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Imogen Cunningham

Ansel Adams interview from Judy Dater, Imogen Cunningham: A Portrait

Ansel Adams, photographer

"I met Imogen around 1920 when I was visiting Mills College with Albert Bender. Albert was a great patron of the arts in the San Francisco area, and I used to drive him up to Mills on some of his trips, when he was carrying books as gifts to the library Roi Partridge was teaching at Mills then, and Imogen was doing some photography for the college.

"Then Imogen joined us when we founded Group f/64 in 1932. I'd like to think that that was about the time she really began to realize her creative potential. Her work became more extroverted, she became more aware of the different things others were doing, and that was stimulating to her.

"Just after that she had this wonderful opportunity to go back East to take photographs for Vanity Fair. She was so thrilled. It was the first chance she had had to really get out into the professional world. Up to this time she'd mostly been doing photographs of girls graduating from Mills and bringing up those three red-headed boys. She was tired of all that, and here was a chance to do something expansive. On that trip she got to photograph some very important people, and that gave her self-confidence and stabilized her. That was when she did that portrait of Stieglitz, which I've always thought was an absolutely superior job, full of understanding. Knowing Stieglitz, I can imagine the difficulties involved in taking his picture. Stieglitz once told me that he thought Imogen and Anne Brigman were the only two women important in western photography.

"I've heard people say that Imogen felt competitive with me. But in fact there was very little we competed on. In the first place, I'm not a portrait photographer, or only a very occasional one. Possibly rather than competitiveness, she may have felt a little resentment over my perhaps more obvious success. I guess I had more shows, more commercial jobs - but I think she didn't want those anyway. I was just extremely lucky. For one thing, during those bad times in the early thirties Albert Bender was there to help me along. There were plenty of other talented photographers around, but somehow things happened to go right for me. I think my "success" was also tied in with my conservation work. But it was not all that it appeared - I had quite a time making ends meet in those days, just like everyone else.

"There was one sore point I remember. In 1931 Mills asked me to do a catalogue for their School of Science. I had just started the year before to try to make my living from photography rather than from teaching piano, and I really needed the money. And I never thought that Imogen considered Mills as exclusively her domain, so I took the job. But it turned out that she was rather put out about it.

"Another sore point was my first technical book, Making a Photograph, which came out in 1935. I used only one photograph in it that was not by me, and that was Dorothea Lange's Bread Line. Well, Imogen was jealous, annoyed that I hadn't included her too. She always felt caught between Dorothea and me; Dorothea because of her feeling for the human side, and me because of my craftsmanship.

"I've always had a feeling that Imogen's final print never quite achieved what she had intended. Her printing was extremely uneven. Some had a perfectly gorgeous quality, but some made me feel, "Jesus, what a great pianist - but the piano's not very good!" You know, in the early days she was thrown together with painters a lot, and painters don't worry about photography, especially photographic technique. So Imogen wasn't very exacting about the way she made photographs. She was inclined to be a little sloppy.

"She used to say to me, "I don't know why I try to print when you're around." And I'd tell her that it wasn't hard to be a good printer - everybody should be. But then I saw her darkroom! The drying racks were of cheesecloth, and they must have been there for years. They were brown! She just said, 'They do look a bit dingy, don't they?" So she had Ron - I think it was Ron - replace them with racks made of plastic fly screen, like those I use. We never talked about technical matters much, though. She did ask me once what bromide did in the developer - she knew it did something. She'd ask simple questions and expect simple answers.

"Imogen used to give me a hard time about what she considered my "too-commercial" side. That was probably another legacy of her being around painters so much. She felt I wasn't enough the artist, wasn't following the studio tradition. Art with a capital A. She had had some commercial jobs, and I think she didn't trust advertising. So she didn't do commercial work to speak of, just a few portraits. She did make photographs of artists' works, and Albert Bender got her some jobs. in fact he bought photographs from her. He gave me a print of the Magnolia Blossom, one of the most beautiful photographs I've ever owned.

"In any case, I know she disapproved of that Hills Brothers coffee can that came out about 1968 - the one with one of my Yosemite snow scenes on it. She made that very clear. She sent me one of the cans with a marijuana plant growing in it! And then there was the television commercial I did for Datsun. For every test-drive a potential customer took, Datsun would have a seedling planted by the U.S. Forest Service. I thought it was a pretty good idea to get some trees planted, and if you have to have cars, at least Datsuns get good mileage. But Imogen didn't see it that way. I heard about the takeoff she did of it in Ann Hersheys movie, selling grave plots. I can just imagine her chuckling over the idea.

"I used to say that Imogen's blood was three percent acetic acid. She seemed to have an acid reaction to so many things, and she could be very abrupt. But she had another side too. I remember the evening that Dorothea Lange told us that her marriage to Maynard Dixon was breaking up. Dorothea came in, took a deep breath, and said, "I'm leaving Maynard." Well, it was a harrowing moment. We were all close friends of both Maynard and Dorothea; no one knew what to say. And Imogen just burst into tears! I would have expected her to be very stoic, to make some pointed remark. But she cried. I think a lot of that "acidity" was put on, and deep down she was really very soft, very emotional."


 


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