Imogen Cunningham

Raised in Seattle and educated at the UW, Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976) wasn’t just a pioneering female photographer, but a venerable member of the American avant garde. Sixty images from SAM’s permanent collection span six decades (!) of her work. We see her evolution from the studio of Edward S. Curtis to nudes (including the famous 1923 Triangles) to the sharp-focus portraits of fellow artists including Morris Graves (depicted decades apart). From these portraits, too, Cunningham seems to borrow her sitters’ techniques. There are traces of Weston, Stieglitz, Cartier-Bresson, and Man Ray in her frames. She’s a protean shutterbug who adapts whatever style she pleases. Or maybe, spending so many years behind the viewfinder, she didn’t want to be trapped by the dreaded “signature style.” For whatever reason, among these familiar images, my favorite is her 1959 portrait of the great Northwest poet Theodore Roethke sitting on the ground like a half-empty bag of potatoes, leaning against an old brick wall painted with a ghostly, faded “R” and ominously pointing finger. Look closely, and you’ll see a crack in the wall that seems to be emanating from his lumpy, oversized noggin. It’s like a bolt of inspiration on his or Cunningham’s part. BRIAN MILLER

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Starts: July 11. Continues through Aug. 29, 2009

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