Portraitist, street photographer, social commentator, flower and industrial architecture expert, chronicler of cultural icons, Imogen Cunningham has been referred to as "the grandmother of photography," and not only because she created stunning images well into her 80s.
In the 1920s and '30s she worked alongside Ansel Adams and Edward Weston to bring photography into the realm of fine art. "Seen & Unseen: Photographs By Imogen Cunningham" at the Long Island Museum presents 60 of Cunningham’s meticulous photographs, defined by crisp edges; deep, rich blacks, and a thousand shades of gray that describe shapes, capture moments and convey emotions.
"We're excited to have this. The prints are beautiful and, of course, she's an important name in American photography," says Long Island Museum deputy director Joshua Ruff, who organized the show. This is the only New York stop, he points out, for the traveling exhibition originating from The Imogen Cunningham Trust, curated by Celina Lunsford.
"These are photographs that were taken throughout the course of Cunningham's career. The earliest picture was taken when she was in her early 20s and still a student, and the latest one was when she was 89. There are some really evocative, wonderful still life pictures, and famous portraits of Frida Kahlo and Cary Grant," says Ruff.
Cunningham was among a group of early 20th century American women, like Dorothea Lange and Berenice Abbott, who broke into the art world via photography. Equipment was affordable; it was socially acceptable for women. And work, Cunningham noted, could be done while taking care of children. Many of her exquisite botanical studies, like "Magnolia Blossom," were made in her garden. The sensuality of her plants, with graceful curves captured up close, brought comparisons to her contemporary Georgia O'Keeffe. "She's almost painterly in her approach," says Ruff of Cunningham, "because the images are so complex and rich, and nuanced, and beautiful."
Cunningham was born in 1883 to parents who encouraged her artistic curiosity. By her teens, she'd sent away for a mail-order camera, and in college, she studied chemistry to better grasp the medium. Reduced to black and white, Cunningham's images abound with dichotomies, both visual and conceptual. Look for famous people in private moments, instantly recognizable but altered by the vulnerability she captured; objects and shadows bearing equal weight and presence; and dancers frozen in time.
"There's an image of her son," Ruff notes, "You see him in silhouette next to a birdcage. It's a very moody, striking, personal photograph that both involves her home life and family life. And yet, at the same time, this could be anybody. There's something about the image that's just really arresting and eccentric and quite unique to her."
"Laundry Line," showing sheets hanging to dry, breaks down into pure geometries in delicate tones. Its quotidian elegance illustrates something Cunningham once said, "There should be a little beauty in everything." A self-portrait depicts the artist gazing at the viewer. A large camera, all black and chrome, bellows and lenses, angles and circles, takes roughly the same amount of space as her face, bright with curiosity. How apt that the image starts with a camera, but behind it all is Imogen Cunningham, the artist.