Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976) was born in Portland, Oregon and attended the University of Washington in Seattle majoring in chemistry after she was advised by her professor that she should have a scientific background if she wanted to be a photographer. To pay her expenses she worked as a secretary to her chemistry professor and made slides for the botanists. Imogen Cunningham's thesis when she graduated from the University of Washington with a major in chemistry was titled “Modern Processes of Photography.”
After graduation Imogen worked in the Seattle portrait studio of Edward S. Curtis and learned the techniques of platinum printing. In 1909 she was awarded a grant to study photographic chemistry in Dresden. Her thesis, published in Germany, “Uber Selbstherstellung von Platinpapieren fur braune Tone,” translates to “About Self-Production of Platinum Papers for Brown Tones.” In this paper she urged the use of hand-coated paper for platinum prints, as much more convenient and easier to handle than commercial paper.
Returning from Germany, Imogen opened a portrait studio in Seattle. There, she was the only photographer who was a charter member of the Society of Seattle Artists. In 1914, her first one-person exhibition was held at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences.
Cunningham married Seattle etcher, Roi Partridge and had three sons. With three young sons and life as a faculty wife, her photography was largely confined to photographing her children and the plants in her garden; she began to make her first sharp focus plant photographs.
Cunningham was included in the Pictorial Photographic Society Exhibition at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco and then in the prestigious 1929, Film and Foto ExhibItion in Stuttgart, Germany. As an original member of the Group f.64, formed in 1932, she participated in the exhibition at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco and had a one-person exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum.
Cunningham met and photographed the dancer, Martha Graham. After the Graham photographs were published in the December issue of Vanity Fair the editors asked her to take assignments photographing Hollywood personalities, which she did between 1934 and 1936. She established a studio in her home on Green Street in San Francisco. She taught intermittently at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco.
Imogen Cunningham was elected a Fellow of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences, was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree by the California College of Arts and Crafts and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to print from her early negatives.