As “History of Twentieth Century Art” student Emily McLain notes in this week’s post, photographer Imogen Cunningham is best known for her semi-abstract floral photographs of the 1920s. (Indeed, our blog post on her Magnolia Blossom has consistently been the most-read post since it went up four years ago.) But in this post, McLain takes a closer look a photograph from much later in the photographer’s career: one with an edgier, less straightforwardly beautiful take on abstraction.
Cunningham is known for being one of the greatest American photographers and had one of the longest careers of the medium. She was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1883 and lived in the Pacific Northwest most of her life. She obtained her first camera in 1901 for $15 and explored many subjects until she passed away in 1976. Much of Cunningham’s work is comprised of studies of nudes and plant forms. The floral images she produced in the 1920s remain her most famous work. Later in life, during the time Self Portrait on Geary Street was taken, Cunningham had largely turned to portraiture and documentary street photography.
Cunningham is associated with Group f.64, a San Francisco-based photography community. According to biographer Richard Lorenz, the name comes from “the smallest aperture available on a large format camera” which “implies images of the greatest depth of focus and the sharpest detail.” The primary directive of this group was to take only pure and unmanipulated photographs. Though the group only put on one exhibition, it is remembered as an icon of this so-called “straight photography.” Cunningham’s work often strayed outside the group’s standards; she experimented with numerous photography techniques including double exposure.
Self Portrait on Geary Street is a black and white photograph of Imogen Cunningham reflected in a mirrored pillar in front of a cluttered storefront. The heavy blacks and whites are typical of Cunningham’s style of photography. The placement of the figure is an interesting choice; not centered but just slightly to the left to that part of her body is not reflected, almost as though she is trying to hide. The objects lying on the ground, as well as the shadows cast by the building, seem to point toward Cunningham, directing the viewer’s eye toward her. This emphasizes the isolation of the figure, contained entirely in the mirror, shrinking away slightly from the viewer.
Next week: student Tyler Prahl offers a second perspective on this intriguing image.