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Frida Kahlo, Painter, Imogen Cunningham | Arts & Activities
Sep 2015

Frida Kahlo, Painter, Imogen Cunningham

Frida Kahlo, Painter, Imogen Cunningham

DETAIL: Imogen Cunningham (American; 1883–1976). Frida Kahlo, Painter, 1931.  © 1931, 2015 Imogen Cunningham Trust. www.ImogenCunningham.com

Women Artists


Born in Portland, Oregon, at the tail end of the 19th century, Imogen Cunningham (1883–1976) would become one of 20th-century photography’s most innovative pioneers.

She came to photography in her late teens and continued to study the form at The University of Washington in Seattle. Studying the chemistry of photography, she wrote a paper in 1901 entitled, “About the Development of Platinum Paper for Brown Tones.”

After college, which included a period of study in Dresden, Germany, Cunningham returned to Seattle and went into business as a portrait photographer. Her early art photographs were Pictorialist in style, characterized by soft focus and allegorical themes. Always willing to push the envelope, one of her earliest works is a nude self-portrait that she shot on the UofW campus. Her 1915 series of nudes of her artist husband Roi Partridge caused a minor stir.

“She uses her medium, photography,
with honesty, no tricks,no evasion: a clean-cut
presentation of the thing itself, the life or
whatever is seen through her lens, that life
within the external form.” 

—Edward Weston,  1923

Never one to abide by the tastes and wishes of others, Cunningham moved away from pictorialism to realism, focusing on medium-format imagery. She increasingly began photographing plants, elevating common botanicals to organic abstractions.

“She became particularly interested in flora, gathering prime botanical specimens from her backyard and elsewhere. During 1923–25, Cunningham made an extensive series of magnolia flower studies which became increasingly simplified as she sought to recognize the form within the object … her arrangements were often created spontaneously in a spirit of fun, albeit with a solid sense of design.” (source: www.josephbellows.com)

As a portrait photographer, Cunningham’s work is unparalleled. She once said, “The fascinating thing about portraiture is that nobody is alike.” She would know, as she photographed many of the great artists, musicians, actors and poets of the 20th century—including Martha Graham, Cary Grant, Ansel Adams, and the subject of this month’s A&A Art Print, Frida Kahlo.

Many of her portraits of famous people were done for the magazine, Vanity Fair, and remain some of the greatest examples of celebrity photography ever made. Cunningham employed “Her renegade use of straightforward photography to penetrate the facade of Hollywood stars by realistically and unglamorously documenting them off the set.” (www.josephbellows.com) In addition to botanical close-ups and portraiture, Cunningham also made industrial landscapes, close-ups, and street photography.

Along with fellow photographers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston (and others), Cunningham founded Group f.64, who were proponents of “pure” unmanipulated photography. In 1975 Cunningham established the Imogen Cunningham Trust, a family-run organization created…to preserve and promote her work, and to provide photographic work for sale (www.imogencunningham.com).


Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) and her husband, Diego Rivera (1886–1957), moved to San Francisco in November 1930, where Rivera was working on two separate mural commissions.

Shortly thereafter, Kahlo met Imogen Cunningham, and sat for Cunningham in 1931. The session produced a handful of striking portraits. In this particular image, Cunningham depicts the artist in a starkly simple and powerful close-up.

Kahlo, known for her self-portraiture, was keenly aware of how she wanted to be portrayed photographically. She once said, “I knew a battlefield of suffering was in my eyes. From then on I started looking directly at the lens, unflinching, unsmiling, determined to show I was a good fighter to the end.”

In addition, she “ … effectively manipulated her self-image before the lens through her gaze, pose, and the carefully constructed symbolism of her clothing, jewelry, and hairstyles.” (Source: www.exeter.edu)

Clad in a traditional Mexican shawl and jewelry, the contrast of light against shadow not only creates an ethereal glow, but heightens the gravity of the artist’s calmly pensive gaze into the camera. Although she could not have known it at the time, Cunningham captured the essence of Frida Kahlo, the woman—50 years before she would become Frida Kahlo, the icon.

From The October 2015 Issue Of Arts & Activities

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