Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976) is best known for her plant studies from the 1920s and ’30s. Imagine photographs that are like proto-Georgia O’Keeffe flower canvases: clinical yet loving, often surreptitiously sexy — and sometimes not so surreptitious. There are seven in “Imogen Cunningham: In Focus,” which runs at the Museum of Fine Arts through June 17.
What’s most surprising about the other 25 photographs on display are how varied they are. Small in size, the show is anything but small in scope. There are portraits, nudes, quasi-abstractions, industrial scenes, architectural studies, and at least one photograph of an unmade bed. That photograph looks like a cross between one of the plant studies and a landscape. The subject is a bit comical, but how Cunningham renders it is emblematic of her refusal to fit neatly into categories.
Or there’s “Stairs and Stairs at Merry’s,” from 1959. It’s a San Francisco cityscape that’s almost half a dozen photographs at once, so wondrous is its play of picture planes. Cunningham presents it all so straightforwardly, right down to the decorativeness of the shadows, you have to look twice, or three times, to realize just how bravura the arrangement is.
Photographs in the show range in date from circa 1920 to 1963. If anything, the later pictures are livelier and more alert to possibility than the classic work of the ’20s. Cunningham’s rich, diverse, and very long career had one constant: the interplay of perception, presentation, and experimentation.
After Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, Cunningham is the most prominent member of Group f/64, seven Bay Area photographers who evangelized during the interwar years for sharper, crisper images. Mention Weston and Adams, and one thinks of a certain style and particular subjects. Cunningham’s approach was too varied for that to happen. That variety was good for her art, though her reputation may have suffered for it.
In a nice touch, the show includes a Cunningham portrait of Adams and one of Weston. Seen in profile, Adams stands on a rock in Yosemite, his contrapposto stance making him seem almost to be dancing with his camera on its tripod. As for Weston, he leans against an outcropping at Point Lobos, looking like a skinnier, outdoorsman version of the English actor Ralph Richardson.
The show includes four self-portraits. In two of them, Cunningham shares the space: with her grandchildren (in a funhouse mirror!) and with the photographer Lisette Model. Clearly, Cunningham got along with her peers. In the other two, she’s seen in reflection and easily overlooked. Also clearly, ego was not an issue with her (a reason she got along with so many of those peers?).
Weston took one of the three pictures in the show of Cunningham by others. In it, we see her photographing Charis Wilson, Weston’s wife, in 1945. The other two capture her three decades later, and in very different contexts.
Judy Dater took “Imogen and Twinka” a year before Cunningham’s death. She and a favorite model flank a massive tree in Yosemite. Cunningham looks grandmotherly, or as grandmotherly as someone can look with a Rolleiflex hanging from her neck. Cunningham’s grandmotherliness makes Twinka’s nakedness that much funnier.
A year later Cunningham posed for one of Mike Mandel’s series of photographer baseball cards. Mandel got various photographers, curators, and critics to pose like ballplayers. Cunningham is about to throw a baseball — and even in her 90s, you don’t doubt she might throw a high hard one. Look closely and you’ll notice that her headwear isn’t a baseball cap. Short brim, slightly squared top, big star on the front: It’s a Mao cap. Once again, Cunningham was ignoring category and defeating expectations.
IMOGEN CUNNINGHAM: In Focus
At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through June 17. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.