Imogen Cunningham: Ruth Asawa Family And Sculpture

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.

Imogen Cunningham’s photograph for the cover of Arts & Architecture featuring Ruth Asawa’s sculptures on view at SAM. Photo: Natali Wiseman

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.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Photo: Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture, 1957, Imogen Cunningham, Gelatin silver print10 3/8 x 10 3/8 in. (26.4 x 26.4 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 89.43 © Imogen Cunningham Trust.

1 Daniell Cornell et al., The Sculpture of Ruth Asawa: Contours in the Air (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2006), 148.

2 Imogen Cunningham, undated draft of Asawa recommendation (probably 1971),
Imogen Cunningham Papers.

Imogen Cunningham: Self-Portrait with Grandchildren in Funhouse

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 Retrospective when 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.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image: Self-Portrait with Grandchildren in Funhouse, 1955, Imogen Cunningham, American, 1883–1976, gelatin silver print, 8 3/4 × 7 5/16 in., The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2006.25.2, © 2021 The Imogen Cunningham Trust.

Imogen Cunningham: My Father At Ninety

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 Retrospective at 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.”

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image: My Father at Ninety, 1936, Imogen Cunningham, American, 1883–1976, gelatin silver print, 9 3/4 × 7 11/16 in., The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 87.XM.74.12, © 2021 The Imogen Cunningham Trust.

Imogen Cunningham: The Dream

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 tour when 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.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image: The Dream (Nei-san-Koburi), about 1910, Imogen Cunningham, American, 1883–1976, platinum print, 8 15/16 × 6 3/8 in., The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 88.XM.44.5, © 2021 The Imogen Cunningham Trust.

Imogen Cunningham: The Unmade Bed

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 Retrospective at 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.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image: The Unmade Bed, 1957, Imogen Cunningham, American, 1883–1976, gelatin silver print, 10 11/16 × 13 1/2 in., The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser, 2016.173.5, © 2021 The Imogen Cunningham Trust.

Imogen Cunningham: Magnolia Blossom

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 Retrospective when 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.

 Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image: Magnolia Blossom, negative 1925; print 1930, Imogen Cunningham, American, 1883–1976, gelatin silver print, 9 5/16 × 11 5/8 in., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, 54042, Photo: Randy Dodson, © 2021 The Imogen Cunningham Trust.

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