By Sheryl Nonnenberg
In the winter of 1976, Imogen Cunningham traveled from her home in San Francisco to Atherton in order to take pictures of the nuns living at the Oakwood Retirement Center, on the campus of Sacred Heart Schools.
She was nearly 93 years old and was still hard at work on a project she felt very passionate about, a book that would feature adults over the age of 90 who were still leading active and purposeful lives.
While at Oakwood, she photographed eight of the elderly residents. These vintage prints, carefully wrapped in acid-free paper and placed in an archival box, were recently found in the facility's archives by Sister Clare Pratt, Oakwood's community life director. They tell a story of an artist and her subjects, all strong and independent women who led rich and fulfilled lives.
The photographs of the nuns were taken for a book entitled "After Ninety" (published posthumously in 1977). Ms. Cunningham had come up with the idea both as a way to confront her own aging process and to celebrate the long life and achievements of those she photographed.
The book includes a variety of people from all walks of life. There are writers and poets, scientists and neighbors who lived near her home on Green Street.
The nuns at Oakwood came to be part of the book as a result of a barter made with a young nun who had contacted the famous photographer, requesting that she review and critique some photographs she had taken. Ms. Cunningham agreed to look at her work, but only if the nun would introduce her to nuns over the age of 90 who would agree to be photographed.
It was not unusual for Imogen Cunningham to receive requests for advice from novice photographers. By the 1970s, she had been a professional photographer for seven decades, with dozens of exhibitions at prestigious museums, two published books and a long list of honorary degrees.
Born in 1883, she was a strong and independent spirit from birth. At a time when women had few options other than marriage and motherhood, she was encouraged to become an artist.
When she was 18, she bought a 4x5 view camera and enrolled in a correspondence course in order to learn about photography. She wanted to major in art in college, but the University of Washington did not have such a program. She focused her studies on chemistry, thinking that it would help her to understand the science behind the medium.
Once she earned her degree, she took a position in the studio of Edward Curtis (known for his portraits of Native Americans), where she learned the difficult process of platinum printing. A small scholarship from her university sorority allowed her to travel to Dresden, Germany, where she studied photographic chemistry and published several scientific papers. Upon her return to Seattle, she opened her own portrait studio, which was immediately successful.
At this time, the prevailing style of photography was called Pictorialism and was characterized by a soft-focus, romantic tableaux that were influenced by the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites. Her early portrait photographs reflect this style, with subjects captured in dreamy, allegorical settings.
In 1915, Ms. Cunningham married graphic artist Roi Partridge and the couple moved to San Francisco. She gave birth to three children over the next three years and soon found herself in the role of faculty wife, as Roi took a position teaching art at Mills College.
Ms. Cunningham established a small business taking portraits of Mills coeds and she also did what women artists had been doing for centuries, focusing her artistic attentions on her immediate environment.
She began to take close-up photographs of plants and flowers in her garden. Her magnolia series, lush, detailed black-and-white studies of the interior of this graceful flower, would become one of her most famous works.
Throughout the 1920s and 30s, she continued to take photographs and her work began to be shown by galleries and museums on the East and West Coast. She was approached by Vanity Fair magazine and was hired to take pictures of dancer Martha Graham and Hollywood actors such as Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy. The travel and separation took a toll on the marriage and Imogen and Roi were divorced in 1934. They remained friends and she never remarried.
Now free to pursue her career and travel, she bought a small cottage in San Francisco and built a darkroom. She became part of the pioneering f/64 Group, which advocated for "straight photography," free from any sort of manipulation. Others in the group included Ansel Adams and Willard Van Dyke. Their simple and direct approach to the medium changed the course of photography.
For the next 30 years, she gained recognition as an artist who could do it all: portraits, still-life, nudes and landscapes. Her work was shown at the Oakland Museum, the George Eastman House and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
She began to teach at the San Francisco Art Institute and became a legendary figure in the city of San Francisco, walking around town in her trademark black cape, camera around her neck and always ready for that next photograph.
Her approach was as direct and honest as her personality, no matter what the subject matter. In every image she sought out the truth, and wrote in her book, "After Ninety," about finding "beauty in the commonest things."
The portraits taken at Oakwood are typical of her work in many respects. They are simple and straight-forward, with the focus on the face of the subject. She once wrote that portraiture is very difficult, because most people are not happy with themselves and do not like to see the truth revealed in a photograph. She was adept at making her subjects feel at ease, and in the process she was able to get to their true essence and spirit, free of any pretense.
One of the ways she did this was by capturing the person in a favorite place or with a treasured object. Sister Ethel Teegarden stands in front of a statue of Mary — very appropriate in view of her life spent in the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, an order that was founded by a woman (Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat) in 1800.
Sisters Christine Bogner and Mildred Murphy were both gardeners and were captured amid the bucolic grounds of the Atherton campus.
There is no attempt to sugarcoat the challenges of old age, as can be seen in the portrait of Louise Bujan. Wheel-chair bound, the elderly nun sits in quiet contemplation, reciting the prayers of the rosary as she has done for decades.
Sister Maria Morrison's portrait is a study in darkness, her black habit melding with the background of the print. She is partially blind, but her countenance is strong and resolute.
There is a quiet dignity in all of the portraits, and a respect for the strength, devotion and years of wisdom accrued by the aged nuns, most of whom had enjoyed long careers as educators. In an oral history at the Smithsonian Institution, she explained her success at portraiture in the following way, "I turn people into human beings by not making them into gods."
After her session at Oakwood, the artist sent complimentary copies of the prints to the retirement home, where they were displayed for a short time. Six of the eight photographs were included in "After Ninety," with the simple description, "Nuns at Sacred Heart/Oakwood."
Imogen Cunningham died in June 1976, just months after her visit to Atherton. She had enjoyed a long and prolific career, and had ensured the legacy of her work by establishing the Imogen Cunningham Trust, which preserves her negatives and oversees the exhibition of her prints.
The Oakwood portraits are a testament to the strength and resilience of both the artist and her subjects, and to Imogen Cunningham's no-nonsense philosophy towards life: "... you just have to work and find your own way. Everybody can do it. If I can do it, everybody can." 3
Sheryl Nonnenberg is an art researcher and writer who lives in Menlo Park. Much of the information for this article was drawn from Imogen Cunningham's book, "After Ninety" (University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1977) and an oral history transcript in the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution (June 9, 1975.)