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“Seen and Unseen: Photographs by Imogen Cunningham” at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art.

“Seen and Unseen: Photographs by Imogen Cunningham” at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art.

Article written by Caroline Haller


Prolific American photographer Imogen Cunningham was born in 1883 in Portland, Oregon. As part of the acclaimed San Francisco Bay Area Art Photographers, Cunningham belonged to Group f/64. Cunningham was a teacher at both Mills College and the California School of Fine Arts. In 2004, Cunningham was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and was the first ever to receive the Dorothea Lange award. Cunningham’s work is held in several public and private collections across the world, such as the collection of Elton John.

After 20 years, Cunningham’s photographs are finally touring the U.S. again in a new exhibition. The exhibition “Seen & Unseen: Photographs by Imogen Cunningham” opened on May 11th at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art. Organized by the Imogen Cunningham Trust and Photographic Traveling Exhibitions of Los Angeles, CA, it features photographs from many stages of Cunningham’s career.[1]

Cunningham began taking photographs in 1901 when she ordered her first camera from the American School of Art in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The 4x5 inch view camera ignited her career which would span seven decades and produce photographs in the major thematic areas of 20th century photography. Cunningham left her mark on pictorialism, photographed nudes, dabbled in abstract photographs, shot botanicals and even took celebrity portraits. Her later career showed her interest in industrial and street photography.

Cunningham was a lifelong learner. She was always passionate about learning and the experiences life had to offer. In 1907, Cunningham graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Chemistry. Her thesis was titled "Modern Processes of Photography.” During the process of gaining her degree, Cunningham learned emulsion printing and made money taking botanical shots.

During her lifetime, Cunningham cultivated an abundant network of acquaintances which propelled her career forward. She worked with Edward S Curtis on his book The North American Indian. She took portraits of dancer and choreographer Martha Graham for Vanity Fair in 1931. Cunningham’s photographs of Frida Kahlo have become some of her better-known works. She collaborated with photographers Alvin Langdon Coburn, Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams and Gertrude Käsebier.

One photograph that can be seen in “Seen & Unseen: Photographs by Imogen Cunningham” is The Unmade Bed (Fig.1). The cropped image displays the upturned sheet of the unmade bed. Two dark hairpins puncture the otherwise light and sensuous sheets, playing with both texture and narrative. This photograph was taken in 1957 while Cunningham was teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute. Under Dorothea Lange’s guidance, Cunningham sought to capture images devoid of human presence. Cunningham stated, “one morning I got up and that was the way my bed looked, and I threw my hair pins in it.” The Unmade Bed represents a later trend in Cunningham’s photographic practice where she “[favored] sharp focus, great depth of field, precise exposure and still life subjects.”[2]


(Fig. 1) Imogen Cunningham, The Unmade Bed, 1957, Courtesy of the Imogen Cunningham Trust


The exhibition runs until August 28th! Be sure to check it out if you are nearby!


[1] “Works from Imogen Cunningham, Campbell Collection at Sonoma Valley Museum of Art,” Sonoma Index-Tribune, May 4, 2022, accessed May 11, 2022.


[2] “The Unmade Bed,” Smart Museum of Art The University of Chicago, 2022, accessed May 12, 2022.


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