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Arts & Culture

The Life And Photography Of Imogen Cunningham

"Botanicals: The Photography of Imogen Cunningham" is on view through May 22nd at the Oceanside Museum of Art.
"Botanicals: The Photography of Imogen Cunningham" is on view through May 22nd at the Oceanside Museum of Art.
The Life And Photography Of Imogen Cunningham
Pioneering female photographer Imogen Cunningham was a true iconoclast. We'll talk with Cunningham's granddaughter about her grandmother's life and work, including Cunningham's collection of botanical photographs currently on view at the Oceanside Museum of Art.

Pioneering female photographer Imogen Cunningham was a true iconoclast. We'll talk with Cunningham's granddaughter about her grandmother's life and work, including Cunningham's collection of botanical photographs currently on view at the Oceanside Museum of Art.


Meg Partridge is Imogen Cunningham's granddaughter. She is also director of the Imogen Cunningham Trust.


"Botanicals: The Photography of Imogen Cunningham" is on view through May 22nd at the Oceanside Museum of Art. Meg Partridge will give a talk called "Remembering Imogen" on Saturday, March 5th at 1pm at the Oceanside Museum of Art.

Imogen Cunningham's work can also be viewed at the Art Expressions Gallery in San Diego.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to these days on KPBS. For a woman at the turn of the 20th century, it wasn't easy making a name for yourself as an artist and a photographer. It took determination, perseverance, a tough hide, and a blazing talent. Imogen Cunningham had those qualities, and some of the fruits of those talents are on dismay at the Oceanside museum of art. The exhibition features a series of Cunningham's black and white photographs. These photos and may be other examples of her work firmly establish Imogen Cunningham as one of the premiere photographers of her generation. I'd like to welcome my guest. Meg Partridge is Imogen Cunningham's granddaughter. She is also director of the Imogen Cunningham Trust. And Meg, good morning. Thanks for coming in.

PARTRIDGE: Good morning. Pleasure to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Your grandmother pushed some boundaries as a young woman. For instance, she photographed her husband on Mount Rainier in the nude.


PARTRIDGE: Yes. Pretty entertaining at that time, quite unusual, i think. And what was really quite funny about that story is, she photographed Roy on Mount Rainier in 1915, and it was later published in the Seattle times. And it was quite a sensation there, and caused quite a stir apparently.

CAVANAUGH: Because women photographing male nude --

PARTRIDGE: Was not done, not deputy. And yet they were very beautiful images of a person -- Roy was very small in the over all image, for the most part. It was really a series of images presenting the landscape with Roy in it. But it wasn't anything unusual today. But it certainly was at that time.

CAVANAUGH: Right. What kind of reaction did she get to these photographs? Were people abashed?

PARTRIDGE: I think they were just very surprised. So what she did is she put them away, and years later, I think in the '70s, she brought them out again and they caused a different kind of sensation. They were very well received.

CAVANAUGH: Much more positive the second time around.

PARTRIDGE: Exactly. And they were very -- they're a very wonderful series of images. She did photograph Roy on mount rainier in Washington, then a couple of years later, she photographed Roy on the Dipsy trail, which is in California, in sort of a similar situation, [CHECK] moments of history now.

CAVANAUGH: Right. I'm speaking with Meg Partridge, she is Imogen Cunningham's granddaughter. We're talking about an exhibit of Imogen Cunningham's photography at the Oceanside museum of art. What was she passionate about when it came to photography?

PARTRIDGE: You know, I think Imogen said thing that were sort of -- that rang true throughout or whole life. She said things like I like to photograph anything that can be exposed to light. And I think that's so true of her. She photographed her surroundings, her family, her friends, and she actually worked with a portrait photographer -- commercially for most of her life, and her entire productive life she also did that as a form of making a living. And interestingly enough, those photographs are not the ones that come to the top of the pile when people think of Imogen because she was, I think, so prolific. And more than anything else, her prolific determination to photograph every day made her the photographer she was. She also was a good editor. It always takes -- it takes an eye and it takes a good editorial eye. I think she had them both. When I was -- in 1980, I archived the negatives of her whole life's work. And it was phenomenal if go through those. It's like oh, no, no, no, oh, look at this beautiful image. But she really took a tremendous number of images to get to that one beautiful image. And that was a real eye opener for me when I archived her negatives because I saw how many she took to get one good one.

CAVANAUGH: Now, what was she look as a grandmother? ?

PARTRIDGE: Oh, my gosh of she was not your ordinary grandmother. That's for sure. She didn't have much use for grand children until they became of use, as it were.

CAVANAUGH: That's funny.

PARTRIDGE: As a young kid, we went to openings and museum shows, and we went to her galleries, and we visited her and did all of those things. But you know, we were just peripheral. We were kind of wall paper until the time when we could be of use. And that, for me, turned out to be when I was about 14 or 15. I was looking for a job, and I was saying to my dad, oh, I really need to get a job. And Imogen was there, and Imogen said, well, come and spot for me. So I started working for her as a teenager. And that was a tremendously valuable experience because I got to know her. And I would never have gotten to know her. She wouldn't have spent the time with me, for instance, had I not been in her environment.

CAVANAUGH: And just so that everyone knows, spotting is something that you do with photography. Literally getting tiny little dust specks out of the photograph, right?

PARTRIDGE: Exactly, it's removing tiny little dust specks that are created when you expose film between the enlarger and the paper. And it's now done in photo shop issue it's called dust and scratches. So the only memory we have of it today --


PARTRIDGE: Is me and a couple of titles and a couple of directors of photo shop. But it's still done if you are in the dark room making silver gelatin prints.

CAVANAUGH: Now, your grandmother, Imogen Cunningham, lived to Ia great age.


CAVANAUGH: And she was quite well known, quite celebrated, legendary even, especially in her later years, and a lot of young photographers would come to her to show her their work. What kind of a response did they get?

PARTRIDGE: Imogen was actually very generous. She taught at the local art college, which was at that time called San Francisco art institute. And so -- and she had her number, her telephone number published in the telephone book. So if anyone wanted to pursue chasing her down and calling her up, they could easily do that. So often young photographs would do that, I that would bring her their portfolios, call her up, [CHECK] and I would 15 or so at the time. She lived in a very small house. We called them earthquake houses in San Francisco, built right after the 1906 earthquake, about a thousand square feet. So I was in the [CHECK] would be entertaining her youthful guest and seeing her -- the fort folio that they were presenting. When they were presenting good working she couldn't have gone more enthusiastic. She was tremendously supportive. You should do this, stop what you're doing, become a photographer. You know, she changed people's lives in an instant. And that was very rewarding for people. But when she found -- this is really terrible, and we saw this time and again, when she found that people presented portfolios to her that was really not up to par and she did not foresee there was much a future in this young person's adventure in photography, she would look for the -- through the portfolio very quietly, you could hear the flip, flip, flip of the papers. And then at the end you'd hear this clap, and the portfolio would close, and she'd hand it over and say, well, young man, what else do you like to do? And if he said something like oh, I'm a great skier. She'd say, I think you should become a ski instructor.


PARTRIDGE: And that was it. I'm sure that changed lives too.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, ying one way and the other.

PARTRIDGE: She was very outspoken.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Meg Partridge, Imogen Cunningham's granddaughter. We're talking about a new exhibit at the Oceanside Museum of art featuring Imogen Cunningham's botanical photographs. How did she start photographing botanicals?

PARTRIDGE: Her work in botanicals came in the early 20s, late 1910s, she had married, and by 1917 had three children. As she said, I had three children in two-year, and what could I do? She said I couldn't get out of the garden, out of the yard are. So what she did was she photographed plants. And it was the beginning of her lifelong photography in plants because she was photographing what was around her. Now, what was around her was no different than what was around any of us. But she pursued it with tenacity that I think you can see if you look at seven years of work. And it's pretty impressive to start so small and yet succeed so well.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I wonder if you could -- there's the idea of her botanical photographs which are so clear and so really stark and beautiful, and I'm wondering if you can see a link between that and the paintings of Georgia O'Keefe. They seem on the surface, at least, to me, they seem somewhat similar. Would you agree?

PARTRIDGE: I absolutely agree. I think there was a pursuit in the art world, I think it was sort of -- for lack of a better word, in the air. There was a pursuit in the art world to see something really cleanly and precisely and with clarity. And it left, I think at that period of time, we were leaving the pictorialism of the early 1900s. And we really see a change happening. And I don't know how much interaction and relationship there was in fact between those two individual artists. But I think over all, you could see a tendency to work in many fields of the art world within those fields in a similar pursuit. And shortly after that, the F64 organization was established.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, tell us a little bit more about F64 because that was sort of a break with the past, these sort of lyrical, dreamy photographs of the late nineteenth century. Your grandmother, Imogen Cunningham, was a pivotal figure in this movement.

PARTRIDGE: Exactly, the F64 was first of all named for the smallest F stop that you could get on a length at the time. And what that meant, what that translated to, the technical aspect of that was that it was the most precise depth of field for the greatest distance. So the images were in sharp focus from foreground to background. And so that's why they called it F64. And people like Edward Weston and Imogen, they got together, it was a west coast group of friends. And it was really a lot more casual, I think, we look back at it as a turning point because it was, in fact, a turning point for many, many people in many different sort of parts of the country. Of but in fact, it was a casual group of people who got together and had one exhibit of their work. And it was I think a turning point for many of those image artists to really redefine where they were going in their work. And these individual artists happened to be quite well known at the end of their lives.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, are the botanicals some of your friends?

PARTRIDGE: Absolutely. I also love her early work in the family. Of course I love it because I look through and my father was one of the twins, that's why she had three children in two years.


PARTRIDGE: And I see that and it humors me. What could I say? But there was a sense of iconic imagery in her photographs of people as well. Which I think was one of her strong suits. She really captured the essential parts of a person's personality.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I want -- I want you to leave us with one of your favorite stories about your grandmother. And it takes us back to one of those earthquake cottages that you were talking about before where she could see people sort of coming in the distance, you know? Perhaps with their fort folios. Tell us about that.

PARTRIDGE: Yes. Of well, Imogen was rather well known my entire life, and quite well known toward the end of her life. I mean, she was well known when I was a kid. So we would go over to her house, and she would have a lot of people coming in and visiting, and oftentimes she was -- it was taking up a lot of time from her work in the dark room. So she would look out her window, and she had a view to the street, and she could see who was coming. And my sister and I, we were 8 and 10 at the time. We were still wallpaper, but she used us to her best endeavors of she saw that it was at 1 point, 1 day, she saw someone coming up the path who she was familiar with and knew that would take a lot of time so she said, quick! Megsy and Bets! I was Megsy. Quick! Get the surfaces. And we knew exactly what that meant because we'd done this more than once. And what we did was we took piles of paper and books and whatever we could find and filled every horizontal surface, all of the chairs, you will of the couches, and when the woman came to the door, it was a glass door, and she'd open it and say oh, Mrs. So-and-so, I am so glad you came. But as you can see, and she would make this extended gesture into the living room, I have no place for you to sit today! And she would get them out off of her porch in about three minutes flat. Meanwhile, Betsy and I, Megsy and Bets in the corner, would be just dying of laughter and giggling and having fits. But of course they thought it was just two little kids laughing, they didn't know we were all in cahoot.

CAVANAUGH: That's a wonderful story. And of course! She had work to do.

PARTRIDGE: She had work to do.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for coming in to speak with us today.

PARTRIDGE: It was a total pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: Meg Partridge is Imogen Cunningham's granddaughter. And Imogen Cunningham's exhibit, botanicals, the photography of Imogen Cunningham, is on view through May 22nd at the Oceanside museum of art. If you would like to comment, please go on-line, Days. Coming up, it's our weekend preview here on KPBS.