Imogen Cunningham 1883-1976
- Imogen Cunningham
- 'two callas'
Houk Friedman Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owners from the above, 1995
Other prints of this image:
Richard Lorenz, Imogen Cunningham: Flora (New York, 1996), pl. 10
Richard Lorenz, Imogen Cunningham: Ideas without End (San Francisco, 1993), pl. 40
Margery Mann, Imogen Cunningham: Photographs (Seattle, 1970), pl. 13
Imogen Cunningham, Frontiers: Photographs 1906-1976 (Berkeley: The Imogen Cunningham Trust, 1978), table 4, image I
William A. Ewing, Flora Photographica: Masterpieces of Flower Photography (New York, 1991), p. 24
Barbara Haskell, The American Century: Art and Culture 1900-1950 (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1999), pl. 389
Robert Doty, Photography in America (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1974), p. 124
Two Callas, among Imogen Cunningham’s most important botanical images, was included in the groundbreaking Film und Foto exhibition in Stuttgart in 1929, as well as Beaumont Newhall’s historic Photography 1839 – 1937 exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in 1937.
The print offered here was made by Cunningham on photographic paper with a glossy surface. When she first began her photographic studies of flowers and plant forms in the 1920s, she printed these images on paper with a matte surface. Platinum paper and matte-surface gelatin-silver paper were the default choices for the art photographers of the day, having served the needs of Pictorialists for decades. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, however, a small group of photographers – Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, and Ansel Adams, among them – made the switch to photographic paper with a harder, glossier finish. It was felt by proponents of ‘straight photography’ that the glossy paper allowed a greater amount of a negative’s original detail to be rendered in a print.
While Cunningham’s matte-surface prints of botanical subjects were rendered in sharp detail and otherwise satisfied the requirements of ‘straight photography,’ they nonetheless inspired a critical response from one notable reviewer when they were exhibited at the M. H. de Young Museum in San Francisco in 1932. Writing about this exhibition for the Fortnightly, a short-lived arts and literary journal, photographer Ansel Adams praised the work: ‘Miss Cunningham’s art easily dominates in her exceedingly fine technique of visualization: she knows what she wants to do and succeeds in doing it well within the limitations of her medium. Her work is very beautiful and sincere.’ Adams took Cunningham to task, however, for her choice of matte-surface paper: ‘The quality of light in [Cunningham’s] prints is not convincing. I would venture to diagnose this deficiency of luminosity as something inherent in her choice of papers for her prints; if she were to use a smooth, glossy surface the true qualities of the photographic image would be revealed to greater advantage’ (quoted in Seeing Straight: The f.64 Revolution in Photography, p. 44).
Given the obviously high quality of Cunningham’s aesthetic and technical abilities, Adams’s criticism could be seen as quibbling. And it is likely that Cunningham would not have reacted favorably to his comments. Ultimately, however, Cunningham did begin to print on glossy paper in the early 1930s, and the print offered here – from a negative made in the 1920s – represents some of her earliest work on the new paper. Pleased with the amount of detail she could achieve in prints made on glossy paper, Cunningham continued to use it for the remainder of her long career.