Imogen Cunningham’s picture, Tower of Jewels Magnolia Blossom (1925), is so detailed that the natural beauty of the magnolia bud is transformed into the synthetic beauty of cut gems. This particular flower is newly opened and portrays an air of pristine elegance and perfection. The stamens curl lusciously out from the bud alluding to the intricate line work of the art nouveau period. Though Cunningham was not an active member of the women’s rights movement, her plant can be described as a feminine beauty.
Even though plant subjects such as Tower of Jewels were her most famous pieces, the foundation of Cunningham’s career focused on commissioned portraits, which she used to support herself and her family. In about 1915, Cunningham’s style gradually developed into a modernist perspective. During this period she was raising three sons, so her work was frequently tied to local plant life and her children.
Tower of Jewels Magnolia Blossom is produced in a sharp clear focus that emphasizes Cunningham’s newfound dedication to wide open apertures. The artist was strongly influenced by modernist photographers she met. The work of these photographers moved away from soft mysticism into stark realism that offended many of the pictorialist leaders in photography. Pictorialists believed that in order for photography to become a fine art-form it must be painterly in nature. Cunningham and a few other photographers, in contrast, supported realism in photography over painterly tactics. They founded a group called f/64, which proposed that photography must reach fine art status through purely photographic methods.
Cunningham actually published material that pushed for women to take up work. In her article, “Photography as a Profession for Women,” Cunningham demanded that women should not take up work to equal themselves to men, but to find their real work. She believed that women who were active in a profession grew significantly in their cultural sophistication. To support this idea she states, “I cannot see that a woman of conspicuous leisure grows old more graciously than does her energetic and creatively active sister.”
This post is an excerpt from a research paper that was written by Krystal Richie, a student in ART 3683: History of 20th Century Art, in the Fall of 2009.