Imogen Cunningham, ‘Magnolia Blossom (Tower of Jewels)’, 1925-probably printed in the 1940s or 1950s, Phillips

From the Catalogue:
Imogen Cunningham’s masterful close-up view of the pistils and stamens of the Magnolia grandifora is one of her most accomplished images and is an early example of the uniquely American mode of Modernist photography that would reach maturity in the 1920s. It shares icon status with Edward Weston’s shell and pepper studies and with Ansel Adams’s breakthrough Monolith, Face of Half Dome (lot 52), but, significantly, predates these by several years. This photograph encapsulates Cunningham’s ability to create an image that combines scientific accuracy with aesthetic perfection.

While this image is more commonly known as Tower of Jewels, Cunningham typed the more general title Magnolia Blossom on the Green Street studio label on the reverse of the mount of this print. The Tower of Jewels appellation derives from an architectural showpiece of the Panama Pacific Exhibition held in San Francisco in 1915. Designed by Thomas Hastings, the Tower of Jewels dominated the Exhibition. Its brightly-illuminated tiered structure was not unlike the glistening natural form in Cunningham’s photograph.

This image was an important one for Cunningham from the time of its making. She included it in several important early exhibitions, including her solo shows at the Berkeley Art Museum in 1929 and at the De Young Museum in San Francisco in 1932. Despite its presence in these and other significant early exhibitions, prints of this image, of any date, are infrequently seen on the market. A mounted and signed print, like the one offered here, is a true rarity. Of the few lifetime prints of Tower of Jewels that have appeared at auction, it is believed that only one other was mounted and signed.
Courtesy of Phillips

Signature: Signed and dated in pencil on the mount; typed title and date on the facsimile signature studio label with the '1331 Green Street' address affixed to the reverse of the mount; Estate stamp on the reverse of the mount.

Lorenz, Imogen Cunningham: Flora, pl. 12
High Museum of Art, Chorus of Light: Photographs from the Collection of Sir Elton John, p. 123

Collection of Gryffyd Partridge, the photographer's son, and his wife Janet
Charles Isaacs Photographs, New York, 1995

About Imogen Cunningham

One of the first professional female photographers in America, Imogen Cunningham is best known for her botanical photography, though she also produced images of nudes, industrial landscapes, and street scenes. After studying photography in Germany, Cunningham opened a portrait studio in Seattle, producing soft-focus allegorical prints in the tradition of Pictorialism—a style of photography influenced by academic painting from the turn of the century—as well as portraiture. From the early 1920s she began to take close-up, sharply detailed studies of plant life and other natural forms, including a two-year-long, in-depth study of the magnolia flower. In 1932 she joined an association of West Coast modernist photographers known as f64, rejecting sentimental soft-focus subjects in favor of greater sensuousness. Cunningham was also interested in human subjects and frequently took pictures of the hands of musicians and artists. Edward Weston was a supporter of her work, and she associated at various times with other iconic 20th-century photographers, including Ansel Adams, Minor White, and Dorothea Lange.

American, 1883-1976, Portland, Oregon, based in San Francisco, California