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Northwest-born photographer Imogen Cunningham blazed trails for seven decades

Seattle Art Museum's retrospective of her work runs through Feb. 6. #k5evening

SEATTLE — An exhibition at Seattle Art Museum showcases the work of a Northwest-born photographer who blazed trails for nearly 70 years.

Photographer Imogen Cunningham was a contemporary of Ansel Adams', and her name should arguably be just as recognizable.

"Yes, 100% yes! And in fact, this is the first retrospective of her work in 35 years so it is long overdue,” said Carrie Dedon, Asst. Curator for Modern Contemporary Art.

Cunningham was born in Portland and grew up in Port Angeles and Seattle.

"She attended school at the University of Washington in a really interesting trajectory, actually,” Dedon said. “She knew she wanted to be a photographer but they didn't offer fine arts at the time so she studied chemistry at U-Dub. Really unusual path, for a woman especially."

Being a professional photographer was also an unusual path for a woman.

"She started her career in the late 19th century, photography was still fairly new, and there weren't a lot of women working professionally in it," Dedon said. "She identified that as a missed opportunity. And in fact, as early as 1913, she published an essay entitled 'Photography as a Profession for Women.'"

Cunningham's work spanned decades and often bucked trends. When soft focus was popular, she snapped sharp close-ups. Her subjects ranged from botanicals to movie stars.

And she never stopped innovating.

"The earliest work in the show is 1910, and she did not stop working until her death at the age of 93 in 1976,” Dedon said. "She was really at the forefront of all these conversations in pushing photography forward throughout her career."

The exhibit also includes work by other artists who were influenced by Cunningham.

Her photography — groundbreaking in its time — also laid the groundwork for so much of what we see today.

"For people who know her name, I think they'll be delighted, there's a lot to see here. For people who don't, you'll learn her name and hopefully carry it forward and see her influence everywhere else you go,” Dedon said.

“Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective” runs through Feb. 6. Tickets are available online, and masks are required inside the museum.

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