Imogen Cunningham

at Edwynn Houk Gallery, through March 19

Art’s strongest effects are somewhat mysterious. If there were simple formulas–rectangles mean anger, curves mean joy–works would be boringly predictable, little more than essays. Instead, the best work reveals itself slowly, surprisingly, over time. Curves in one work may express joy, in another anger, and in a third ideas not reducible to emotions. Sometimes a work will achieve effects that seem the opposite of what one might logically predict. An image that at first appears claustrophobic transforms itself after study into a view of infinite space. Pictures that seem to stress the visual differences between their parts soon reveal ineffable unities.

I experienced such a transformation viewing the photographs of Imogen Cunningham, 28 of which are exhibited at Edwynn Houk Gallery through March 19. I’d seen examples of her work before, and they had seemed fine examples of photographs that shape themselves to their subject’s form rather than expressing the photographer’s vision. Some photos in the present show achieve the first end, but in others specificity of form soon becomes less important than Cunningham’s unifying vision.

While Cunningham got her start as a portrait photographer, opening a studio in Seattle in 1910, the strongest works in this show, and the ones she is best known for today, are her plant photographs. In sharply detailed close-ups, the form of each species is captured with a portraitist’s eye for the one perfect angle that will best reveal its uniqueness. The blossom at the center of Magnolia Blossom (1925) is marvelously complex, with dozens of tiny buds and petals adorning its globular surface; it stands out against the leafy white background, commanding the viewer’s attention. Yet while at first glance the picture seems an almost aggressive assertion of the specificity of the blossom’s shape, the more I looked at it the more the blossom and the background leaf started to come together. The various shades of white in the blossom all began to seem different versions of the background white, as if the blossom were a miraculous but temporary apparition only recently emerged from the leaves–a fact true to the life cycle of flowers.

Other plant images contain similar dualities. Agave Design 2 (1920s) is filled with long white leaves making gentle diagonals to the vertical; gray shadows fall across some, but each leaf has many tiny solid black thorns. At first it is the thorns that command attention, their black points standing out against the white, but soon the regularity with which they repeat seems to match the repeating leaf shapes, and the viewer focuses on the composition’s overall unity. Even more strongly unified is the pre-1929 Leaf Pattern, which fills the image with a dense, tapestrylike pattern of dark leaves. Both images transport the viewer out of the grounded spaces of the gallery; one is peering into a lush, leafy world, on the brink of entering a forest or a jungle. The viewer goes from seeing nature’s specific forms to experiencing them as an overall unity of shape and shade, light and shadow, a oneness that lies beyond words.

This duality has its roots in Cunningham’s background. Born in 1883 in Portland, Oregon–an active photographer for most of her life, she died in 1976–she studied chemistry and photographic chemistry at the University of Washington and in Germany, and her first photographic job was as a printer in Edward Curtis’s studio. As she began to work as a portraitist she also made romantic, soft-focus images of nude figures in forests and fields.

Cunningham’s outdoor nudes, two of which, The Supplicant (1910) and Roi on the Dipsea Trail 1 (1918), are in the present show, are in the tradition of turn-of-the-century photographic pictorialism. Photographers used a variety of manipulations to produce “painterly” images at a time when photography was not taken seriously as an art: such soft-focus, atmospheric work was thought to be more artistic than more hard-edged styles. Reproductions of prints by one such photographer, Gertrude Kasebier, caused Cunningham to decide to become a photographer when she saw them as a high school student in 1901.

Later photographers were to judge such attempts to imitate painting false to the medium’s nature. They demanded a style that was faithful to the moment when the negative was made, rather than one based on later alterations in the darkroom. This attitude emerged in the 1920s, and can be seen in Cunningham’s flower photos; in 1932 she, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and others founded “Group f/64,” an informal coalition advocating sharp focus, clarity of form, and an avoidance of manipulation.

Cunningham, never doctrinaire in practice, was always ready to use a double exposure if she thought it suited her subject, but her plant images certainly fit in with the f/64 ethos. Shapes too small to be seen well with the naked eye are revealed in perfect clarity and complete detail as near-miraculous apparitions that are nonetheless solid physical presences. Yet repeated viewings also reveal a glimmer of the girl first inspired by Kasebier and other pictorialists.

The two outdoor nudes in the show, with their moody diffuse light, references to allegorical painting, and exotic attitude, seem dated and perhaps a little silly today. Yet the impulse that inspired them–to take flight from the city to nature, to view nature as all-encompassing and mysterious, to see humans within nature–can be found in greatly altered form in the plant pictures. For all their precision, their disparate parts come together like pieces of some enchanted, otherworldly jungle. The viewer enters, and is immersed in, this unified world.

The best of the portraits exhibit similar dualities. In Martha Graham 27, the famous modern dancer and choreographer sits in a formal, geometric, almost abstract pose. Her legs, both bent at the knees, are spread out on the floor. The shoulder straps of her dress, her legs in the lower foreground, and the lines of light and shadow across her body all recalled for me the precision of her dances. At the same time, the composition is a formally beautiful arrangement of lines and triangles, light and shadow. On Your Head (1930s) shows the torso of a man standing on his head. The picture is dominated by his bare chest, set against a neutral gray background; his facial expression is difficult to discern. The image seems less evocative of human specificity than of light and form.

These are not small, formalist issues but questions that go back to the very beginnings of Western philosophy–to what extent is the world made up of disparate, distinguishable parts, and to what extent are these parts only important in their similarities, as pieces of the whole? Rather than attempting to answer these questions one way or the other, Cunningham poses them as paradoxes.

Most paradoxical is the 1920s Magnolia Bud. This presents a single oblong bud, bright white, set against a black velvet background. At first this pairing seems designed to focus all attention on the bud. It stands out utterly from the black, as if it were proudly declaring itself the only such shape in the world. But the bud is not solid white; on its left side shadows render parts of it in various shades of gray, which start to mediate, for the viewer, between the white and the black. Ultimately these opposites start to seem merely different points at the extremes of the same gray scale–different in shade, but not in kind–and the flower and darkness, so different perceptually, start to seem part of one world.

It took me several visits to see these qualities in Magnolia Bud and the other photos, for these effects are the opposite of those the images first imply. But it was only when I experienced the balance Cunningham achieves between specificity and unity that I came to see her photos as genuine artistic visions, rather than simply as skillful documents.

One lesson I must keep relearning is that art’s deepest effects are subjective and untranslatable; it may take many viewings to reach even a partial appreciation of a major artist’s achievement. In this experience of Cunningham I am in good company. One of her sons wrote, “Most of my life I did not think of Imogen as more than just a good photographer . . . until her show at Stanford in 1967, her first big retrospective. I walked into that show and saw the whole circle of all my mother’s work and I said, “Wow! I’ve been underestimating her all my life!’ At that moment I understood what Imo was all about.”