Bowers Museum Highlights Imogen Cunningham, the Best Female Photographer You've Never Heard Of

Born in 1883. Had a gig in Edward S. Curtis' studio. One of the first women photographers to shoot a nude self-portrait. Published male nudes (of her husband) that caused controversy. Had her first solo show in 1914. Co-founded Group f/64 with Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. Her professional career in magazine photography ended her marriage. In the 1940s, she was one of the first pioneers of street photography. The Smithsonian bought her photos. She received a Guggenheim grant. She had a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Imogen Cunningham is the best female photographer you've probably never heard of. Curated without clutter and with a sharp eye by Celina Lunsford, “Seen and Unseen: Photographs by Imogen Cunningham” at Bowers Museum features work from the beginning of Cunningham's career all the way to some of her last, with several of her best images included.

Her first self-portrait on display is a nude from 1906: she's young, lying in grass, facing away from the camera, looking to a thicket behind her, a wondrous white figure in an otherwise shady, fecund setting. The next shot of her is 15 years later, Self-Portrait With Camera. She's clothed, wearing a beret and round glasses, looking for all the world like a French librarian, camera in front of her, self-assurance in her eyes, the confidence continuing to photographs of her family and friends. Birdcage and Shadows is a dreamy photo of her son reaching out to a crushed, broken birdcage. We never see him in the flesh, just his shadow, the remains of the avian prison sitting on a table before us. The image is evocative, suggesting a trapped soul reaching out to its fragile, mangled past.

A year later, she's capturing the soft-focus intimacy of Edward and Margrethe 4. Photographer Weston and his paramour are pictured in an embrace, his cheek resting on her hair, her hands on her shoulders, bent at the wrist, as if adjusting her blouse. He's not looking at her, and her head is turned away from him; light streams in from the window at their left, adding a mournful glow to their downhearted features.

Her foray into botanical photography feels derivative of the work of her fellow artists, despite their beauty and technical perfection. The close-ups, curves and sensuality are reminiscent of Weston's soothing nudes and erotic vegetables; the sharp whites and blacks of nature settings look like an even chillier Adams. Her most famous shot, Magnolia Blossom, is a close-up of O'Keeffeian petals resembling the soft skin surrounding the fleshy clitoral carpels.

Cunningham's magazine photos of celebrities are work she did for money: straight forward, interested in shadow, but cool, distanced, impersonal, minus any glamour. In contrast, two decades later, she's fully vested in her portrait Stan Smoking, with the subject looking directly at her, eyes penetrating the distance between them, as cigarette smoke streams from his nostrils. The black of his skin and sweater blend into the murky background, with the white of his shirt collar, his eyes and the billowing smoke at his right breaking up the darkness around him.

It's her images focused on artists caught in the act of creation, including herself, and surreal pictures of hands and dolls that really stuns all these years later. In Three Dancers, Mills College, the perfection of the trio is caught mid-air. The woman in front has her head thrown back in artistic ecstasy, her face to the sun, one of her legs disappearing under her skirt so that she's almost a floating torso and arms. The blank slate of the cement wall behind them is marbled with gray, as black shadows encroach on either side. In Blind Sculptor 3, the dark skin of the sculptor's hand, veins prominent under the flesh, is blending the wet clay he's smoothing into his statue's hand, tiny flecks of dried gray on his fingers. Another Arm is a side view of a row of grasping mannequin arms hanging from nails, an actual human arm thrust out from the in-between. Hands of a Hand Surgeon 2 jokingly plays with perception, with the left hand lying on a mirrored surface, doubled, alongside a rubber glove and skeleton's arm. The autobiographical Doll With Head between Legs is just what it says it is, the dilapidated toy in a standing position, missing fingers, crotch and hips cracked and aged, decapitated head at its feet. Taken when Cunningham was in her late 80s, it's an apt symbol for old age, a pictorial of general decline.

The last image of herself in the show is another self-portrait, this time in a storefront window with several mirrored panels. Inside the window are pieces of antique lamps, disassembled. Cunningham is now gray and wrinkled, disappearing into a giant old-lady coat. Trapped in the middle of several glass panes, she's still taking pictures.

“Seen and Unseen: Photographs by Imogen Cunningham” at Bowers Museum, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 567-3600; Open Tues.-Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Through Feb. 26, 2017. $10-$15; children younger than 12, free.

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