Lot 9
  • 9

Imogen Cunningham 1883-1976

200,000 - 300,000 USD
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  • Imogen Cunningham
  • 'tower of jewels'
mounted, signed and dated by the photographer in pencil on the mount, a framer's annotations in pencil on the reverse, 1925


Presumably, originally from the collection of Helen Macdonald Guthrie and/or Dorothy Macdonald, Seattle

Presumably, gift of the above to Mrs. James Shea, Seattle

Acquired by the present owner in Selah, Washington, 1999


Other prints of this image:

Richard Lorenz, Imogen Cunningham: Flora (New York, 1996), pl. 12

Richard Lorenz and Manfred Heiting, Imogen Cunningham: 1883-1976 (Köln, 2001), p. 201

Margery Mann, Imogen! Imogen Cunningham Photographs 1910-1973 (Seattle: The University of Washington, 1974, in conjunction with the exhibition), p. 72

Drew Heath Johnson, ed., Capturing Light: Masterpieces of California Photography, 1850 to the Present (Oakland Museum, 2001, in conjunction with the exhibition), pl. 60

The Enduring Illusion: Photographs from the Stanford University Museum of Art (Stanford University Museum of Art, 1996, in conjunction with the exhibition), p. 63


This delicate, warm-toned print, on matte-surface paper with a slightly smooth surface, is in generally excellent condition. Upon close examination a few small circular areas of the photographer's original retouching are visible in the upper right and lower quadrant of the print. The mount, a beige board, is lightly age-darkened and has faint surface soiling on both sides. The left edge of the mount has been slightly trimmed, and there is a thin cut along the bottom portion where a small amount of the top ply of the mount has been lost. On the reverse there are a few deposits of adhesive residue at the top center edge The reverse of the mount is annotated, presumably by a framer, 'Chg [charge] Miss. Dorothy Macdonald/3914-Belvoir/send as/gift/Mrs. James Shea-/will phone for address and card,' and 'mold 2508/black liner inside ll of mold/mat over-clean fingerprints/half inch off sides.'
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

The photograph offered here is a rare, early print of Imogen Cunningham's study of the stamens and pistils of the Magnolia grandiflora, the flower that inspired two of Cunningham's most famous images.  Like the open Magnolia Blossom that has also become one of the photographer's icons (see Lot 12), the Tower of Jewels exemplifies a new direction in Cunningham's work of the early 1920s.  Leaving behind her Pictorialist figure studies of the previous decade, Cunningham turned to highly-focused and precise studies of the botanical world, producing a series of plant photographs that won her international renown. 

Cunningham's choice of flowers, stems, and buds as a subject was fostered not only by prevailing trends in the photography of the 1920s, but also her life as a mother of three young boys.  In a 1959 interview, Cunningham noted, 'The reason I really turned to plants was because I couldn't get out of my own backyard when my children were small.  That was when I started photographing what I had in my garden' (quoted in Richard Lorenz, Flora, p. 12).  It is also worth noting that as a student at the University of Washington, Cunningham had supplemented her income by making slides for botanists.  For many photographers in the 1920s, not only in the United States, but also in Europe, there was a general shift away from the artistic photography of the international Pictorial movement toward a more realistic, 'straight' vision.  In Germany, where Cunningham had studied in 1909, this new vision was exemplified by the Neue Sachlichkeit and the work of Albert Renger-Patszch.  In the United States, and in California especially, photographers such as Edward Weston and Ansel Adams were re-examining their own philosophy of photography, a re-examination that would culminate in the unadorned aesthetic of Group f/64.

Cunningham's earliest studies of a magnolia, from 1923, are fairly documentary in nature, as are her other plant photographs from that time (cf. the thorn apple blossom or yucca flower, reproduced in Lorenz, Flora, fig. 14 and plates 4 and 5).  In successive months, however, as Cunningham refined both her vision and technique, the flower studies begin to comprise a wholly new genre within the photographer's oeuvre.  In 1925, with the majestic Tower of Jewels, the elegant Magnolia Blossom (Lot 12), and sensuous studies of calla lilies, Cunningham elevates whole or parts of flowers to icon status, producing images that are mesmerizing and powerful in their presence.  Dramatically lit and monumentally composed, these signature plant studies have an impact that transcends simple documentation of their subjects.  

The image offered here shows the magnolia's pistils and stamens in all of their glistening intensity, the stigmas curled at the end of each pistil to form a crown.  Unusual for one of her botanical studies, Cunningham gave the present image a metaphoric title--'Tower of Jewels'--after the elaborate, tiered tower of the same name at the 1915 San Francisco Panama-Pacific International Exposition.  Cunningham's own work was shown in the Exposition, and it is known that she was especially enthusiastic about the works of the Italian Futurists, which she saw there for the first time.

Cunningham scholar Susan Ehrens has noted that Tower of Jewels was exhibited often in the photographer's early career: at a one-person show at the Berkeley Art Museum in 1929; at a one-person show at San Francisco's De Young Museum in 1932; at the Los Angeles Museum the same year; at an exhibition for 'The Forum' in 1933; and at the Golden Gate Exposition in 1940, among other venues.  Based on the image's appearance at auction, however, prints of Tower of Jewels, early or otherwise, are scarce.  The Berkeley Art Museum owns an early print of the image, measuring approximately the size of the print offered here.  Signed in the margin, that print is tipped to Cunningham's original mount, with her Mills College label on the reverse.

Notations on the reverse of the mount of the present print reveal, at least in part, its provenance.  In pencil, in what is likely a framer's hand, are the instructions, 'Chg [charge?] Miss Dorothy Macdonald, 3914 BelvoirSend as gift [to?] Mrs. James Shea--will phone for address and card,' followed by framing specifications regarding molding, liner, and mat.

The Dorothy Macdonald referred to above is the Washington native Dorothy Macdonald (1891 - 1980), who, with her twin sister Helen (1891 - 1979), was a long-time friend of the photographer.  Cunningham's papers in the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, contain voluminous correspondence between Cunningham and the Macdonald sisters, and although the letters preserved there date only from the 1960s and 1970s, the content of the letters indicates a much longer, shared past between the Cunningham and Macdonald families.

Census records for Washington and California make it possible to construct a framework of the sisters' lives.  It is possible that the Macdonalds knew Cunningham from her early years in Seattle--1889 to 1917--or from her later life in the Bay Area--or both.  Census records show that in 1910, Helen Macdonald was a dormitory student at the University of Washington--Imogen Cunningham's alma mater, from which the photographer matriculated in 1907--while her sister Dorothy Macdonald lived at home in Seattle.  By 1920, the twins Dorothy and Helen, along with their mother and brother James, were living in Berkeley, in California's Bay Area, where Cunningham and her family had moved in 1920.

In June of 1920, Helen Macdonald married the distinguished American psychologist Edwin Ray Guthrie (1886 - 1959), who taught at the University of Washington and became dean of the graduate school there.  The 1930 census lists Helen and Edwin Guthrie and their son Peter at 3914 Belvoir Place, Seattle, the address on the reverse of the print offered here.  In the early 1930s, Cunningham took at least one portrait of Peter Guthrie (reproduced in Lorenz, Portraits, pl. 76, as 'Guthrie child'), and Cunningham's correspondence with Helen Guthrie from 1970 refers to photographs Cunningham had made of Edwin Guthrie many years before. Ehrens notes that in the 1930s, Cunningham visited Seattle regularly, exhibiting and selling her work at the Harry Hartman Gallery and Bookstore, and accepting portrait commissions.  Tower of Jewels was one of the images on display at the Harry Hartman Gallery in 1930, priced at $10.00.

Both Macdonald sisters appear to have led active, interesting lives.  Helen Macdonald Guthrie and her husband Edwin traveled widely, as his reputation in the field of psychology grew.  Dorothy Macdonald appears to have traveled far and wide as well--in the 1960s, she writes to Cunningham on letterhead from Taxco, Mexico.  Macdonald family papers are preserved in the University of Washington Libraries, and a number of Mexican objects in the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, University of Washington, were donated by Dorothy.  Census records indicate that after Edwin Guthrie's death in 1959, Dorothy came to live with her sister Helen in Seattle at the Belvoir Place address.  Why or when the present print of Tower of Jewels was sent from the Macdonald household to Mrs. James Shea, if indeed it was, is not known.  As of this writing, it is believed that the Mrs. Shea of the inscription is Wyoma Shea (1910 - 2002), the wife of James R. Shea (1910 - 1996), at one time the Secretary-Treasurer and Comptroller of Seattle's Rhodes Department Store.  Contemporaries of the Macdonald sisters, the Sheas lived at 2805 Bishop Place West, in the Magnolia district of Seattle.