Review: Imogen Cunninghan, In Focus at MFA Boston
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Imogen Cunningham is a legend in the photography world. One of the first women to be recognized in her field, her exploration of portraits, still lifes, botanicals, urban landscapes and portraits. Her mastery of darkroom techniques, paired with her stark black-and-white prints, convey as much, if not more, emotion as a color photo.
A gray and seemingly dull room in the Museum of Fine Arts holds some of the most fascinating works of Cunningham in the exhibit, which is titled Imogen Cunningham: In Focus.
Creating a makeshift darkroom in her woodshed, Cunningham began her journey with photos as a teenager in Seattle, Washington. Due to the lack of education and opportunities for up-and-coming photographers, Cunningham studied chemistry and botany. This knowledge can be observed her in her classic close-up photos of nature, which are sometimes compared to paintings by Georgia O’Keefe.
In her photograph Hen and Chickens, Cunningham creates an abstract print of seemingly normal plants. Her use of texture emphasizes the sharp point of each petal, giving the viewer a more detailed look at the succulent. The succulent appears to be a hen-and-chickens plant, which produces runners and rosettes. This photo, which was used to advertise the exhibit, is an example of Cunningham’s ability to create something interesting out of what appears, at first, to be bland.
Another work, named Aloe, is another example of Cunningham’s exploration of nature. This aloe plant is transformed through Cunningham’s lens, adding an ominous pitch black in contrast to the striped back of the plant. The shape is fascinating and does not immediately strike the viewer as being from a plant, demonstrating once again Cunningham’s undeniable ability to transform her subject.
In addition to her work in nature, Cunningham shot portraits of Frida Kahlo, Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Martha Graham and others. The portrait exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts is that of Martha Graham, a renowned dancer and choreographer. Cunningham uses Graham’s expertise in dance, an art of motion, by posing Graham with her hands gesturing below her as her eyes stare downward.
Cunningham also explored urban settings, such as in her photo titled Crown Zellerbach Building, San Francisco. In this particular shot, Cunningham highlights the space between the corner of the building and the dark backdrop of the city. The clear shadow of a tree presents yet another contrast. The smoothness of the building adds a painted appearance, making the photo appear even more magical.
Her impressive collection also includes the photo known as Crab Nets. The shot may hint towards her anti-Vietnam-War attitude, as she began making surrealist still lifes about society in the 1960s. Unique forms in the shot are somewhat parallel to the works of Friedensreich Hundertwasser, an artist and architect known for using interesting forms and colors. Wire coils and other piles of metal are actually part of a crab net, and it rests in front of a wood backdrop, creating a shot full of texture.
Imogen Cunningham’s influence on modern photography is undeniable, and this exhibit illustrates her finesse and absolute mastery of photography. To explore more of Cunningham’s inspiring work, visit Imogen Cunningham: In Focus at the Museum of Fine Arts, which is open until June 18.