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Photographs Upstage The Imogen Stories

October 22, 1985|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Art Writer

When an interviewer asked the 92-year-old grande dame of photography how she made a living, Imogen Cunningham snorted, "By being a hack, of course." She was never a hack--even the portraits and other commercial work that paid her bills were distinguished--but she has never been fully appreciated as an innovative and accomplished artist.

As a personality, yes. Who could resist a young wood sprite who made romantic photographs in the forests of the Northwest? Or, better yet, a crusty old pixie who wore a black cape and a silver peace sign as she swept through the streets of San Francisco? She was photographed, filmed, quoted and fawned over during her last years, and she reveled in her celebrity.

Cunningham died at 93 in 1976, leaving an entertaining legacy of Imogen stories that has obscured her contributions to photography. Now "The Photography of Imogen Cunningham: A Centennial Selection," an exhibition at Pomona College's Montgomery Art Gallery (through Nov. 7), puts her work under the spotlight.

It's difficult for mere pictures to compete with tales of a feisty little old lady sparring with Ansel Adams or turning down an offer to pose as "the mother of photography" for a Virginia Slims ad. (She countered the offer with a request for the cigarette company to give her "a paying job photographing all the horrible women smokers.") But as Cunningham's personality fades into the background, her photographs hold up very well to the unaccustomed exposure.

The traveling show was organized by Susan Ehrens, a photography historian and author of a forthcoming biography of Cunningham, and photographer Leland Rice, under the auspices of the American Federation of Arts. In celebration of the artist's 100th birthday, the curators selected 100 black-and-white images from American collections.

These works are augmented with publications featuring Cunningham's pictures and some additional photographs of the artist and her family.

Not conceived as a thorough retrospective, the show nonetheless indicates the breadth of a career spanning seven decades. During her long, productive life Cunningham was a pictorialist, a realist and an abstractionist who chose as her subjects people plant forms and architecture. Her range suggests that of a dilettante, but it reflects a richly varied commitment. As her work grew and developed in half a dozen directions, it retained her characteristic light touch and refinement.

When asked to explain how she made a particular picture, Cunningham was likely to say something like, "Oh, I was just messing around," but it doesn't take a connoisseur to see that she was both artist and innovator. Her sensitivity to different papers and processes is especially clear in this show because the vintage photographs are all printed by Cunningham.

As a young woman working near Seattle and studying in Europe, she took romantic, soft-focus landscapes. Always open to new approaches, she applied the spatial concepts of Japanese prints to her photographs and followed the lead of Pre-Raphaelite painters by staging dreamy portraits tableaux in the woods by her studio.

Cunningham's free-spirited father had taught her that men and women are equals, but she learned otherwise when her photographs of nude men were published. Local writers proclaimed her "an immoral woman" and her modest nudes "inexcusably vulgar." She put the negatives away for 50 years and directed her energies to less provocative pictures.

Cunningham and her husband, etcher Roi Partridge, moved to San Francisco in 1917, where she became a compatriot of Adams, Edward Weston and other champions of "straight" photography. Abandoning misty pictorialism for the crisp clarity of sharply focused images, she hit her stride in cropped close-ups of flowers and plants. These works from the '20s won her international acclaim and are considered classics. In the exhibition she presents an amaryllis, a magnolia, an aloe, an iris and a pair of callas as sculptural forms. They still look terrific but it's impossible to imagine how astonishing they must have seemed 60 years ago.

Cunningham's photography rarely drifts to the far edge of abstraction and it never strays for long from people. Human faces, hands, personalities and nude forms persistently intrigued her. A portrait of Gertrude Gerrish (circa 1920) is a study in fluid form; her wavy-haired head seems to float and her floral-print dress is an undulating sea of pattern.

A crisp picture of Spencer Tracy in an angular, architectural setting is an example of the portraits of "ugly men" she took for Vanity Fair in the '30s. Dozens of artists and photographers also posed for Cunningham, and they are well represented in the exhibition.

The most bizarre image in the show is also the most recent: A 1976 portrait of Irene (Bobbie) Libarry presents a flabby nude woman who wears tattoos as if they were a lace garment. This photo brings Cunningham's work back to its inception by pointing up her fascination with strange appearances.

Though best known for pictures that clarify form, she had an abiding interest in the intrigue of obfuscation.

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