Semaphoring Memory and Desire

Imogen Cunningham The Unmade Bed 1958

I started out as a magazine photographer. That is, my first break with the Vanity Fair in the 1930’s was taking any order I could get. And now, when People magazine called me, I did the job on Ansel. You knew that. I said to the editor, when he asked me if I would go down there (he didn’t expect me to, I think), “Why sure I will. And if I photograph Ansel, he’ll have to photograph me.” He said, “Could you arrange that?” And I said, “Well, I’m older than Ansel and he has to mind me.” He made it the most easy occasion I’ve ever had. If you ever knew what it’s like to have two boys waiting on you, and not interfering and not being in the way, and the gal that wrote it up never appearing when we were photographing. Always at the right time and not taking any notes, and never misquoting you. It was an extraordinary occasion. But let me tell you, they have not returned the negatives. Ansel wrote me about that. And I telephoned her. She was in New York. The gal that took my message telephoned her in New York and I haven’t heard yet. They have to dig them up. They have no right. They used to have that custom of hoarding them so that nobody else could then take advantage of them. You couldn’t take advantage of the use of them until they’d done their trip. That’s logical.” [Imogen Cunningham in conversation with Louise Katzman and Paul Karlstrom]

Imogen Cunningham False Hellebore 1927

“Her most famous images, close-up studies of plants and flowers taken in the 1920’s, combine modernism’s emphasis on detail and abstraction with essentially romantic subject matter. In a photograph of an agave plant from this period, for example, a delicately sinuous shoot emerges from the hoodlike frond that protects it. Photographed against a black background, the image is a striking study in abstract form, but at the same time pulses with vitality.
Many of Cunningham’s other plant studies are similarly allusive. In another photograph from the 1920’s, for example, the broad leaf of a water hyacinth extends toward the camera like a shiny tongue, and in a depiction of an aloe in a pot, the plant is seen in near-silhouette, with one spiky frond etched in light like a bejeweled point on a crown.” [Charles Hagen on Imogen Cunningham]

Imogen Cunningham Magnolia Blossom 1925

“Like many photographers at the turn of the 20th century, Cunningham was drawn to the blurry, romantic aesthetic called Pictorialism. A pioneer of photographic modernism in the 1920’s, she took the kind of spare, sharp-focus pictures favored by artists like Edward Weston. In the 1930’s she photographed Hollywood personalities for Vanity Fair and also became a documentary street photographer.
Among her masterworks are ”Magnolia Blossom” (1925), which closes in on the crystalline eroticism in a flower; ”Triangles” (1928), a minimalist nude study; and ”The Unmade Bed” (1957), its rumpled sheets and a few hairpins semaphoring memory and desire.” [Margarett Loke on Imogen Cunningham]

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