Imogen Cunningham: Mills College Amphitheater

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 Retrospective at 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.

Object of the Week: Yakima River at Thorp, WA, January 17, 1980

Unlike summer, with its durational heat and drought, winter in the Pacific Northwest brings with it water—and lots of it. We’re only two weeks into 2022 and we’ve seen over six inches of rain already, thanks to a deluge of atmospheric rivers.1

With water as its subject, this photograph by Johsel Namkung (1919–2013)—taken almost exactly 42 years ago on January 17, 1980—focuses on the swirling, glistening eddies of the Yakima River. One can feel the temperature of the waters—once snowmelt—merely by looking at the image. Rocks and sediment visible through the river’s crystal-clear waters are in rhythmic balance with translucent currents of refracted light and bubbles.

With a background in classical music, studying at the Tokyo Conservatory of Music and later the University of Washington School of Music, Namkung possessed a penchant for visual composition as well. However, his studies of nature are more than mere documentation, they express “the impression of sound, music, emotion or philosophy.”2 In a 1989 interview he described his attraction to the “beauty in the lowly humble clumps of, or groups of plants, and weeds, and things like that. I think that is the essence or a component of a great nature.”3

Namkung’s work will be on view in the upcoming special exhibition, Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water, opening March 18 at our downtown location. Showcasing a diverse range of artists and practices, the exhibition examines water’s pleasures and perils, as well as its changing role in our lives.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate


1 Seattle Weather Blog, “2022 Rainfall,” https://www.seattleweatherblog.com/rain-stats/rainfall-2022/.

2 Delores Tarzan Ament, “Namkung, Johsel (1919-2013),” HistoryLink.org, March 3, 2003, https://www.historylink.org/File/5346.

3 Archives of American Art, “Oral history interview with Johsel Namkung, 1989 Oct. 5-1991 Feb. 25,” https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-johsel-namkung-12201#transcript.

Image: Yakima River at Thorp, WA, January 17, 1980, 1980, Johsel Namkung, Chromogenic digital laser print, 40 × 50 in., Gift of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2006.114 © Johsel Namkung.

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.

Imogen Cunningham: Morris Graves In His Leek Garden

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 Retrospectivenow 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.

See Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective for Free!

December 2 is Free First Thursday at Seattle Art Museum and that means free entry into the newly opened Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective. Get tickets to this free day while you can to attend a free community celebration in the galleries—our first in-person community celebration since reopening!

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!

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image: “Dancer, Mills College,” 1929, Imogen Cunningham, American, 1883–1976, gelatin silver print, 8 9/16 × 7 3/8 in., The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2006.25.6, © 2021 The Imogen Cunningham Trust.

Object of the Week: Focal Point

This week’s object is from the SAM Libraries’ collections. The Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library and McCaw Foundation Library collect book arts such as photobooks, artists’ books, zines, and broadsides. A broadside is a large sheet of paper printed on only one side. Historically, they were ephemeral works plastered onto walls or folded into pamphlets and distributed. Typical broadsides include public decrees and proclamations, event posters, commentaries, or advertisements. Today, broadsides are an important artistic form created via various printmaking and hand-drawn processes which are held by libraries and museums worldwide.

Focal Point [Imogen Cunningham] is a broadside from the Bullitt Library’s collection created by Tacoma artists, Chandler O’Leary and Jessica Spring. The work is part of their limited-edition broadside series entitled Dead Feminists. Originating in 2008, they have released 31 broadsides focused on historical feminists: political figures, activists, environmentalists, scientists, artists, and more. Each broadside is letterpress-printed on a Vandercook Universal One press from hand-drawn lettering and illustrations and includes a quote as well as biographical information about the subject(s).

If you’re familiar with the series, you might notice that unlike the other works printed on white paper, Focal Point [Imogen Cunningham] is one of only two printed on black paper. This decision helped the artists “pull the focus” onto Cunningham’s quote: “The seeing eye is the important thing.” O’Leary and Spring thought it “provided a beautiful backdrop for a tribute to someone who spent her life creating black-and-white images.”1 Lettering was done with a metallic ink (a recipe that Spring developed) that includes real gold powder. This broadside was printed in an edition of 164 as a nod towards Cunningham being a founding member of Group f/64, a group of photographers devoted to exhibiting and promoting a new direction in photography. F/64 refers to the small aperture setting on the large format camera used by the group’s members.

When asked what drew the artists to Cunningham, Spring said, “The print was made in 2014, and we were definitely feeling the pull of social media, a world full of distractions, and a desire to focus back on our work as artists. As makers ourselves, we recognize the power of observation and the artist’s eye.”2 And observe, they did. Every aspect of this work was carefully considered, from the choice of metallic silver filigree that mimics the traditional silver-gelatin photographic process to the pastiche of images drawn from Cunningham’s photographic subjects. If you look closely, you might recognize several images from Cunningham’s work in SAM’s collection—Magnolia Blossom (Magnolia Blossom, Tower of Jewels) (1925, 89.67) and Frida Kahlo, Painter 3 (1931, 89.28).3 Look for these and other images when you visit Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective, on view at SAM from November 18 through February 6, 2022.

In addition to this single broadside, the Bullitt Library also holds O’Leary and Spring’s book, Dead Feminists: Historic Heroines in Living Color (Sasquatch Books, 2016), which details the entire series in brilliant color and a set of reproduction postcards. Currently, the SAM Libraries are still closed to visitors, but we encourage you to see these items in person when we reopen. In the meantime, the book and the reproduction postcards are available in the SAM Shop during the run of Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective. The entire Dead Feminists series is also currently on view at the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections in an exhibition titled, And Then She Said: Voices of Feminists Past and Present.

– Traci Timmons, SAM Senior Librarian

Image: Focal Point [Imogen Cunningham], 2014, Chandler O’Leary and Jessica Spring, Broadside print, 46 x 26 cm, Image courtesy of the artists. Magnolia Blossom (Magnolia Blossom, Tower of Jewels), 1925, Imogen Cunningham, Gelatin silver print, Img/sht: 11 1/4 x 8 1/4 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 89.67 © Imogen Cunningham Trust.

1 O’Leary, Chandler and Jessica Spring. “Focal Point.” Dead Feminists blog, March 18, 2014. http://www.deadfeminists.com/focal-point/.

2 Email interview with Jessica Spring and Chandler O’Leary, November 2, 2021.

3 Frida Kahlo became the subject of O’Leary and Spring’s 26th Dead Feminist broadside, Estados Divididos, in 2017.

Join SAM Photo Club!

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

Self-Portrait with Korona View, 1933, Imogen Cunningham, American, 1883–1976, gelatin silver print, 4 × 3 5/16 in., Collection of The Imogen Cunningham Trust, © 2021 The Imogen Cunningham Trust. Stan, San Francisco, 1959, Imogen Cunningham, American, 1883–1976, gelatin silver print, 9 1/2 × 7 1/16 in., Collection of The Imogen Cunningham Trust, © 2021 The Imogen Cunningham Trust. Magnolia Blossom, (detail) 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. Jump Rope, New York, 1956, Imogen Cunningham, American, 1883–1976, gelatin silver print, 7 1/2 × 7 3/8 in., Seattle Art Museum, Gift of John H. Hauberg, 89.39, © (1956), 2009 Imogen Cunningham Trust. 1952, Imogen Cunningham, American, 1883–1976, gelatin silver print, 7 5/8 × 7 5/8 in., Collection of The Imogen Cunningham Trust, © 2021 The Imogen Cunningham Trust. Dancer, Mills College, 1929, Imogen Cunningham, American, 1883–1976, gelatin silver print, 8 9/16 × 7 3/8 in., The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2006.25.6, © 2021 The Imogen Cunningham Trust.

Object of the Week: Sequential Views

Constantly growing and in flux, the built and natural environments in which we live have proven to be enduring sources of artistic inspiration. Like his fellow Los Angeles-based artists Ed Ruscha and Catherine Opie, Robbert Flick (born 1939, Amersfoort, Netherlands) is deeply inspired by the sprawling city and its changing landscape, both urban and natural.

From the late 1970s through 1990, Flick worked diligently on a series titled Sequential Views. Unsatisfied with the information conveyed by a single image—common in American landscape photography—Flick would take multiple images of a chosen site at predetermined intervals. Part performance, Flick’s prescriptive approach to photography resulted in multiple images and a more complete understanding of the landscape around him. After developing the negatives, he would organize the images manually in a grid—an analog technique whose compositions further convey a more experiential understanding of time, space, and place.1

Beginning with the urban cityscape, such as the 1980 work above—a view of LAX looking north from Imperial Highway—Flick eventually expanded the series to include parts of the Midwest and parks such as Red Rocks, Joshua Tree, and Vasquez Rocks (the latter two of which are examples in SAM’s collection). Vasquez Rocks is today a Natural Area and Nature Center located in the Sierra Pelona Mountains north of Los Angeles in Antelope Valley, known for its iconic rock formations’ sedimentary layering. In S.V. 105 at Vasquez Rock #6, Flick’s gridded views appear to overlap and repeat at times, creating an episodic and almost cinematic rhythm. The slight shifts between each frame—evident in the placement of a rock formation or cropped shadow—make clear just how many different ways there are to see and represent the world around us.2

 Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate

1 Lisa Hostetler, “Episode 3: Landscapes in Passing,” Smithsonian American Art Museum, https://americanart.si.edu/artist/robbert-flick-5776.

2 Museum of Contemporary Photography, “Robbert Flick,” https://www.mocp.org/detail.php?t=objects&type=browse&f=maker&s=Flick%2C+Robbert&record=0.

Images: Robbert Flick, S.V. 105 At Vasquez Rock #6, 1983-1985, gelatin silver photograph, 9 x 17 1/2 in., Mary Arrington Small Estate Acquisition Fund, 86.5.10, © Robbert Flick. Robbert Flick, SV017/80, LAX, from Imperial Looking North from Sequential Views, 1980, gelatin silver print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Transfer from the National Endowment for the Arts through the Photography Museum of Los Angeles, 1990.38.44, © 1980, Robbert Flick.

See Lawrence through Jordan Nicholson’s Lens

In checking out the exhibit, I couldn’t help but reflect on all the struggles and events that have ultimately lead to where we are today. SAM tasked me with making some work around the exhibit and so I decided to get some portraits of my favorite local artist friends, Cristina Martinez and Ari Glass in the space. We’ve all been inspired by Lawrence so this opportunity was really special.

– Jordan Nicholson

We’re sending off Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle with this photo shoot by the talented Jordan Nicholson. The exhibition has been sold out for weeks and closes Sunday, May 23 but luckily, you can see into the galleries via Jordan’s lens. Check out the gallery of images below and see more photography by Jordan on his Instagram.

Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle questions the stories we’ve been told by amplifying narratives that have been systematically overlooked from America’s history. This exhibition reunites Lawrence’s revolutionary 30-panel series Struggle: From the History of the American People (1954–56) for the first time since 1958, and SAM will be its only West Coast venue. These modernist paintings chronicle pivotal moments from the American Revolution through to westward expansion and feature Black, female, and Native protagonists as well as the founders of the United States. Lawrence interprets the democratic debates that defined the early nation and echoed into the civil rights movements during which he was painting the Struggle series. Works by contemporary artists Derrick Adams, Bethany Collins, and Hank Willis Thomas engage themes of democracy, justice, truth, and the politics of inclusion to show that the struggle for expansive representation in America continues.

Photos: Jordan Nicholson

The Contemporary American Struggle: Hank Willis Thomas

Sit down with multi-media artist Hank Willis Thomas and hear about the works on view in SAM’s exhibition Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle. The exhibition questions the stories we’ve been told by amplifying narratives that have been systematically overlooked from America’s history. This exhibition reunites Lawrence’s revolutionary 30-panel series Struggle: From the History of the American People (1954–56) for the first time since 1958, and SAM is its only West Coast venue. These 30 panels are heavily informed by the contemporary issues of Lawrence’s time as they address the history of what it means to be an American. Viewing this rarely exhibited series today is a reminder of shared histories during this current divisive chapter in America, where the struggle for freedom and justice marches on.

Hank Willis Thomas (b. 1976) is a conceptual artist working primarily with themes related to perspective, identity, commodity, media, and popular culture. A trained photographer, Thomas incorporates mirrors and retroreflective vinyl to challenge perspectives and explore often overlooked historical narratives. My Father Died for This Country Too/I Am an American Also in this exhibition is an example of his work that is activated by flash photography. This role reversal makes the viewer create the image and asks who is included or erased in the biased storytelling of history. Rich Black Specimen #460, Thomas’ sculptural contribution to the exhibition, is a life-size interpretation of a symbol used in runaway slave advertisements in the 19th century.

Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series interprets the democratic debates that defined early America and echoed into the civil rights movements during which he was painting the series. Works by contemporary artists Derrick Adams, Bethany Collins, and Hank Willis Thomas engage themes of democracy, justice, truth, and the politics of inclusion to show that the struggle for expansive representation in America continues.

Object of the Week: Rebekah at the Well

Rebekah is one of the most prominent women in the Hebrew Bible—a woman, whose act of kindness, decidedly shapes her future:

Rebekah went one evening to fill her water-jar at the well. As she was returning, a stranger in charge of a string of laden camels stopped the comely young girl and asked for a drink. She gave it to him and offered to draw water for his camels as well. He bestowed upon her a gold earring and two gold bracelets. The man was [Eliezer,] Abraham’s trusted servant, sent to find a wife for his master’s son Isaac from among his kinfolk. Having earlier enlisted the help of an angel, he knew that this was the girl he sought.[1]

In this image, photographer Eveleen Tennant Myers (British, 1856-1937) pays homage to an important female figure, but also establishes herself as an artist of merit—one that employs skillful darkroom techniques, staging, and an austere composition to create a truly modern photograph.

Myers was born in 1856 to English society matron Gertrude Collier Tennant (1819-1918). Her mother’s connections and patronage of artists, and her own social position, allowed her to pursue her interests as a freelance artist, rather than a commercial one who depended on a steady income to make a living. Through her mother, Myers was acquainted with the cultural elite of her time: the writers Gustave Flaubert and Victor Hugo and painters Edward Burne-Jones, Frederic Leighton, and Edward John Poynter. As a girl, she was a sitter for Julia Margaret Cameron and this encounter had a profound impact on her pursuit of photography.[2] As a young woman, she sat for some of England’s most prominent painters, including John Everett Millais and George Frederick Watts, and became familiar with the act of being a model.

Myers married poet and psychical researcher Frederic William Henry Myers (1843-1901) in 1879. He had seen her portrait by Millais, and exclaimed to his friend, the writer George Eliot, “I have fallen in love with the girl in that picture.”[3] Around 1888, in the early years of motherhood, Myers began her work as a photographer using her own children as models.

Working under the well-known Cambridge photographer, Albert George Dew-Smith (1848-1903), Myers developed a firm grasp of the technical and expressive subtleties of the medium. Her experience as a model allowed her to develop an easy rapport with her subjects—the politicians, scientists, scholars, writers, and artists of her day—and assisted her in becoming a successful portraitist. Wanting to develop her artistic practice she worked to perfect her “pictorialist” compositions and darkroom techniques—she experimented with poses, settings, and costuming, and, like Cameron, often emulated poses and compositions of great master paintings.[4]

Rebekah at the Well, created in 1891, is one of her best known “aesthetic” photographs. It establishes Myers as an important women photographer in late Victorian England. In depicting the Biblical matriarch, Myers implores the staging and costumes she might have seen in amateur theater productions, but it’s the austerity of the figure that makes the photograph modern.[5] A critic of the day noted that Myers masterly handles the drapery of Rebekah’s robe, “reminding one of the folds of a Greek chitôn in some marble of the Attic age.” Her expertise in the darkroom is demonstrated in the tonal values achieved in the model’s dark hair and folds of her gown. “The structure of the living person is felt beneath the dress, which clothes but does not conceal the limbs.” [6]

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, I chose this work as its creation involved a number of women: the women who played a role in creating an artist, Myers’s mother and Cameron; Rebekah, the woman who inspired the image; the model; and Myers, the photographer who constructed Rebekah at the Well.

– Traci Timmons, SAM Senior Librarian


[1] This succinct telling comes from Joan Comay, Who’s Who in the Old Testament, together with the Apocrypha (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971): p. 320; see also Chiara de Capoa, Old Testament Figures in Art (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003): p. 102-107.
[2] Judy Oberhausen and Nic Peeters, “Eveleen Myers (1856-1937): Portraying Beauty: The rediscovery of a late-Victorian aesthetic photographer,” The British Art Journal v. 17, no. 1 (Spring 2016), pp. 94-102.
[3] Judy Oberhausen and Nic Peeters, “Excavating the Work of Eveleen Myers: The Rediscovery of a Late Victorian Photographer,” Understanding British Portraits, https://www.britishportraits.org.uk/blog/excavating-the-work-of-eveleen-myers-the-rediscovery-of-a-late-victorian-photographer/ (accessed 2/25/2021) and Oberhausen, “Eveleen Myers,” p. 94.
[4] Oberhausen, “Eveleen Myers,” p. 94-96.
[5] Ibid., p. 99.
[6] John Addington Symonds, “Mrs. F.W.H. Myers,” Sun Artists, no. 7 (April 1891): pp. 53-54.
Image: Rebekah at the Well, 1891, Eveleen Myers, photogravure, 7 x 4 7/16 in., Mary Arrington Small Estate Acquisition Fund, 85.241.7.2

Object of the Week: The Bunn Family Home on Ninth Street

On July 21, 1930, W.E.B. Du Bois delivered a speech on the contamination and neglect of the Housatonic River. For Du Bois, born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, “by a golden river and in the shadow of two great hills,” the Housatonic held personal as well as regional significance.[1]

That summer, in his speech to the alumni of Searles High School (his alma mater), Du Bois reflected on how “this valley must have been a magnificent sight. The beautiful mountains on either side, thickly covered with massive trees, and in the midst of it all, the Housatonic River rolling in great flood, winding here and there, stretching now and then into lakes which are our present meadows and so hurrying always on toward the sea.” For Du Bois, the health of the river was commensurate with the health of the larger valley of Great Barrington, both natural and man-made. He went on to ask, “What has happened? The thing that has happened in this valley has happened in hundreds of others. The town, the whole valley, has turned its back upon the river. They have sought to get away from it. They have neglected it. They have used it as a sewer, a drain, a place for throwing their waste and their offal. Mills, homes, and farms have poured their dirt and refuse into it; outhouses and dung heaps have lined its banks.”[2]

Over half a century later, artist LaToya Ruby Frazier grew up by a river that shares a similar history: the Monongahela. Located just east of Pittsburgh, Braddock—once a booming industrial town—was a hub of trade and commerce buoyed by Andrew Carnegie’s steel mill. As the steel industry declined in the 1960s and 70s, however, Braddock declined, too—their fates intertwined. Frazier, whose family dates back four generations in Braddock, recounts that while white residents could leave the area during this period, residents of color had a much harder time: “What’s interesting is that through discrimination and racial and systemic oppression, you see how Black people were entrapped in that area—through redlining, and not being able to get loans from banks to move to the suburbs, how they were left behind.”[3]

Frazier’s photograph, The Bunn Family Home on Ninth Street, is part of her acclaimed 2013 series, A Despoliation of Water: From the Housatonic to Monongahela River (1930–2013). The photographic series, whose title recalls the words of Du Bois and his relationship to the Housatonic, looks at the post-industrial landscape of Braddock, bringing our attention to the continued fight for environmental and racial justice, and the ways in which the two causes are inextricably linked.

In her artist statement, Frazier described the natural and built environment of Braddock: “Andrew Carnegie’s 19th-century steel mill, railroads, and bridges dissect and erode the waters. One night the river flooded. Crossing through miles of man-made manufactures, contaminated soils, and debris, it filled the basement and soaked the floors of my childhood home on Washington Avenue, in the area historically known as ‘The Bottom’.”[4]

The Bunn family home, photographed aerially, is also located in ‘The Bottom’. Previously surrounded by a number of thriving Black-owned residences and businesses, the home’s once-vibrant block dwindled, buildings turning into vacant lots. By 2013, the year the photograph was taken, the Bunn residence was nearly all that was left; its neighboring houses, businesses, and restaurants replaced with bags of the city’s discarded tire rubber––encroaching steadily.

The Bunn Family Home, and others images in The Despoliation of Water, underscores that the continued extraction and contamination of water and land is inextricable from racial, economic, and environmental injustice. For Frazier, understanding the symbiosis between physical health and environmental health, “the properties found in waters that surround our artificial environments reflect not only a physical condition but a spiritual condition in which we exist.[5]

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate

Image: The Bunn Family Home on Ninth Street, 2013, LaToya Ruby Frazier, archival pigment print printed onto Hahnemuhle, Fine Art Baryta 325 gsm, 42 1/4 x 63 1/8 in., Gift in honor of Sandra Jackson-Dumont, from her friends, 2014.36.4 © LaToya Ruby Frazier and Michel Rein, Paris/Brussels

[1] W.E.B. Du Bois, Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1920), p. 3.
[2] W.E. B. Du Bois, “W.E.B. Du Bois: Reflections upon The Housatonic River,” speech given on July 21, 1930, https://theberkshireedge.com/w-e-b-du-bois-reflections-upon-housatonic-river/.
[3] Corrine Segal, “A bird’s-eye portrait of what was once a thriving steel town,” PBS, Nov. 16, 2015, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/latoya-ruby-frazier-braddock-pennsylvania.
[4] LaToya Ruby Frazier, Artist Statement, UMass Amherst, https://fac.umass.edu/UMCA_DIOT/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::permalink=DIOTLaToyaRubyFrazierStatement&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::context_id.
[5] Ibid.

Object of the Week: Martin Luther King Jr., Lowndes County, March 24, 1965

This black and white photograph, taken by photojournalist Dan Budnik in 1965, is one of a series that Budnik had hoped to publish in a Life magazine photo-essay. (Life never ran the essay, citing recent back-to-back cover stories on the subject matter.)[1] Arguably less intimate than some of Budnik’s other photographs, it captures a reflection of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his likeness obscured and rendered distant in standing water. Clear to the viewer, however, is that his body is in stride—moving forward.

Part of a series that documented critical events of the civil rights movement, this photograph, taken on March 24, 1965, is situated during the days-long, 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery—a march that protested discriminatory laws suppressing Black voters’ rights in the South, and would eventually lead to the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act.

Budnik’s photograph, in fact, was taken in Lowndes County the day before demonstrators would arrive in Montgomery, and where King would deliver his now-famous “How Long, Not Long” speech, also known as “Our God is Marching On!”

This theme of movement—and movement forward—recurs throughout King’s speech, delivered to tens of thousands of civil rights activists on the steps of Alabama’s State Capitol. And while this photograph was taken the day before King’s historic remarks, Budnik’s image captures a sense of the literal and figurative dedicated movement that propelled King and others forward in their fight for equal rights.

In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered on March 25:

Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?” . . .

How long? Not long, because “no lie can live forever.” . . .

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

56 years later, there is still more work to be done—we remain on the move.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate


[1] Tim Walker, “On the road to civil rights: Extraordinary images of the Selma march seen for the first time,” The Independent, February 22, 2015, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/road-civil-rights-extraordinary-images-selma-march-seen-first-time-10057218.html.
Image: Martin Luther King Jr., Lowndes County, March 24th, 1965, 1965, Dan Budnik, gelatin silver photograph, 11 x 14 in., Gift of Getty Images, 2000.40 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: K’ómoks Imperial Stormtrooper

I would like to acknowledge that the museum sits on the Indigenous land of the Coast Salish People in and around the city of dᶻidᶻəlalič (renamed Seattle for Chief siʔaɫ).

My work is a response to the ways in which photography has been used as a mechanism of colonization. Decolonizing photography for the use of American Indians has to occur through the articulation of a Native representational subjectivity. In the place of colonizing representation, I want to produce images and sensory experiences that convey representation of, by, and for American Indians.

– Will Wilson

Since 2012, Will Wilson has put cultural sovereignty at the root of image-making events he calls the Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange (CIPX). The thousands of images created over the course of this project now comprise the largest Indigenous created archive of images of Native peoples. These photo sessions—in which Wilson uses an old wet-plate technology to produce tintypes—are held in tribal communities and at urban institutions such as museums. Wilson’s CIPX event at the Seattle Art Museum, which took place in November 2017, centered on capturing the rich complexity of Native peoples living in the environs of Seattle, members of local reservation-based tribes, and “urban Indians” who came to Seattle from other places. Wilson invites anyone who wants to be photographed to present themselves however they want—wearing what they choose, holding objects that are important to them, and posing to their liking. As part of the exchange, he gives the tintype to the sitter while asking for permission to digitize the image for use in large-scale prints, like the work in SAM’s collection, K’ómoks Imperial Stormtrooper (Andy Everson). It is an amazing process to witness and reminds us that, for those who take authority over the processes of representation, methodologies and interpersonal exchanges matter.1

The sitter in this portrait is K’ómoks First Nation’s artist Andy Everson. His recent work draws from his two passions: Indigenous art and Star Wars. He transformed the stormtrooper into a positive figure by doing away with the uniform’s whiteness and covering it with formline designs. Everson wanted to change the stormtrooper from someone who blindly follows instructions from his higher-ups to someone who is able to take action for himself and for his own people. And so began this idea of the West Coast warrior, a defender of the land.2

Chilkat weavers were the inspiration for Everson when he created the Northern Warrior (2015), with its distinctive yellow, blue, white, and black colors. He also replaced the stormtrooper’s helmet with a traditional conical hat, made out of maple wood that his ancestors in Alaska would have worn.3 Many of his ancestors were warriors, and when their territory was threatened they did not hesitate to defend themselves. When they entered battle, they wore slatted armor suits and hard wooden helmets carved with their crest, proudly representing their ancestral lineage. The hat on this helmet displays the Kwakwaka’wakw crest of the sisiyutł—the double-headed serpent. This symbol of the warrior reminds us of the dichotomies in life—good and evil, right and wrong—and puts a human face in the middle to teach us that we must choose where we stand.4

Everson’s stormtroopers tell a story to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples about the importance of a warrior spirit. The works speak to the histories of Indigenous resistance and defiance in opposition to colonizing forces, and the importance of remaining steadfast in the face of adaptation and change.5 Like Wilson’s CIPX series, Everson’s stormtroopers draw people in with its familiar figure and invite people to engage with an art form, perhaps unfamiliar to some, that ultimately fosters a new kind of cultural exchange.

Speaking of stormtroopers, don’t miss the premiere of The Mandalorian season two on October 30. Will we find out Baby Yoda’s origin? Are there more of them? I hope so, and I hope you all have a safe and happy Halloween!

“I would like to see the baby.” – The Client, The Mandalorian

– Tina Lee, SAM Exhibitions and Publications Manager

Images: K’ómoks Imperial Stormtrooper (Andy Everson), Citizen of the K’ómoks First Nation, from the series Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange: dᶻidᶻəlalič, 2017, printed 2019, Will Wilson, archival pigment print
56 1/4 × 44 1/4 in., Ancient and Native American Art Acquisition Fund, 2019.26.2 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Northern Warrior, 2015, Andy Everson, edition 99, giclée, image source: andyeverson.com. Image courtesy of Pixabay.
[1] Brotherton, Barbara. “New Archives of Indigenous Self-Representation.” In Double Exposure: Edward S. Curtis, Marianne Nicolson, Tracy Rector, Will Wilson, 22–26. Seattle Art Museum, 2018.
[2] The Huffington Post B.C. “Andy Everson’s Stormtrooper Acts as Modern First Nations Warrior.” Accessed October 27, 2020, https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/07/24/andy-everson-stormtrooper-first-nations_n_5618449.html
[3] Baluja, Tamara. “Star Wars characters get Indigenized by Comox First Nation artist.” Accessed October 27, 2020.https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/star-wars-indigenized-andy-everson-1.4463320
[4] Everson, Andy. “Northern Warrior.” Artwork by Andy Everson. Accessed October 27, 2020. http://www.andyeverson.com/2014/northern_warrior.html
[5] Avdeeff, Melissa. “Andy Everson: Resistance and Defiance in Indigenous Digital Art.” Accessed October 27, 2020. http://mediacommons.org/imr/content/andy-everson-resistance-and-defiance-indigenous-digital-art

Art & Justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, & Ahmaud Arbery

The young girl gazes directly into the camera: serene, open, determined. Her arms cross in front of her; her hands reach for those of the other children beside her. Together, they form a chain that cannot be broken.

She is 11-year-old Quintella Harrell, as the photo’s caption notes, and she’s participating in the campaign for voting rights for Black people in Selma, Alabama, that took place in the early months of 1965. The photo was taken by Dan Budnik, who uses documentary photography as a tool for activism and to bear witness to the battle for equality. A few weeks before this photo was taken, a 26-year-old church deacon from Marion named Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot by a state trooper as he tried to shield his mother from the trooper’s nightstick, dying eight days later. Days after this photo was taken, the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, led by civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis, would begin. The images of state troopers attacking the activists during what came to be called “Bloody Sunday” galvanized public opinion, eventually leading to the march’s safe completion on March 21—and to the passing of the Voting Rights Act.

This moment of a young girl’s perseverance is captured forever in this black-and-white photo, but it’s far from the distant past. Today, Dr. Quintella Harrell is 65 years old. How much has changed?

SAM expresses deep compassion for those seeking justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. We share in the grief, anger, and frustration that their friends, families, and Black communities are feeling, which has spread across the country and the world. SAM is committed to doing our part in the necessary work of creating racial equity. Art can play a critical role in creating structural change and equity; it deepens empathy, asks tough questions, and offers new visions for collective responses to our world. We must create that new world together.

Image: Quintella Harrell, 11 Years Old, With Other Young Voting Rights Protestors, Dallas County Courthouse, Selma, Alabama, 4 March 1965, 1965, Dan Budnik, gelatin silver photograph, 11 x 14 in. Gift of Getty Images, 2000.38 ©️ Artist or Artist’s Estate.

Object of the Week: Magnolia Blossom, Tower of Jewels

Photographer Imogen Cunningham was not naturally inclined to stay home. Throughout her long and prolific career she travelled and exhibited widely, was celebrated for her portraits ranging from the rich-and-famous to the anonymous citizens of San Francisco, and even became a minor celebrity late in her life, appearing on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and easily identified walking her hometown’s streets with her iconic black cape and peace sign pin.

For a brief period in between all of this activity, Cunningham was more-or-less bound to her home. In 1917, she moved with her 18-month-old son from Seattle to San Francisco to join her husband; less than one month later, she gave birth to twins. As the mother of three young children, her life was suddenly largely circumscribed by the boundaries of the family’s Oakland home. But Cunningham did not allow these circumstances to impede her work—her ambition and drive would, simply, not allow for it. Instead, she turned inward to subjects within her home—or more accurately, created subjects within her home—by cultivating a garden in her backyard.

In a 1959 interview, Cunningham recalled: “The reason I really turned to plants was because I couldn’t get out of my own backyard when my children were small.”[1] And later, with her characteristic sharp wit: “I photographed the plants in my garden and steered my children around at the same time.”[2] True enough about the circumstances, but these direct statements belie the care and attention with which Cunningham shot her celebrated botanical works, such as Magnolia Blossom, Tower of Jewels (1925).

Tightly framing her composition, Cunningham makes the subject of this work not the plant as a whole, but rather the innermost folds and stamen of the blooming magnolia flower. The luscious gradients of white in the petals, the play of shadows on the stamen, and the sharpness with which these details are captured serves to abstract the blossom, allowing us as viewers to see this familiar subject in a new way. This technique was at the heart of a new form of modernist photography, and Cunningham’s experimentations in her own garden were at the forefront of this aesthetic shift. It would not be until 1932 when a group of artists—including Cunningham, along with Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and others—would formalize this style of photography under a collective they dubbed Group f/64, named for the smallest aperture setting that captures the kind of sharpness we see in Magnolia Blossom, Tower of Jewels.

Years later in 1957, after her children had grown and she’d long-since left the garden to experiment with other techniques and subjects, Cunningham returned to her earlier themes by capturing another artist and mother, at home and at work, in her portrait of Ruth Asawa with four of her children. The scene must have been familiar to Cunningham, and it was no mistake that she framed Asawa’s biomorphic, hanging sculpture at the center of the composition: at the heart of it all, she seems to suggest, is the work that drives us.

When SAM reopens its doors, you will be able to find Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture in the exhibition Exceptionally Ordinary: Mingei 1920-2020. And November 2021 will bring together nearly 200 of Cunningham’s photographs, along with sculpture by Asawa, in the exhibition Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective. Until then, as we all stay home, may their work inspire you to continue the work that drives you, whatever that may be.

Carrie Dedon, SAM Assistant Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art

If you value the ways SAM connects art to your life, consider making a donation or becoming a member today! Your financial support powers Stay Home with SAM and also sustains us until we can come together as a community and enjoy art in the galleries again.

[1] Imogen Cunningham and Edna Tartaul Daniel, Imogen Cunningham: Portraits, Ideas, and Design (Berkeley: University of California Regional Cultural History Project, 1961), 26.
[2] Imogen Cunningham, in Brooks Johnson, ed., Photography Speaks: 150 Photographer On Their Art (New York: Aperture, 2005), 120.
Images: Magnolia Blossom, Tower of Jewels, 1925, Imogen Cunningham, gelatin silver print, 11 1/4 x 8 1/4 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 89.67 © (1925), 2009 Imogen Cunningham Trust. Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture, 1957, Imogen Cunningham, Gelatin silver print, 10 3/8 x 10 3/8 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 89.43
Stay Home with SAM is supported in part by
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is OAC_logoblack-rgb-150x150.png

Make Dreams Come True with Jung Yeondoo

Since 2001, South Korean artist Jung Yeondoo has visited six different countries to make people’s dreams come true. In his Bewitched series, he asks local people about their wishes for their future and then makes them come true with a pair of photographs: the first, a portrait of the person in their everyday life and the second, showing their dream or fantasy. Bewitched #2 Seoul shows a Baskin Robbins employee at her job next to her dream of going to the Arctic. Her change in clothing, accessories, and setting changes how we see her and shows us a part of her that we might not know about upon first glance. Jung uses costumes, settings, and props to transform a scene from everyday life into the individual’s dream.

Speaking about his inspiration, Jung said in a 2015 profile, “I started this project with an artist’s curiosity about wanting to know about the lives of people you just pass every day,” he said. “It’s not about a happy perspective or a negative perspective . . . It is more about [my] attempts as an artist to communicate with someone else.”

Jung Yeondoo Helps 28 People Realize Their Dreams by Taking Pictures

Looking questions

  • What’s going on in these artworks? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can we find?
  • What words would you use to describe the person in each photograph, based on what they are wearing? Are there any words that would describe both of them?
  • Look closely at the image on the left. What do you think are some things this person does every day? What do you see that makes you say that? Now do the same for the image on the right.
  • Why do you think you see the same pose in both images? What does it feel like to pose in that way?
Hear from actor Hudson Yang as he looks closely at Bewitched #2

Visualize

Take a moment to close your eyes and ask yourself these same questions: What is your dream? What is your fantasy? Who do you want to be? Think about this dream that you have for yourself. In this imagined future, what are you wearing? What are you doing? What are your surroundings? Time yourself for five minutes and free-write or draw any ideas that you have. Don’t worry about making it look or sound good, this is just to document your ideas.

Art Activity

Create a drawing or collage that represents the daily life and imagined dream of someone you know.

  • Call a friend and ask each other questions to learn more about your everyday lives, just like Jung Yeondoo interviews the people that he works with. Be sure to write down words that describe what they are saying! Here are some example questions:
  • Where are you right now? What does it look like there? What do you see around you?
  • What part of your daily routine happens in this space? Describe that routine.
  • Who else spends time here? Is anyone there now? What are they doing?
  • Is there anything else that you want to share?

Now, interview each other about your future dreams. This could be three months from now or far into the future. What is your dream? What is your fantasy? Who do you want to be? Keep digging—ask for more details that can help you imagine their dream. Write down more descriptive words as you listen.

For this next part, you can choose to either

Make a drawing!

  • Divide a blank sheet of paper in half. On the left side, create a drawing of your friend in their current daily life. On the right side, create a drawing of them in their imagined dream.
  • Tell a story with your drawing—the more details that you can include from the interview, the better!

Make a collage!

  • Choose a blank sheet of paper or piece of cardboard for your base. You’ll need: old magazines, newspapers, or other printed papers, a pair of scissors, and glue.
  • Cut out words and images from the magazines that remind you of what you learned about your friend in these interviews. Divide your cutouts into two piles: your friend’s everyday life and their wish for the future.
  • Draw a line dividing your base in half. On the left side, create a collage using the cutouts related to your friend’s everyday life. On the right side, create a collage using the cutouts related to your friend’s wish for the future.

When you are done, send each other photos of your artwork or exchange them the next time you see each other. What are some things that you learned about yourself and each other in this process?

– Yaoyao Liu, SAM Museum Educator & Lauren Kent, SAM’s Museum Educator for School Programs & Partnerships

Image: Bewitched #2 Seoul, 2001. Jung Yeondoo. C-print photograph. 62 5/8 × 51 9/16 in. (159.1 × 131 cm) Purchased with funds from the Estate of Rosa Ayer, 2016.8.1–2.

Object of the Week: Time-(B)

Two identical, white clocks sit on a scale. One—reading 12:15—appears the heavier of the two, sitting ever so slightly below its counterpart at 12:04. Of course, the minute discrepancy (pun intended) between the weights of the two clocks—correlating with their respective times—is impossible, but the power of the photographic image lies in its ability to convince us otherwise.

Ever a master of the conceptual punchline, photographer Kenji Nakahashi plays with our interpretation of time and its assumed objectivity. His longstanding interest in the documentary value and, again, assumed objectivity of photography—a time-based medium—is also at play, and clearly inextricable. In his characteristically understated way, Nakahashi tackles the subjectivity of both time and photography in one fell swoop.

Born in present-day Ibigawa, Japan, Nakahashi moved to New York City in 1973, where he lived until his death in 2017. His time in Japan was formative, but living and working in the United States is where Nakahashi developed a robust studio practice centered on everyday objects and materials. This is when he began turning the mundane—such as two clocks and a scale—into a source of poetic beauty, conceptual rigor, and humor. For Nakahashi, such small observations and actions became an important activity that allowed him to render the world anew.

Elisabeth Smith, Collection and Provenance Associate

Time-(B), 1980, Kenji Nakahashi, ektacolor print, sheet: 11 x 14 in., Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Kazuo Kondo, 95.35 ©Artist or Artist’s Estate

Zanele Muholi on Visual Activism & Undoing Racism

In my instance, visual activism has a lot to do with two things: connecting the visual and my activism. Which means that every image that I take has a lot to do with politics. In my work, I am pushing a political agenda.

– Zanele Muholi

Taken in Europe, Asia, North America, and Africa between 2014 and 2017, each of the 76 self-portraits in the Somnyama Ngonyama (Zulu for Hail the Dark Lioness) series is distinct and poses critical questions about social injustice, human rights, and contested representations of the black body. South African visual activist Zanele Muholi combines classical portraiture, fashion photography, and ethnographic imagery to establish different archetypes and personae.

Hear from the artist as they describe how household and found objects become culturally loaded props in these self-portraits. Scouring pads and latex gloves address themes of domestic servitude. Rubber tires, electrical cords, and cable ties reference forms of social brutality and capitalist exploitation. Collectively, the portraits evoke the plight of workers: maids, miners, and members of disenfranchised communities. The artist’s gaze challenges viewers while firmly asserting their cultural identity on their own terms. Don’t miss your chance to see Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness while it’s still in Seattle at SAM through November 3.

Art Zodiac: Hail the Virgos

Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness would have been the perfect subject for Leo season, but despite that, I am focusing on one of Muholi’s photographs for Virgo season instead. Their (Muholi identifies as they/them) work titled, Bester IV, shows Muholi against a geometric-patterned background with a scarf over their head like the Virgin Mary. Virgos rule detailed work like the complex patterning of material which requires patience, steadiness, and routine rigor to perform. I picked this work for Virgo season because the root of the word Virgo is virgin, and this photograph alludes to the most famous one, the Virgin Mother Mary.  Most astrologers prefer to interpret the virginal representation of Virgo as the love of the unadulterated or the purity of essence rather than the religious or sexual overtones it signifies.   

Zanele Muholi: Somnayma Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness features 76 black-and-white self-portraits, making the artist very prevalent in this body of work. The time of Muholi’s birth is unknown, but according to Wikipedia, they were born on July 9, a Cancer—the archetype of the mother in astrology. The only planet that Muholi has in Virgo is Pluto, which makes a lovely sextile (a 60-degree angle) to their Cancer sun. In evolutionary astrology, Pluto represents the soul, its incarnations and the karmic gifts brought into this lifetime. Muholi, like others born between roughly 1956 and 1972, has a Virgo soul structure and it melds well with their Cancer ego structure (the sun). This is another reason why I chose this photograph as it mimics this aspect in their natal astrology chart.

via GIPHY

Virgo is the 6th sign of the zodiac and the sun transits Virgo from August 23 to September 30 each year. Virgos are meticulous, but Pluto-in-Virgos take the details of an issue to a staggering profound depth and breadth. You can see it in the entanglement of multiple themes and the pure (virginal) qualities in Muholi’s photographs. There is obviously an incredible amount of thought and planning that went into each image so the viewer could understand the difficult and powerful, sometimes in-your-face themes communicated through their body of work. This, along with the simplicity of how the sitter is framed and the exacting ruthlessness of the proportions, takes you on an internal journey into the shadow side (Pluto) of society and your own psyche. But the quality that shines the most in Virgos is ‘service to others’ and that is what I ultimately see Muholi doing with their work. They portray images of the plight of workers, maids, miners, and members of disenfranchised communities, in order to serve the greater good, forcefully demanding recognition and integration. 

– Amy Domres, SAM’s Director of Admissions 
Amy is also a Psychospiritual Evolutionary Astrologer and Healer at Emerald City Astrology

Images: Installation view Zanele Muholi: Somnayma Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness at Seattle Art Museum, 2019, photos: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Yuka

It wouldn’t be too difficult to argue that we live in a youth-obsessed culture. If we only take a moment to look around, we can see it everywhere. It pops up in advertisements, in movies, and in TV. It works its way into our minds with anti-ageing skin creams and anti-graying hair dyes. It settles into our society and fills us with the irrefutable fear of getting older. To be young—or so our culture seems to suggest—is to be wild, uninhibited, and free. And, conversely, to be old is to be slow, sidelined, and ignored.

While this is never fully true in reality, it is difficult to deny that, in our current society, old age is a thing that many people fear. Some might argue that this is even more prevalent for women, who are judged more frequently on their looks than men and who, as such, feel more pressure to maintain a youthful appearance. How many times have you heard a woman complain about “getting old”? It is because women have so much more to lose when they lose their youth.

In her series My Grandmothers, however, photographer Miwa Yanagi presents a fascinating and poignant counterargument to our societal fear of aging.

For My Grandmothers, Yanagi interviewed a variety of women between the ages of fourteen and twenty, asking them to describe what they thought their lives would look like in fifty years. She then staged photos to capture these descriptions. The photo above is titled Yuka, named for a woman who imagined herself living on in the U.S. with her younger, playboy lover. Yuka, with bright red hair and a cigarette, riding down the Golden Gate Bridge in the sidecar of a motorcycle, hardly fits our stereotypical idea of an old woman. She is laughing with abandon, unashamed and unconstrained.

With Yuka, as with the other portraits in the series, Yanagi explores the idea that old age is liberating rather than limiting. Women, no longer defined by their beauty and (as one critic noted) by their reproductive abilities, are free to live for themselves, on their own terms, by their own rules. According to Yanagi, young women today are restricted by society’s expectations and are unable to express their true desires for the lives that they want to live. When they are freed from their youth, they are freed from those confines. Old age, it seems, is not so much our great nightmare as it is our ticket to a more liberating life.

See this photograph in person at the Seattle Asian Art Museum when it reopens in early 2020!

Isabelle Qian, SAM Curatorial Intern

Image: Yuka, 2000, Miwa Yanagi, chromogenic print, Plexiglas, Dibond mounted on aluminum with text panel, 63 x 63 in., additional text: 15 5/8 x 15 5/8 in., Gift of Janet Ketcham, 2004.33, © Artist or Artist’s Estate.

Object of the Week: Bullet

As we have seen too many times in recent weeks, a single bullet can destroy a life, a family, and a community. In this photograph by Harold Edgerton, a bullet is frozen in time and space, its trajectory and destruction momentarily bound.

Born in Nebraska in 1903, Edgerton studied electrical engineering at MIT. His academic background, coupled with his interest in motion and high-speed photography, allowed him to produce images that made visible the imperceptible. After earning his PhD in 1931, Edgerton developed and improved upon various stroboscopic models—a repeatable flash device better known today as a ‘strobe’—ultimately applying for 45 patents between the years 1933 and 1936. The high-powered repetition of the strobe allowed Edgerton to effectively freeze objects in motion in order to capture them on film, resulting in iconic photographs that bring together science, technology, and art.

The history of photography is inextricable from the history and development of military technology—to borrow from French theorist Paul Virilio, “For men at war, the function of the weapon is the function of the eye”—making the bullet a fitting subject for Edgerton to capture.[1] In this photograph, printed in 1961, the bullet serves to represent technological achievement and photographic mastery; today, however, it is hard to see a single bullet as anything other than destructive, especially when they are rarely singular, more often multiplied in the hundreds and deployed in seconds.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection & Provenance Associate

[1] Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (London: Verso, 1989), p. 20.
Image: Bullet, 1961, Harold Edgerton, gelatin silver photograph, 9 1/2 x 8 5/8 in., The Harold and Esther Edgerton Family Foundation, 96.48 © Edgerton Family Foundation

Object of the Week: Twins

The work, Twins, created by photographer and video artist, Sue De Beer (American, born 1973), depicts two entwined twin teenage girls. De Beer’s work examines the internal conflicts of high school-aged girls—a period of both happiness and great terror. De Beer describes Twins as a “depiction of an impossible situation, a companion who is not an other; a state of pure completion, the strength and horror of desire without fear.”[1] What makes this work even more interesting is that De Beer portrays her subjects through her own likeness. Rather than a pair of identical twins, this image is a digitally-manipulated photograph of the artist herself. Using her own body to explore the identity of others is a technique the artist utilizes, to great effect, in other work, like Two Girls and her seminal video work, Making Out With Myself.

In her correspondence with Seattle gallerist Linda Farris (American, 1945-2005), De Beer explains:

“Much of my work takes place at high school age, a time of heightened experience, and often a time of ‘first’ experience: sexual experience, drug experience, intellectual experience. High school is the first time since birth that your height has stabilized, when your mind had learned enough to begin to analyze information, rather than just accumulate it. You have all of the physical equipment you will carry with you for the rest of your life, but it is all so new and unfamiliar, your agony and pleasure is heightened by the newness of being ‘complete,’ fully formed, and yet blank, without experience.” [2]

Twins, along with two other De Beer works, more visceral and violent—Two Girls and Untitled, from Heidi 2—came to SAM as part of the ContemporaryArtProject gift. CAP was the brainchild of Farris, who assembled a group of private collectors that were willing to share their private spaces with challenging images and objects. Farris selected daring new works that touched her very personally and passionately. In 2002, this group graciously gifted this work to SAM. The thirty-three artworks in the CAP collection include painting, photography, and video unified by a strong feminist perspective with an overarching theme: identity as a complex convergence of the cultural, social, and sexual selves.[3]

Learn more about the 33 works from the ContemporaryArtProject.

– Traci Timmons, SAM Senior Librarian

Image: Twins, 1998, Sue de Beer, color digital C-print, 35 13/16 x 49 3/8 in., Gift of the ContemporaryArtProject, Seattle, 2002.15 ©Laura Parnes
[1] Paul M. Smith, “Identity Paradox – Austin Museum of Digital Art,” Amoda.org, 2002, http://www.amoda.org/events/exhibit-02/.
[2] Email correspondence between Sue De Beer and Linda Farris, July 3, 1999.
[3] Seattle Art Museum and Tara Reddy Young, SAM Collects ContemporaryArtProject (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2002), 8, 9, 40.

Object of the Week: Imogen Cunningham and Grandchildren at Fun House

I still feel that my interest in photography has something to do with the aesthetic, and that there should be a little beauty in everything.

– Imogen Cunningham

See Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective at Seattle Art Museum, November 18, 2021–February 6, 2022

Imogen Cunningham was a seminal female American photographer, active in the Pacific Northwest (where she was born and raised) and the San Francisco Bay Area. This image of the artist and her grandchildren, taken in the reflection of a fun house mirror, is representative of Cunningham’s larger practice that spanned decades: experimental, technical, and the stuff of everyday life.

Cunningham is perhaps best known for her abstracted botanical photography, though she also produced images of the human nude, industrial landscapes, and street scenes. Here, her subject matter is much more personal and takes on an emotional valence.

It is often perpetuated that Cunningham was forced to choose between her career and motherhood, ultimately choosing the latter when she closed her portrait studio. However, this narrative is not quite accurate—Cunningham managed her responsibilities as both a mother and an artist, developing a photographic practice that blended art and life seamlessly. Neither roles were without sacrifice, of course, but Cunningham did her best to juggle her identities as a mother and artist—identities that, to this day, are either presented as mutually exclusive or not discussed nearly as much as they should be.

Moyra Davey’s Mother Reader is a major achievement in this regard. Published over fifteen years ago, the volume brings together testimonials, diaries, and essays by women artists, writers, and creative thinkers whose lives were forever altered—both positively and negatively—by pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood. It is an amazing resource that focuses on the intersection of motherhood and creative life, honestly exploring the varied experiences of being a mother. In Margaret Mead’s essay “On Being a Grandmother,” Mead, a cultural anthropologist and contemporary of Cunningham, writes:

However, I felt none of the much trumpeted freedom from responsibility that grandparents are supposed to feel. Actually, it seems to me that the obligation to be a resource but not an interference is just as preoccupying as the attention one gives to one’s own children. I think we do not allow sufficiently for the obligation we lay on grandparents to keep themselves out of the picture—not to interfere, not to spoil, not to insist, not to intrude—and, if they are old and frail, to go and live apart in an old people’s home (by whatever name it may be called) and to say that they are happy when, once in a great while, their children bring their grandchildren to visit them.

When taken into consideration with this photograph, one can’t help but wonder what Cunningham’s experience was like as a grandmother. Was she able to spend real time with her daughter’s children? Did she feel a similar tension between acting as a resource and an interference? How did being an artist and grandmother differ from being an artist and mother? This early selfie suggests that she and her grandchildren had some adventures and joyful times, but it is just one glimpse into their relationship after all. Even still, we’re fortunate Cunningham chose to share it with us—there’s certainly a little beauty in it.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection & Provenance Associate

Image: Imogen Cunningham and Grandchildren at Fun House, San Francisco, 1955, Imogen Cunningham, gelatin silver print, 8 3/4 x  7 1/8 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 89.38 (1955), 2009 ©Imogen Cunningham Trust

Object of the Week: Veronica

Veronica is a telling image from a larger body of work that examines what it’s like to be an erotic dancer. For the photographer, this series sheds light on the commitment artists make to produce meaningful work.

Erika Langley (American, born 1967) moved across the country in 1992 after attending the Rhode Island School of Design and working as an aspiring photojournalist. She quickly learned that photojournalism work in Seattle was hard to come by, being turned down by several potential employers. One told her to go out and do something “really gutsy and personal” and then come back.[1]

Upon arriving in Seattle, Langley had noticed Seattle’s many topless bars and thought she could do a project on strippers. She stumbled upon the Lusty Lady–the legendary peep show establishment formerly located across First Avenue from the Seattle Art Museum—and was intrigued to learn it was women-run, that the dancers were protected from the patrons, and that they were paid a reasonable wage in 1990s dollars: $9/hour to start with a $1/hour raise every week if you came in on time and were doing well. Some dancers made $27/hour. This operation was defying industry stereotypes.[2]

There was one catch. If she wanted to take photographs, she had to become a dancer. “If you really want to understand this, you have to work here,” she was told by one of the supervisors. “You have to dance to gain people’s trust and be taken seriously.” There was no access to the locker room until she was a Lusty Lady employee. So, she became a dancer. “I want to learn about a world I know nothing about, I want to see what I’m capable of.” She took the stage name, Virginia, after her home state: Southern, Gothic, exotic. She got to know her co-workers. They were married and single, straight and queer, some were doting mothers, and some had degrees or were working their way through school. She was interested in “showing these women as whole women…it’s just a job.”[3]

In 1997 the body of work she’d created at the Lusty Lady was transformed into a book produced by European publisher Scala called The Lusty Lady. She delivered a copy of the book with a handwritten note–“Howdy, neighbor!”–to then SAM Deputy Director of Art/Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Trevor Fairbrother. Shortly thereafter, he encouraged her to be part of a group show. In 1999, several of her works–from the Lusty Lady series, including Veronica—were included in the exhibition, Hereabouts: Northwest Pictures by Seven Photographers, one of the Documents Northwest: The PONCHO Series exhibitions. SAM ultimately brought five of Langley’s photographs into the collection.[4]

Langley’s work reminds us that women like Veronica (that’s her stage name) work legal jobs, just like other women. “There are no venues like this for women, this is the intersection of public sex and fast food. Sometimes I feel like a naked waitress—other times, a quarter-operated social worker. It’s not so unlike other jobs. I punch a time clock, look forward to my breaks, and then I go home. But I love it best when my friends and I are howling with merriment in the shadow of Hammering Man.”[5]

“Had the Lusty Lady not told me I’d have to dance to photograph, I’m sure I’d have made some competent but average pictures. Instead, working there changed my life, how I looked at myself and my sexuality, and it taught me about my own erotic power.” — Erika Langley[6]

– Traci Timmons, SAM Senior Librarian

[1] Peggy Andersen, “An f-stop and a G-string Mark Woman’s Dual Career” in The Seattle Times (January 30, 2000), p. B4.
[2] Erika Langley, The Lusty Lady (Berlin: Scala, 1997), p. 10 and Andersen, p. B4.
[3] Langley, p. 7, 13 and Andersen, p. B4.
[4] Andersen, p. B4 and Trevor Fairbrother, Documents Northwest: The PONCHO Series: Hereabouts: Northwest Pictures by Seven Photographers (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1999), p 3.
[5] Langley is referring to Hammering Man, the monumental public sculpture by Jonathan Borofsky, sited in front of the Seattle Art Museum. Learn more here. Fairbrother, p. 3.
[6] Langley, p. 7.
Image: Veronica, 1993, Erika Langley, Gelatin silver photograph, 16 x 20 in. (40.6 x 50.8 cm), Mark Tobey Estate Fund, 2000.57, © Artist or Artist’s Estate.
SAMBlog