Flowers, Faces and Form: The Photographs of Imogen Cunningham

Self Portrait with Camera, late 1920s
Self Portrait with Camera, late 1920s

A couple of years back I did a short course in photography, hoping to polish my amateur skills and learn some new techniques. One of my favourite parts was a piece of homework exploring professional photographers work; which is how I came across the brilliantly fabulous Imogen Cunningham.

Born in 1883 in Oregon, she began her life studying the chemistry of photography, developing new techniques for quicker and clearer pictures. She paid her way through University by making slides for botanists and photographing plants, before getting a scholarship in 1909 to study in Dresden.

After her studies she returned to America and set up her own studio in Seattle, specialising in portraits of sitters in their own homes, in her living room, or in the woods surrounding her cottage. You can get a much fuller picture of her life on the Imogen Cunningham Trust website, which has been set up to preserve and promote her work.

Ethereal Scenes

Some of Imogen’s earliest were dreamy, ethereal scenes using soft focus and natural light to make some beautiful Edwardian scenes. She moved away from this staged style later on, but they make some of her most interesting images. The Dreamer in particular holds a special place in my hear; one day I’m going to try to recreate that!

Flowers and Plants

The very first picture I saw by Imogen Cunningham was from her famous Magnolia series. With a background in botanical work from her university days and with young children at home, Imogen focused on easily accessible subjects; like the plants in her garden.

They are some of her most striking pictures, with interesting shapes, shadows and patterns, as well as fine detail. Whether it’s an architectural aloe plant, the delicate tower of jewels seen in a magnolia, the bold geometric agave leaves or the reaching fingers of an aloe shoot; they make you look at the mundane and see the beautiful.


I turn people into human beings by not making them into gods

One of the things I love most about Imogen’s work is her portraits; she always manages to capture something beautiful and mysterious in her sitters. Whether it’s the strong posture of artist Frida Kahlo or the sad expression of the incredible tattooed women, all of her portraits tell a story.

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