Imogen Cunningham: Life Lessons

Words of wisdom, taken from an interview with the legendary Group f/64 photographer when she was 92 years old


Imogen Cunningham was one of the most important photographers in the history of photography and a powerful voice for women in a field that was dominated by men. On June 9 1975, just a year before her death at the age of 93, curator and author Paul J. Karlstrom, along with photographer Louise Katzman, interviewed Cunningham at her home in San Francisco as part of part of the Smithsonian Archives of American Art Oral History Program. Lucid, spirited, and not a little cantankerous, Cunningham related her philosophies on life and photography, and what it was like to be part of Group f/64 — a cadre of seven influential San Francisco photographers that also included Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.

Below are excerpts from that oral history interview, published ahead of Christie’s online auction of classic photography (18 November to 3 December), which includes Cunningham’s famous Magnolia Blossom, 1925.

I was brought up on art. You see, my father thought I had a great hand at art and he sent me to art school on Saturdays. That was because of my report card in the general public schools. I had one teacher who was so keen about art. For instance, she put me in the back row — the very last seat — so that I could draw all the people in the room if I wanted to, and when I had my lessons done. And those things influenced my father who said, ‘You should go to art school.’ But he did not want me to become a photographer on account of the money, which he knew nothing about. He said, ‘Why should you go to school so long and just turn out a photographer?’

I had a hell of a life at times. You know, you can’t bring up three kids of the same age without working at it. I didn’t have what you'd call ‘work’ at that time. I worked, but I didn’t have what you'd call ‘work’. I never showed. I didn’t do anything. You know, people weren’t so avid about it. We didn’t mind cutting out a few things and doing what we had to do.

I don’t think there’s any such thing as teaching people photography, other than influencing them a little. Or maybe inspire them, or perk them up. People have to be their own learners. They have to have a certain talent, and kind of an eye.

I turn people into human beings by not making them into gods. When people ask me silly questions about my private life, I just say, ‘I don't discuss that’. And now someone’s writing something on Edward [Weston], on all of his mistresses. They made too much out of it. That’s not Edward. If it is, it’s his own business, nobody else’s. I don't enjoy reading it. Of course, I did say that Margrethe Mather was my favourite mistress of his collection.

There are certain things you don’t discuss with Ansel [Adams], especially if you don’t agree.

What is the greatest torture of a person who does portraits for a living? I could fill several volumes with nice nasty stories. I don’t know. I don’t love the world. I think Jupiter should have hit us. I like a lot of people in it, just a few. I know a lot of people are going to resent my not answering their letters. I can show you my two boxes of unanswered letters. I can’t get down to it.

When you do portraits professionally, it’s not a desire, it’s for money. But, I have done a lot of portraits without money. And whenever I see anything that I want to do, I do it. But I’m not forced to do it. I photographed a man, it must have been thirty years ago, who was a chemist and a darling young man. He had one very, very cross-eye. All the time I did him, I figured on how I could conceal the effect of that cross-eye. So I asked him to come back. He came very willingly, not asking me why. And I did him with the light, not paying any attention to the cross-eye. He ordered from both. He knew he had a cross-eye and he didn’t care.

I wouldn’t have used an ugly man. But I would refuse a pretty woman immediately. I’ve no interest in what people call beauty.

I don’t talk about success. I don’t know what it is. Wait until I’m dead.

On that Judy Dater photograph (above)…

The one Judy Dater did of me last summer, at the Yosemite Workshop […] I was up there last August, and I told the students that whatever they did in the class situation was for the waste basket. I don’t think they liked that. Now, I was way behind in the woods, and Judy called me. I didn’t know what she had on the side, and I simply put on an act for her.

On living in Seattle…

I was poor. When you’re poor you work, and when you’re rich you expect somebody to hand it to you. So I think being reasonably poor—that is, not hungry—is very good for people. I don’t resent anything.

On Magnolia Blossom, 1925

That photograph […] has almost been destroyed by its popularity. But it has not. A boy who has worked for me before said to me one day, ‘You know, I think you should leave that magnolia out of your material.’ And I said, ‘I know. You're tired of spotting it.’ He said, ‘What are you going to do with the money?’ I said, ‘I'm going to save it for my old age.’ So you know, now it’s even more popular. Much more popular. It’s just ridiculous.

On the influence of Ansel Adams …

I look at Ansel’s [photography] as his and I’m influenced. I could be influenced technically. I think he’s perfection. But, I always say that’s for Ansel and I’m not so particular. I can’t use a big format camera. I don’t mind. You know, I would like to be as much of a perfectionist as Ansel is. But it would inhibit my interest in what I’m going to achieve, if I think I’ll achieve anything. That’s why the little camera. It’s more flexible.

On the influence of the f/64 Group…

Unexplainable. Absolutely. We weren’t all geniuses, believe me. I think if you asked to see the whole show that’s at the San Francisco Museum, you’d realise it wasn’t all great stuff. Not by any means. Nobody was avid about it. I think perhaps Weston was a little more remote because he was away, and then he went to Mexico. So, there were lots of reasons for our not being actively together. We didn’t live near each other, nor live together. The business of ganging up was just to talk about photography. It was not really like an organisation, as I saw it. I understand that Ansel has a different point of view about it than I do. I think he thinks he gave the name to it. And I know he didn’t. It was [Willard] Van Dyke. Van Dyke was more of the motor power of it than anybody. My notion.

On being ‘an important person in the history of photography’…

Well, I don’t know. It’s very annoying. It might turn out that way in the end, if I don’t do anything too dreadful from now on.

Excerpted and redacted for length and clarity from Oral History interview with Imogen Cunningham, 9 June 1975, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. To read the full, unabridged transcript, and to listen to audio excerpt from the original recording, visit the Archives of American Art’s website, here.

Main image: Imogen Cunningham, Magnolia Blossom, 1925, gelatin silver print

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