Last week, “History of Twentieth Century Art” student Emily McLain introduced our 1958 self portrait by photographer Imogen Cunningham, suggesting some of the ways in which it diverged from the work for which she became renowned early in her career. This week, her fellow student Tyler Prahl offers his own perspective on Cunningham’s dramatic image.
Born in Portland, Oregon in 1883, Imogen Cunningham studied chemistry at the University of Washington, where she wrote a 1907 thesis on the chemical process of photography. After graduation, Cunningham worked for Seattle photographer Edward Curtis, who is most well-known for documenting American Indian culture. She established her own studio in 1910, becoming one of the very first professional women photographers. She later became a part of the first fine art photography department at the California School of Fine Arts, along with Dorothea Lange, Minor White, and the founder of the department, Ansel Adams.
The photograph in OSU’s permanent collection, Self Portrait on Geary Street, is from 1958 and shows a seventy-five-year-old Cunningham in a rather chaotic scene. In a purely photographic sense, this is a beautiful image. It has a wonderful tonal range with very white whites and very dark darks. But despite being visually interesting, it is hard to tell what is actually going on. There is obviously a reflected image of Cunningham in a mirror, but the area surrounding the mirror seems to be in decay. I believe this is a photograph from the street of a storefront that is being redecorated or that has been neglected. To the right of the mirror you can see out, through to the other side of the window, onto the street. To the left you can see several different types of lighting that have been taken down.
I think this photograph draws an interesting, unavoidable comparison. We have an image of an old woman surrounded by what appears to be broken down equipment. Maybe she was saying through this photograph, this is what old looks like, or maybe she was including herself with the broken down because she was feeling broken down. But she was 75 when she took this photograph in 1958, and she worked until her death, at 93, in 1976. Knowing that, I don’t believe that she was focusing on the similarities in the photograph—I think she was highlighting the differences. From looking at her and her career, you get the sense that Cunningham was a strong woman, and in this photograph I feel like that’s what she is saying.
She’s the only one left standing.