Cunningham is considered to be among the foremost of America’s 20th-century photographers, a designation especially notable for a woman, who had to make her way in a field dominated by men. So it is no surprise that this pioneering artist was only 18 years old when she took it upon herself to learn photography, a career she knew she wanted to pursue by then. As she once told it: “I made up my mind that I wanted to be a photographer. So I saved my money, whatever little it was…and I sent it to the correspondence school in Scranton, Pennsylvania. And they sent me a four-by-five camera and a box of glass plates, and I started on my own. That was 1901.” By 1975, at the age of 92 and in the final years of her life, she was still actively taking pictures, working on a series of portraits of fellow nonagenarians that she had planned to turn into a book. Though she died before its completion, it was eventually published posthumously—another addition to the rich and varied body of work that she amassed over a lifetime behind the camera’s lens.
Like her artistic peers, Cunningham was versed not only in framing each one of her subjects to best effect, but also in working in the darkroom, where she developed her own negatives and turned them into exquisite prints. In her early work, she trained her camera on herself and her friends, dressed fancifully and shot in the soft-focus pictorialist style that was popular at the time. By the 1920s, she had sharpened her focus and moved towards a more realist approach. Among the projects that issued from her turn towards the real was a sustained study of the magnolia blossom. She captured the flower in all of its sensual and scientific detail, in finely toned black-and-white photographs. People were another of the artist’s enduring subjects. As she once told Johnny Carson when she appeared on his show—elderly, walking with a cane and wearing an oversized peace sign necklace—she was once assigned to shoot “ugly men” for Vanity Fair. “And I did Cary Grant,” she recounted, teasingly, about the storied male heartthrob. “He convinced me that he wasn’t [ugly].”