Thursday, March 10, 2011

Imogen and I

Imogen Cunningham (1883~1976) was an American photographer mainly known for portraits and nudes in both Pictorialist and Group f/64 photographic styles. I found out from many sources that she was a pioneer who broke traditions and taboos in photography, and began to take outdoor nude pictures of men, children, and family in the early 1900s. Her earlier photography looks quite contemporary and inspires me to push my limitations. I have followed Cunningham’s footprints while creating hundreds of images in studio, on the street, and on location. It was a great journey that linked me artistically and psychologically to this master photographer who once lived in San Francisco. I reviewed more than 950 works of hers and experimentally emulated Two Sisters (1928), Martha Graham (1931), Hand Weaving with Hand (1945), Woman in a Polish Restaurant (1961), Self-Portrait (1968), and My Label (1973) in studio, on the street, and on location. To experience one of the most difficult shootings in Cunningham’s photography, I also traveled to a forest for my self-nudes and chose the place, lights, poses, frames, focus, and exposures referring to her works (Self-Portraits, 1906). I took all these pictures in her later photographic style, f/64, to show great detail in every part of the images. When my shooting was almost done, however, I felt connected to and inspired by her through the work that I did and felt a sense of emptiness because she was not there. I wished I could see her and listen to her in person, but there was no way to overcome the huge gap of time between us as she passed away thirty years ago. It was somewhere on Geary Street, where Cunningham used to go for shooting, where an idea came to my mind; I pretended that I was with her when she was taking her self-portraits, mainly her shadow images, and recreated those images by adding my shadows next to hers as shown above (Imogen and I on Tree Stump). Even though she never knew me, I could feel more affiliation with her during this experiment in my studio, a closed space. Pretending Cunningham and I met, I projected self-shadow portraits of hers onto a large screen in the studio, and added the shadows from my body using a tungsten lamp. I was acting in front of the screen like a friend of hers while the camera recorded my poses in self-timer mode.
Cunningham began to photograph in 1901 at the age of 18 with her first 4x5 view camera. However, until she met Alfred Stieglitz on her way back home from two years of studying in Germany, she had not been active in taking pictures. Her professional career in photography actually began in 1910 when she opened her own studio in Seattle. In her early stage of photography, from 1910 to 1917, she explored in the Pictorial photographic style and used to invite her family and friends to her studio, dress them up in costumes, and take pictures. She married Roi Partridge, a printmaker, in Seattle and tried a groundbreaking concept in her photography, outdoor male nudes, with her husband as a model. At that time, the male nude genre still was not commonly experimented with or accepted in photography. Her outdoor male nude photographs, received a lot of criticisms from people and she hid the negative plates of the pictures for about fifty years because she was hurt. After she moved to San Francisco in 1917 following her husband’s teaching job at Mills College, she refined her photographic style from soft-focus, a Pictorialist’s tradition, to Straight Photography, influenced by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, who led the tradition on the West Coast at that time. Later on, she officially joined Group f/64 and their annual exhibitions in 1932. Her photographs of Martha Graham, a famous dancer, were published in Vanity Fair, a leading fashion magazine, and surprised people by their humble and natural look. When she photographed famous people from Hollywood, fashion, and arts, she liked to photograph them in everyday settings. Such style and intentions in photography made her a unique and leading photographer at that time. I think that photographers gradually develop their own photographic styles and creative choices. Imogen Cunningham also experienced both huge photographic traditions in the past, Pictorial and Straight Photography, worked for both fine art and commercial photography, and created both literal and surreal images. Studying her photography and life, I think I can get some ideas and directions for my own work. She was a courageous and creative photographer who encourages me to challenge myself.

All rights reserved © 2011, Gabe Sheen, San Francisco, CA, USA

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