Ann Santos] Newhall noted that just as languages can be lost from oral tradition, dances can likewise disappear. ‘It has to be passed on from body to body, or we lose our language.’ she said. ‘What Hannah [C. Wiley] is doing is preserving our language of dance.’”
“The performance can be understood as artistic consciousness-raising, which has been one of two main historical rationales for eco-oriented art (the other being more direct environmental remediation). Yet it’s a quite particular kind of consciousness-raising, one that offers sensory immersion rather than abstract information.”