Imogen Cunningham: Frozen Literature

Dreamwalking, 1968
All images © 2012 by the Imogen Cunningham Trust

Tenn began to study the work of photographer Imogen Cunningham through the influence of Martha Graham. Within and among the many scattered papers that were on Tenn's hotel-room bed, within satchels and suitcases, were copies of Cunningham's work. Tenn spoke of a few of them.

Royal Orleans Hotel
New Orleans

Mine is primarily a feminine education--by which I mean that most of what I know and most of what I love was brought to my attention by and through women.

Martha Graham told me the most about Imogen Cunningham, and that began my love of photography. Goethe said that architecture was frozen music, and I came to see that photography--the best photography--was frozen literature. I paint a bit now: I need to express in some way. I thought of photography, but it requires a discipline that escapes me. I do not have the gift of preparation--of materials, of items, of the eye and the mind--that photographers require.

I study them instead.

I was taught a great deal by Martha Graham--and by Anna Sokolow, with whom she worked. Both of those women--in very different ways--had no qualms about telling you what to read or look at or think or understand. Anna was much more dominant, tough: She was unafraid to tell you you were wrong. Martha was more of a leader--by which I mean she gently led you to a person or a work of art and let you think about it and reach your own conclusions.

Martha liked Imogen Cunningham very much. She trusted her, and I don't think trust came easily to Martha. Does it come easily to anyone? Martha liked her sessions with Cunningham, and those are among the first I ever saw of her. I had seen her work on movie stars, and I remember one photograph that was taken of the actor Warner Oland, about which my mother said 'That's how you'll look when you get older.' And by God, she's right. That provided a sweet and odd connection to Cunningham.

Warner Oland, 1932

Cunningham captured artists terribly well: You seem to see them thinking; you seem to see them thinking that they should pose in a way that best reflects what they're trying to do and become. I suppose that's trust. I do not know if Cunningham wears down her subjects, as so many photographers do. Her work feels as if she says to them 'Relax. Tell me your story.' 

August Sander outside his home, date unknown

She seems to have been capable of infusing her subjects with a great deal of pride, because I sense a stiff spine and a confidence of preparation. The staging seems to belong equally between Cunningham and her subject. All of the elements of the photograph seem to be working together, which is precisely the dream of any writer--to have each and every element work toward a clear expression.

 Frida Kahlo, 1931

Martha Graham, 1931

Blind Sculptor, 1952

Miguel Covarrubias and His Mural, 1939

    Man Ray Version of Man Ray, 1960

One can craft sentences--perhaps entire stories--from her photographs. There is great empathy as well as artistry in her work. I intrinsically care about the people she spends time with, throws light upon, exposes gently.

Age and Its Symbols , 1958

 Black Man, Oakland, 1937

Aloe, 1925

I managed to think that the aloe in the photograph was a spectacularly designed ziggurat, a bold piece of architecture. Beauty and whimsy and surprise. You get those into your work and you've done something.

Some of her pieces cry out to become stories, characters. The photograph of the unmade bed makes me think of my mother, and I imagine a loose piece of jewelry, a prayer book lost in the linen. I remember visiting my mother one morning and finding an eyelash on her pillow. A wish was made. I must have been eight years old. This photograph brought that all back to me.

Unmade Bed, 1957

Another memory--of mother, of loss. Of memory.

Another Arm, 1973

   Martha Graham, 1931

All that we have--all that we want--is ephemeral, brief. What we try to do, what we hope to do, is capture it for others and for ourselves. We want and we need to look back and look at something and know what happened, what mattered, what we were, what we are. We can look at other people's work and become better. We can look at Cunningham's photographs and become better writers, better people.


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