Cunningham’s early images would later influence the direction of Group f/64, but her focus on observational scenes didn’t spring from thin air. Before settling in the Bay Area and starting a family, Cunningham had studied for a period in Germany, where European ideas of “straight photography” had already taken root.
Cunningham photographed many things throughout her life, including industrial architecture and portraits, but her florals have a graceful and sensual nature that made them standouts in her oeuvre. And they have given me a sense of comfort and ease in a time that is anything but.
The curling petals and lithe stems find parallels in her nude portraits, which she took of women—including herself—and men. Her portrait of Roi Partridge in the buff on Mount Rainier in 1915 was one of the first nudes of a man ever taken by a woman (a Seattle newspaper deemed her an “immoral woman” for firing the shutter). In it, Partridge is featured small against the sweeping landscape. Later, Cunningham sought to close the distance between herself and the figures she photographed through closely cropped compositions; bodies gently unfurl, as inviting as the calyces of flowers. Whereas Weston’s nude portraits were perfectly crisp and polished, Cunningham allowed soft lines and expressive shadows—a more honest rendering of intimacy.