The free spirit of Imogen Cunningham, a giant of an artist who spent part of her youth in Port Angeles, is alive and well in her photographs. They line the walls of many rooms in the Seattle Art Museum’s latest blockbuster show.
Unlike some of SAM’s crowd-pleasing exhibitions, “Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective” is a sneaky thrill. It hasn’t the color and fame of the Picasso exhibition of 2010-2011 nor Yayoi Kusama’s installation in 2017, but what a body of work. Wandering through the galleries, you feel like you know this woman, this defiant one who opened her mind to the world.
Whether she was walking on the street or working in her studio, Cunningham could see straight through to beauty. Creamy calla lilies. The luscious magnolia. An architectural aloe plant. She was famous for her flowers, yet Cunningham knew too how to reveal the graceful contours of faces. Posed and otherwise, the people in her pictures reach out from the frames, arresting you on the spot.
One image engraved on my memory is her shot of two women sitting across a restaurant table from each other. They look into each other’s eyes with pure delight. They’re wearing fabulous hats. This is in San Francisco; Cunningham’s superbly composed shot includes the distinctive buildings across the street, the context as these women are just having a great time with each other.
“I don’t hunt for things,” Cunningham says in the film screening with her show at SAM. Instead, she lets things strike her. She focuses. Distractions must be swept aside. Also in the movie, she laments “the telephone, and all the other agonies of life,” that keep you from doing the things you want to do. Such a prescient truth, spoken back in the 20th century.
As pleasureable as it is to walk among these works of art, it feels weird to visit a big-city museum in a pandemic. Vaccination cards are checked at SAM’s entrance and everyone is masked, but still, it feels dissonant to be indoors, a few feet from strangers — lots and lots of them. This is a timed-entry exhibition, so it’s not so crowded as to be oppressive. Yet on the Sunday that I went to SAM, there were many more folk than I’ve shared a room with in months — since last summer’s trip to the airport in fact.
Watching the film with my fellow art lovers, however, was delicious. We laughed together at Cunningham’s wry remembrances. She was a woman who did her own thing. Sure, there were rocks in the road. The woman kept moving forward.
Her childhood, perched at the turn of the century, began in Portland, Ore., with a mother who was a Methodist from the Midwest and a father who was a spiritualist and, gasp, a vegetarian. In 1886, when our girl was just 3, the Cunninghams picked up and moved to the Puget Sound Co-operative Colony in Port Angeles. They stayed 15 years, then moved to Seattle.
“I was always absolutely on my own, going somewhere being interested in something, and no one in my family was interested in the same things,” she recalled of her teenage self.
With her attitude and her variety of work, Cunningham seems to urge us to pursue our own interests as well — never mind what other people think and say. She lived to be 93, continually seeking beauty and clear self-expression. That determination made her one of the most prolific artists in her medium’s history.
“Which of my photographs is my favorite?” she asked: “The one I’m going to take tomorrow.”
“Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective” is on display at the Seattle Art Museum through Feb. 6; more information awaits at www.seattleartmuseum.org.
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or durbanidelapaz@peninsula dailynews.com.