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Created 5-Sep-21
37 photos

In 1915, a 32-year-old photographer from Seattle named Imogen Cunningham went hiking in Mount Rainier National Park with her new husband, Roi Partridge, a Seattle etcher and printer. The park was much wilder then than it is today—total visitation that year was only thirty-five thousand, less than an eighth of what the park receives today just in a typical July. The automobile road to Paradise had just been completed, and the Paradise Inn wouldn’t be built till the following year.

And so, with the wilderness to themselves, Imogen took a series of photographs of Roi with her 4x5 camera, Roi posing nude as a woodland faun among the ponds and windswept ridgetops of the park. She was no stranger to nude photography—she’d taken up the art in a serious fashion in 1906 and promptly photographed herself in the nude, on the campus of the University of Washington, where she studied chemistry – and she was steeped in the romantic portrait style of the day, exemplified by Gertrude Käsebier, Alfred Stieglitz, and Edward S. Curtis. She worked in Curtis’s Seattle studio for two years after graduating college, before studying photography in Germany and then opening her own portrait studio.

Still, when Cunningham shared her photos of Roi with the Seattle Fine Arts Society and published them in the Town Crier, they caused a scandal. A man photographing a nude female was a serious artist—but a woman photographing a nude male was “vulgar” and “immoral.” She stuffed the prints and negatives in a box and forgot about them.

Two years later, Imogen and Roi moved to San Francisco. They had three boys by this time, including twins, and much of her time was spent raising them, and growing flowers in her garden, which she photographed in exquisite detail. Photography, as an art, was shifting from romantic, soft-focus portraiture to a modernist emphasis on pattern and detail, and Cunningham embraced the movement whole-heartedly, working with Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and others to develop a new style of hyper-realistic photography that was unique to the American West. She kept her love of the human form—capturing nude images of Roi in the Sierra Nevada, her children playing on the beach, herself in self-portraits, and occasionally female models. She photographed artists and musicians, including Gertrude Stein, Martha Graham, and Man Ray, and made candid portraits for Vanity Fair of Hollywood stars like Spencer Tracy.

It wasn’t until 1970 that Imogen rediscovered the images of Roi from 1915, stored in a box in her attic—images that, by that time, she thought she had lost or discarded. She and Roi had parted ways in 1934, and her own work had evolved and improved over the years. Still, the old photographs represented a significant milestone in her artistic career, and they were exhibited and published among her later work for the first time in half a century.

Cunningham passed away in 1976, at the age of 93, a pioneer in the development of the art of photography, and especially as one of the foremost early photographers to provide a uniquely female point of view.

I came across the work of Imogen Cunningham in the 2010s, as I was taking up serious photography myself. I live near Mount Rainier National Park, and as they had for Cunningham, the mountains and forests seemed like perfect settings for capturing images of the human form. Like her, my early images followed the classical conventions of nude models posed, nymph-like, in the wilderness; and like her, my work has since evolved to focus more on capturing the unique individual personality of my models (albeit with less of the modernist emphasis on simple forms and patterns).

As an artist who photographed nude models at Mount Rainier, I was curious to see how many others might have already made similar images. According to Google, the answer is, not many, and not for a century. Still, I was delighted to learn that an important piece of photographic history had occurred on the same Mountain that had inspired so much of my own work. I quickly came to admire Imogen Cunningham as an artist, a feminist, and a photographic pioneer.

The obvious next idea, of course, was to try to recreate her images. This proved to be harder in practice than in concept, as Mount Rainier National Park has hundreds of lakes and ponds, and tracking down the exact ones photographed by Cunningham was not an easy task. I spent hours hiking trails and trekking cross-country, comparing the landmarks in her photos to the views from various perspectives.

As I did so, it gradually dawned on me that the landscape had changed dramatically over the past century. Vistas that were open in 1915, with sweeping, unobstructed views, now have groves of mature trees blocking the view. Rangers at Mount Rainier say this is due to a combination of global warming, which has caused the tree line to move up the mountain into what used to be subalpine meadows, and a reduction in the frequency of fires. Native Americans, prior to pioneer settlement, used to set fires to keep the meadows open; and an accidental fire started by someone building trails in 1894 had swept through the Paradise area, leaving behind the “silver forest” featured in some of Cunningham’s images.

Once I understood how the landscape had evolved, Cunningham’s locations quickly fell into place. The ponds are still there, their shape altered a bit by a hundred years of erosion and sediment, the view now obscured, but looking past the trees, with the same pattern of peaks in the background. The view from the ridgetops, likewise, is now heavily forested, the old silver snags hidden among new growth, or fallen and decaying into the soil; and in the distance, a large hotel and busy parking lot sit where once there was just a brand new road angling across the hillside. I even managed to find the same rock on which Roi had posed in 1915; over the years, pieces have been broken off by frost, and trees and shrubs have grown up through cracks, but the basic outline is still there, with the same ridges and glaciers in the distance.

For my model, I reached out to Pete Rush, a theatrical set and costume designer and occasional model in Seattle, who has the same wiry build and mustache as Roi Partridge. To be completely accurate, we should have made our images in early July—one account of Imogen’s excursion says that Roi had posed on top of an “ice flow,” making it look like he was kneeling on the surface of the water; and, the day we scheduled our expedition turned out to be cool and cloudy, without much view of the mountains in the background. One of the ponds we wanted to shoot at had dried up after a hot, dry summer, with no reflections to be had. Perhaps we’ll go back repeat the project another year when conditions better match those of the original.

Still, I’m pleased with the images we made together. Pete and I tried to recreate the original poses, in the original locations, with the same camera angles and as close to the same lenses as we could. I experimented with trying to edit the images exactly like the original prints, using the same soft focus and high contrast, but eventually rejected that approach in favor of developing the images in my own style. This, in part, came from a realization that ultimately my goal was not to mimic Cunningham’s photographs, but to pay homage to them. The landscape has changed, and photography has changed too. Rather than a 4x5 view camera, I have a mirrorless, digital Canon EOS R5. And, I am a different photographer, with a different style and vision for my art. But I share Cunningham’s love for the human form in nature, and what it represents.

So, consider this set of photographs part of an ongoing project. I’ve been photographing nudes in nature at Mount Rainier for years now, and there will be more to come, I’m sure. I benefit immensely from the work of Cunningham and others, who promoted photography as an art form and whose work inspired me to pick up a camera and make art of my own. Continuing to grow as a photographer, drawing inspiration from the same wilderness landscapes as her, using my camera to capture the beauty and allure of the human form in nature: that is my ongoing tribute to Imogen Cunningham.

Postscript: As I was finishing this project, I discovered that the first major retrospective of Imogen Cunningham's photography in 35 years will be shown at the Seattle Art Museum this fall, from November 18, 2021 to February 6, 2022! I am looking forward to seeing her work in person, and if you're in the area, you should too! Meanwhile, check out the full catalogue of her art at the Imogen Cunningham Trust, where you can also purchase prints.
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