Imogen Cunningham: Life Lessons

Nov 25, 2014 2:51PM
Magnolia Blossom, 1925
Weston Gallery

Imogen Cunningham was one of the most important photographers in the history of photography and a powerful voice for women in a field that was dominated by men. On June 9 1975, just a year before her death at the age of 93, curator and author Paul J. Karlstrom, along with photographer Louise Katzman, interviewed Cunningham at her home in San Francisco as part of part of the Smithsonian Archives of American Art Oral History Program. Lucid, spirited, and not a little cantankerous, Cunningham related her philosophies on life and photography, and what it was like to be part of Group f/64 — a cadre of seven influential San Francisco photographers that also included Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.

Below are excerpts from that oral history interview, published ahead of Christie’s online auction of classic photography (18 November to 3 December), which includes Cunningham’s famous Magnolia Blossom, 1925.

I was brought up on art. You see, my father thought I had a great hand at art and he sent me to art school on Saturdays. That was because of my report card in the general public schools. I had one teacher who was so keen about art. For instance, she put me in the back row — the very last seat — so that I could draw all the people in the room if I wanted to, and when I had my lessons done. And those things influenced my father who said, ‘You should go to art school.’ But he did not want me to become a photographer on account of the money, which he knew nothing about. He said, ‘Why should you go to school so long and just turn out a photographer?’

I had a hell of a life at times. You know, you can’t bring up three kids of the same age without working at it. I didn’t have what you'd call ‘work’ at that time. I worked, but I didn’t have what you'd call ‘work’. I never showed. I didn’t do anything. You know, people weren’t so avid about it. We didn’t mind cutting out a few things and doing what we had to do.