(From Wikipedia, the
Cunningham (April 12, 1883 - June 24, 1976) was an American photographer
known for her photography of botanicals, nudes and industry.
Cunningham was born in Portland, Oregon. In 1901, at the age of 18,
Cunningham bought her first camera, a 4x5 inch view camera, from the
American School of Art in Scranton, Pennsylvania. She soon lost interest
and sold the camera to a friend. It wasn’t until 1906, while studying at
the University of Washington in Seattle, that she was inspired by an
encounter with the work of Gertrude Kasebier to take up photography again.
With the help of her chemistry professor, Dr. Horace Byers, she began to
study the chemistry behind photography; she subsidized her tuition by
photographing plants for the botany department.
After graduating in 1907 she went to work with Edward S. Curtis in his
Seattle studio. This gave Cunningham the valuable opportunity to learn
about the portrait business and the practical side of photography.
In 1909, Cunningham won a scholarship from her sorority (Pi Beta Phi) for
foreign study and, on advice from her chemistry professor, applied to
study with Professor Robert Luther at the Technische Hochshule in Dresden,
In Dresden she concentrated on her studies and didn’t take many photos. In
May 1910 she finished her paper, “About the Direct Development of Platinum
Paper for Brown Tones”, describing her process to increase printing speed,
improve clarity of highlights tones and produce sepia tones. On her way
back to Seattle she met Alvin Langdon Coburn in London, and Alfred
Stieglitz and Gertrude Kasebier in New York.
Once back in Seattle she opened her own studio and won acclaim for
portraiture and pictorial work. Most of her studio work of this time
consisted of sitters in their own homes, in her living room, or in the
woods surrounding Cunningham's cottage. She became a sought after
photographer and exhibited at the Brooklyn Academy of Arts and Sciences in
In 1914 Cunningham's portraits were shown at “An International Exhibition
of Pictorial Photography” in New York and a portfolio of her work was
published in Wilson's Photographic Magazine.
The next year she married Roi Partridge, an etcher and artist. He posed
for a series of nude photographs, which were shown by the Seattle Fine
Arts Society. Although critically praised, wider society didn’t approve of
such images and Cunningham didn’t revisit the pictures for another 55
Between 1915 and 1920 Cunningham continued her work and had three children
(Gryffyd, Randal and Padraic) with Roi. Then in 1920 they left Seattle for
San Francisco where Roi taught at Mills College.
In San Francisco, Cunningham refined her style, taking a greater interest
in pattern and detail as seen in her works of bark textures, trees, and
zebras. Cunningham became increasingly interested in botanical
photography, especially flowers, and between 1923 and 1925 carried out an
in-depth study of the magnolia flower. Later in the decade she turned her
attention towards industry, creating several series of industrial
landscapes throughout Los Angeles and Oakland.
In 1929, Edward Weston, nominated 10 of Cunningham's photos (8 botanical,
1 industrial and 1 nude) for inclusion in the "Film und Foto" exhibition
in Stuttgart. Cunningham once again changed direction to become more
interested in the human form, particularly hands (and a further
fascination with the hands of artists and musicians). This interest led to
her employment by Vanity Fair, photographing stars without make-up or
false glamour. In 1932, with this unsentimental, straightforward approach
in mind, Cunningham became one of the co-founders of the Group f/64, which
aimed to “define photography as an art form by a simple and direct
presentation through purely photographic methods”.
In 1934 Cunningham was invited to do some work in New York for Vanity
Fair. Her husband wanted her to wait until he could travel with her but
she refused and they later divorced. She continued her work with Vanity
Fair until it stopped publication in 1936.
In the 1940s Cunningham turned to documentary street photography which she
did as a side project whilst supporting herself with her commercial and
studio photography and later on with teaching at the California School of
Cunningham continued to take pictures until shortly before her death at
age 93 on June 24, 1976 in San Francisco, California.