Chemistry & Light

Pioneering American photographer Imogen Cunningham (1883–1976) is quoted as saying: “The formula for doing a good job in photography is to think like a poet.” Yet in her plant photography, she combined visual poetry with a scientific eye. The marriage of art and science in Cunningham’s plant portraits imparts an exceptional quality to the works. Essence and form combine in such a way that we see each plant anew.

In 1906, while majoring in chemistry at the University of Washington, Imogen Cunningham took a part-time job in the botany department making lantern slides to be used in the scientific study of plants. These were mounted transparencies intended to be viewed via a magic lantern, an early form of image projector. This method of photographing plants for use by botanists is likely to have influenced the detailed, formal composition of her later plant portraits, many of them made in the early 1920s, once she had embarked on a career as a photographic artist. She is quoted in a 1961 interview, saying she was “rather sorry she didn’t study botany, because my great interest is in plants, now.” Asked, more than people? She replies: “Oh, not more than people. The reason I really I turned to plants was because I couldn’t get out of my own backyard when my children were small.”

While her children slept, she began to make photographic studies of the plant life immediately on her doorstep, including a two-year study of the magnolia plant. The main image accompanying this post is Magnolia Blossom, Tower of Jewels, 1925, copyright: © 2021 Imogen Cunningham Trust

Though later known equally for her nudes, portraits and landscapes, it is Imogen Cunningham’s plant portraits that many come back to. Chemistry meets light, in plants as in photography.  A woman of extraordinary artistic achievement, Cunningham was associated with Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Minor White and Dorothea Lange. She was one of America’s earliest professional female photographers.

Datura 2, nd, by Imogen Cunningham. © 2021 Imogen Cunningham Trust.

Imogen Cunningham, 1883–1976, American photographer. More at

Works by Imogen Cunningham also feature in the exhibition Unearthed: Photography’s Roots, at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London. More information here

With thanks to the Imogen Cunningham Trust for permission to publish the images accompanying this post. All images copyright:© 2021 Imogen Cunningham Trust. Not to be reproduced in any form without express permission from the Trust.

Reference for this article: “Imogen Cunningham PORTRAITS, IDEAS, AND DESIGN. An Interview Conducted by Edna Tartaul Daniel. Berkeley, USA, 1961”.

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