FRAME|WORK: Magnolia Blossom by Imogen Cunningham

FRAME|WORK is a weekly blog series that highlights an artwork in the Museums' permanent collections. This week, we feature an iconic photograph by renowned Bay Area photographer Imogen Cunningham. Magnolia Blossom is currently not on view, so take some time to stop and smell the flowers (virtually)!

Imogen Cunningham (American, 1883–1976). Magnolia Blossom, 1925 (printed 1930). Gelatin silver print. Museum purchase, M.H. deYoung Memorial Museum. 54042

When Imogen Cunningham enrolled at the University of Washington in 1903, no official photography coursework was offered. Undeterred, Cunningham nonetheless integrated photography into her pursuit of a major in chemistry by examining the chemical properties used in photographic processes.

After she graduated, Cunningham studied with Edward S. Curtis, Seattle’s most successful photographer, today best known for his photographs of Native Americans.

Edward S. Curtis (American, 1868–1952). A Sarsi Kitchen (The North American Indian), 1926. Photogravure print from copper plate. Gift of Mitchell and Nancy Steir. 2005.170.13

After a stint in Germany, where she continued her investigations into photographic printing and processes, Cunningham returned to Seattle to open her own highly successful portrait studio.

In 1920, Cunningham moved with her family to San Francisco. At this time, Cunningham’s photography became increasingly modernist in approach as she began to place her camera closer to the subject, focusing on texture, pattern, and detail to the point of abstraction. This new emphasis led to an interest in botanical subjects, which resulted in an in-depth study of the magnolia flower that she conducted from 1923 to 1925.

Cunningham made sharp-focused photography that was completely unmanipulated, a style that served as the basis for Group f/64, which she co-founded with seven other Bay Area photographers in late 1932. This group was conceived as a counterpoint to Pictorialism, which challenged the notion that photography was merely a mechanical process and espoused the photographer as artist. F/64 is the smallest aperture available on a large-format view camera and when employed renders strikingly precise images. Unlike the overworked aesthetic of Pictorialist photographers like Alfred Stieglitz, Cunningham and the rest of Group f/64 aimed to achieve simple and direct images that celebrated the medium’s exacting nature.

In May of 1932, the de Young Museum acquired this remarkable work. Six months later, the museum hosted the influential inaugural exhibition of Group f/64 consisting of photographs by Cunningham, Ansel Adams, John Paul Edwards, Sonya Noskowiak, Henry Swift, Willard Van Dyke, and Edward Weston. The show ran for six weeks and included nine works by Cunningham priced at $10 each.