Imogen Cunningham - Passion & Humanity: The Susie Tompkins Buell Collection New York Thursday, April 4, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    From the photographer to Barbara K. Adelson, Detroit, 1970
    Sotheby’s, New York, 1 November 1989, lot 222
    Edwynn Houk Gallery, Chicago
    Private Collection, Switzerland
    Edwynn Houk Gallery, Chicago, 1991
    Page Imageworks, San Francisco, as agent

  • Exhibited

    The Camera and Eye: Modern Photography 1925 to the Present, Detroit Institute of Arts, 23 July - 14 September 1975
    Photographs from Detroit Collections, Detroit Institute of Arts, 4 October - 27 November 1983
    Object Lessons: Masterworks of Modernist Photography from Three Bay Area Collections, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 7 December 1995 - 10 March 1996

  • Literature

    Lorenz, Imogen Cunningham: Flora, pl. 8
    Ewing, Flora Photographica: Masterpieces of Flower Photography, from 1835 to the Present, p. 6
    Sullivan, Women Photographers, pl. 42

  • Catalogue Essay

    In the 1920s, Imogen Cunningham began a series of botanical studies that were perfect iterations of the newly emerging Modernist aesthetic in photography. Precise and filled with detail, they represented a purely photographic vision. Calla, offered here, is a dramatic example from the series: with its pristine white form unfurling against the print’s dark background, it is one of the most striking of the botanical images Cunningham would create in that decade.

    Calla was one of the images chosen by Edward Weston to represent the best of American photography at Film und Foto, the 1929 Stuttgart exhibition that served as the definitive declaration of Modernism in the medium. Of the ten Cunningham photographs in that show, eight were botanical studies, among them not only the Calla image offered here, but also the Magnolia Blossom of lot 40. Cunningham was one of the relatively few woman photographers represented in Film und Foto, and her work was shown alongside other progressive American and European photographers of the day, including Edward Weston, László Moholy-Nagy, El Lissitzky, Man Ray, and Alexander Rodchenko.

    With Calla, Cunningham set a template that would be used, decades later, by photographers such as Irving Penn and Robert Mapplethorpe. In Imogen Cunningham: Flora, Cunningham authority Richard Lorenz described how Cunningham constructed her botanicals, an approach imitated by countless other artists who have tackled similar subjects since: ‘she empowered her images by isolating her subject; she minimized the background, expanded scale with close-up scrutiny, and formalized presentation’ (p. 12).

    Like the example of Magnolia Blossom offered as lot 40, Calla is printed on a rich, matte-surface gelatin silver paper. In the early 1930s, Cunningham began printing on glossier paper, as did her West Coast colleagues in Group f.64. The present Calla’s matte surface suggests strongly that it was made prior to that transition. The paper Cunningham chose for this print is the ideal medium for the image, giving the print a soft gradation of tones while obscuring none of the image’s considerable detail.

    The photograph offered here was originally acquired from the photographer by the artist and collector Barbara K. Adelson of Detroit. Inspired by Ansel Adams photographs they had purchased at Tom Halsted’s 831 Gallery, Adelson and her husband made a trip to the West Coast in 1970 to meet Adams personally. It was Adams who put the Adelsons in touch with Cunningham, and they visited her in San Francisco that same trip, when they bought the present print and other images. Adelson remembers that her heart began to pound when she saw the Calla, and as she recounted recently, ‘I had to have it.’ Adelson and her husband, Dr. Seymour Adelson, went on to become major donors of art, including photographs, to institutions such as the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Flint Art Institute, and the University of Michigan Museum of Art.



circa 1925
Gelatin silver print.
11 x 9 1/2 in. (27.9 x 24.1 cm)
Signed in pencil in the margin; the photographer’s ‘1331 Green St., San Francisco 9’ stamp and annotated ‘Neg + Print made in the 1920s,’ likely by the photographer, in pencil on the verso.

$250,000 - 350,000 

Sold for $350,000

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Passion & Humanity: The Susie Tompkins Buell Collection

New York Auction 4 April 2019