“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.
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.”
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.