Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Imogen: The Mother of Modernism and Three Boys

March 12 - Today's post contributed by Amy Novesky

By Amy Novesky

When I submitted a manuscript for a picture book about Imogen Cunningham, most editors said, “Who?” and politely declined my story. Despite having a name fit for a Shakespearean heroine, Imogen was too obscure, they said; nobody knew who she was. Even more reason I was inspired to publish a book about one of the greatest twentieth century photographers.

Imogen declared she wanted to be a photographer when she was just a teen. Her father, who’d encouraged in his little girl a love of literature and art, didn’t understand why she’d choose such a dirty profession, but he built her a darkroom, atop the wild Queen Anne hill they called home, lit by a candle in a red box.

Imogen’s first camera was a 4-by-5-inch format camera with a rapid rectilinear lens she received from a mail-order correspondence school.

The first in her family to go to college, Imogen attended nearby University of Washington. She was advised that she should study science if she wanted to be a photographer, and since no art classes were offered, she majored in the next best thing; Imogen graduated with a degree in Chemistry.

After studying abroad in Europe, Imogen returned home and opened up her very own studio in the city. She was the only photographer in the Society of Seattle Artists. She took portraits and told her subjects to think of the nicest thing they knew. When she was not in her studio, she and her artistic friends and new husband, etcher Roi Partridge, spent hours in the wilderness, wearing costumes or nothing at all, and staging gorgeous, ethereal, soft-focus photographs, for which she would become known. Her first one-person exhibition was held at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences.

Imogen was an early champion of women in the arts and sciences. In 1913 she published "Photography as a Profession for Women,” an article urging women to develop careers. At that time, there weren’t many professional women photographers. Women were expected to focus on children and the home. Fewer still did both.

Just as Imogen’s career was blossoming, she became a mother. She and Roi had a baby boy named Gryffyd, and nearly two years later, two more—the twins, Rondal and Padraic. She closed her studio. She moved to California. House bound, Imogen had her hands full taking care of her sons. One hand in the dishpan, the other in the darkroom. There was barely enough money for film after food was bought, and three hungry boys to cook for at dawn and dusk, when the light was just right.

Imogen did focus on her children and her home—she photographed them!

“CLICK. The twins picking foxglove buds.
Her older son’s wonder at a handful of nasturtiums.

CLICK. One boy holding a mouse, another a bird.
A snake in a bucket. They didn’t have an ordinary pet.

CLICK. Freckled ears and feathered headdresses.
Glowing birthday cakes. Her three growing boys.

Imogen found a little beauty in everything.”

And for one precious hour every afternoon, while the boys napped, Imogen focused on her photography. When one mischievous twin interrupted, Imogen put him to work. She set him up on an apple box to pluck prints out of the chemical baths when they were done. (Rondal would grow up to be a renowned photographer himself). Then, under the soft glow of a red bulb, her five year old beside her, Imogen would watch as the images she’d captured—her boys, her blossoms—slowly emerged on paper.

Working from home allowed Imogen to be with her family, and photographing them led Imogen to photograph plants and flowers—most notably her signature magnolia blossoms—for which she is best known. She would become one of the finest modern photographers of the 20th century, alongside such luminaries as Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange, and, with a family in tow. No easy feat. She would inspire gallery owner John Stevenson to crown her, “The mother of modernism and three boys.”

My newest picture book, IMOGEN: THE MOTHER OF MODERNISM AND THREE BOYS, illustrated by Lisa Congdon, and published last fall by Cameron + Company, focuses on Imogen’s early life as a mother and a budding photographer. I have always loved Imogen’s sharp-focus images of magnolias, modern dancers and her famous “Unmade Bed,” which I like to interpret as the bed of a mother who didn’t have time to make it, and who gratefully falls into at day’s end. (In truth, it was taken in the 50s, long after Imogen’s kids were grown). But it was Imogen’s photographs of her three freckled boys that most inspired my book. As an author and a mother, I am fascinated by artists who are mothers, who make art with kids in the background and foreground, as Imogen did.

As I write this entry for KidLit’s venerable Women’s History Month blog, I am house bound, myself, with a sick child curled at my side and an incontinent dog at my feet. The house is a mess. There are beds to be made, laundry to be folded, dishes to be cleaned. There are manuscripts to be edited, books to be written, ideas to be dreamed. Imogen might have needed science to become a photographer, but being a photographer and a mother was an art.

Amy Novesky is an award-winning children’s book editor and author. Her picture books include ELEPHANT PRINCE, about the god Ganesh; ME, FRIDA, about Frida Kahlo in San Francisco; GEORGIA IN HAWAII, about Georgia O’Keeffe’s travels in the Hawaiian Islands; IMOGEN: THE MOTHER OF MODERNISM AND THREE BOYS, about photographer Imogen Cunningham, and the forthcoming MISTER AND LADY DAY, about Billie Holiday and her beloved dogs. www.amynovesky.com

To learn more about Imogen Cunningham, and to see examples of her photographs, please see www.imogencunningham.com

Excerpts from IMOGEN © 2012 Cameron + Company
Author photograph © 2011 ND Koster


  1. Imogen might have needed science to become a photographer, but being a photographer and a mother was an art. Amen to that. Thanks for sharing this inspiring story.

  2. Wonderful post, Amy! And, I echo shelf-employed... "being a photographer and a mother was an art", as it is pursuing any creative endeavor!