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Lessons from the masters: Imogen Cunningham

The post Lessons from the Masters: Imogen Cunningham first appeared at Digital Photography School. It is written by Adam Welch.

It is easy enough to develop the illusion that the legendary names honored by the history of photography were somehow so different from ourselves. Although it is certainly true that the photographic climate has changed, we still share the same passion for art as those who clicked on shutters fifty years or even a century ago. Many of them faced the same challenges, inspirations, successes and failures as we do. Maybe that's why I like to learn more about the giants of photography and apply lessons from their work to my photos.

In this part of ' Lessons from the Masters ' let's take a closer look at the work of the treasured Imogen Cunningham. Her determination and heroism made her collaborate with other photographers from the 20th century. The contributions she has made to photography as art have helped shape the photographic landscape that we know today.

Imogen Cunningham

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Self-portrait with Korona View, 1933 © 2019 Imogen Cunningham Trust

Named after the heroine of the Shakespeare play Cymbeline, Imogen Cunningham entered this world on April 12, 1883. She was born to fairly paradoxical parents (her father a spiritualist and her mother Methodist) in Portland, Oregon. She was a self-described ' bad-tempered ' "Child.

When she was 18 years old, she saved enough money to buy her first camera in 1903 (via a mail order), a 4 × 5 type, along with a box with glass plate negatives. She then started to teach herself how to take photos. Cunningham knew that photography would be her life's work, although her path would not be direct.

After graduating from the University of Washington with a degree in chemistry in 1907, Imogen worked with Edward Curtis in his studio in Seattle. There she improved her skills in the dark room while printing his iconic images of Native Americans and the American West.

Two years later, Cunningham received a $ 500 grant that allowed her to continue her studies abroad in Germany. During this time she developed theories about photographic chemistry that are still being applied.

On her return to the west coast of Europe, Imogen made a famous pilgrimage that other notable artists of the time often made and ventured to New York City to meet the legendary Alfred Stieglitz in his "291" gallery. Stieglitz introduced her to Gertrude Käsebier, who was the first professional female photographer at that time.

After this influential meeting Imogen devoted her energy to photography. She opened a studio in Seattle, Washington and soon made a name for herself through portraits.

It was this studio where Imogen earned her life while she found time to delve into more personal work before moving to California in 1917. Unfortunately, she left the majority of her photos and negatives behind, so there is no major a wealth of examples from that period of her career. In 1929, the Film und Foto exhibition in Stuttgart, Germany, took on a selection of ten works from the work of Cunningham. The legendary Group f / 64 was to be formed a few years later, of which Imogen was a founding member. Other founding members were her friend Edward Weston and Henry Swift, John Paul Edwards, Sonja Noskowiak, Ansel Adams and Willard Van Dyke. Over the years, Imogen Cunningham's oeuvre would have been just as eclectic as groundbreaking.

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Imogen photographs Ansel Adams … photographs Half Dome in 1953. © 2019 Imogen Cunningham Trust

After the life of an extraordinary photographic life, Imogen Cunningham died on June 23, 1976 in San Francisco, California at the age of 93.

Now that you know a little about the person, let's dig a little deeper. We will look at a few of the many lessons you can learn from the life, work and attitude of Imogen Cunningham that can help you improve your photography.

Expand your reach

Imogen Cunningham's choice of subject was at least ' diverse & # 39 ;. From her earliest pictorial work to her self-portraits and nudes, it's safe to say that the idea of ​​sticking to one subject or even one genre was not something that impeded Imogen Cunningham's creative spirit. She believed that photos presented themselves to her organically.

She rarely went ' searched for things to shoot ' but preferred to appeal to the aesthetic consciousness. I mean, come on, she was even one of the early practitioners of street photography before there was street photography!

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Hashbury, 1967. © 2019 Imogen Cunningham Trust

Many of Imogen's most iconic photographs tended to use light and shadow to present ordinary scenes in an extraordinary way by accentuating texture and shapes. She could look past what a subject was to see what it could be. This beautifully simplistic aesthetic is one of the reasons why so many Cunningham prints have a timeless appeal.

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The Unmade Bed, 1957. © 2019 Imogen Cunningham Trust

Sometimes we focus so strongly on getting a particular photo that we overlook other opportunities to produce great work. Although it is true that we can and must visualize how we want the final image to appear, the process is often helped if we remain flexible.

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One of my favorite photos from Imogen Cunningham, "Callas" from around 1925. © 2019 Imogen Cunningham Trust

Don't allow yourself to be tied up by a certain subject or location. This is especially true for us today, while bombarded by social media accounts produce visually similar photos based on a theme rather than personal expression. This leads to an almost unconscious reduction in creativity.

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My own still life photo of lilies that use light and texture to bring out the subtle elegance of a simple subject.

Photograph anything you want, even if it may not suit what you generally photograph.

Feel the fear … do it anyway

One of my favorite quotes from Imogen Cunningham is as follows:

"… you can't expect things to be smooth, easy and beautiful. You just have to work, find your way and do everything you can."

Without a doubt Imogen was a highly independent, capable and witty woman who pursued her work with an intensity of purpose. At the same time she was human. She faced challenges, hardships and fear, just as we all do.

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The key to overcoming your self-doubt is to keep moving forward. I think this is where Cunningham came here. It is not that we should strive to be fearless, but instead work to be tireless in the face of fear or our lack of trust.

When it comes to photography, there will always be areas where we don't feel as good or competent as we would like. However, that should not stop you from thinking that you will always feel that way. Take it from Imogen. Work hard and accept that you will not always find yourself in easy situations. But never give up.

Interface with other photographers

Surrounded by other photographers, like many other determining artists of her time, Imogen loved to discuss all aspects of the photo work. As a founding member of Group f / 64, she understood the value of sharing ideas and concepts with other photographers who approached the medium with the same zeal as she. They learned from each other and worked to further develop the profession.

One of the most enlightening and fun things I have ever done in this regard was to start the ongoing ITOW project (In their Own Words). This project consists of interviewing other photographers that I know personally or with whom I communicate on social media. The insights gained through these discussions continue to contribute to deepening my own appreciation for the way other people view photography.

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Van Seth Doyle via Unsplash

Whenever possible, take the time to get to know other photographers and talk openly and honestly about photography. This does not mean that you have to have a conversation with someone you see carrying a camera with you, but it is always interesting to investigate how others make their images and why.

Global communication has never been this extensive or immediately available. We have the ability to make contact with people we would otherwise never have known existed. One of the greatest assets we have for growing our work is interaction with other people who appreciate the value of photography.

Farewell thinking about Imogen Cunningham

I have been lucky enough to view some of Imogen's original prints and easily understand why she was and still is one of the most influential and successful photographers of all time. Together with other pioneering photographers, we are indebted to Imogen for helping photography for the incredible medium we know today.

The lessons that we can learn from her work go far beyond photography. She helped show that beauty can be found in places and objects we see every day and that we can achieve almost any goal – no matter how far it seems.

I urge you to learn more about Imogen Cunningham, her photos & her beautiful example of a full life.

Author's Note: I would like to express my immense appreciation to The Imogen Cunningham Trust for allowing the use of many of the photos presented in this article.

The post Lessons from the Masters: Imogen Cunningham first appeared at Digital Photography School. It is written by Adam Welch.

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