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Dorothea’s Splendid Circle

March 28, 2022

Anne Brigman was a pioneer who made no distinction between her artistic practice and her quest for freedom.

Beginning in 1901, nearly two decades before Lange arrived in California, Brigman was regularly trekking up to the Sierra Nevada, photographing herself on the edge of a cliff like a swaggering buccaneer, or else posing nude in the crook of a wind-warped tree. Soon enough she was causing a scandal by photographing male nudes.

Her technical skills were as notable as her daring.

In a cheeky token of admiration, at one 1920s gathering at Lange’s San Francisco portrait studio, a group of male and female photographers literally bowed before Brigman as a photographic goddess.

Eventually, her skill would earn her a place alongside Ansel Adams and Edward Weston in the pioneering Group f/64. 

Anne Brigman in the Sierra Nevada Mountains
Anne Brigman
Anne Brigman surrounded by “worshippers.” Dorothea Lange is the figure with the bowed head to the left. This was taken at Lange’s studio at 540 Sutter Street in San Francisco.

Brigman’s portrait of Isadora Duncan

Imogen Cunningham was one of the first photographers with whom Lange became acquainted when she came to the Bay Area in 1918.

When they met Cunningham had already attained a degree of critical recognition rare for a woman in what was still thought of as a man’s profession. 

But that wasn’t all that impressed Lange. Cunningham had run a successful portrait studio in Seattle, and while she continued to do portrait work in San Francisco to support herself, Cunningham was making art photography.

Her friends were legion. Ansel Adams esteemed and adored her. She served as an advocate and mentor for many other women photographers. She joined the Women’s Art League in San Francisco, which Dorothea Lange would also join. Her portraits of other women artists include the ones she took of Frida Kahlo and San Francisco sculptor Ruth Asawa.

In a tale all-too-common for women artists, Imogen Cunningham has only recently begun to get her due. In the fall of 2021 the Seattle Art Museum put on the first major retrospective of her work.

Cunningham’s 1930 portrait of Frida Kahlo
Unmade Bed by Imogen Cunningham
The extraordinary and indefatigable Imogen Cunningham

Working in the same vibrant milieu as Cunningham and Lange was Consuelo Kanaga.

In 1915, at the age of 21, Kanaga had been hired as a reporter and features writer for The Chronicle—a real feat for a woman of her day. She soon showed a talent for photography and began contributing pictures to the paper as well.

Kanaga was the first woman newspaper photographer Lange had ever met. Many years later, Lange shared her first impressions of this renegade photographer: 

“[She] lived in a Portuguese hotel in North Beach, which was entirely Portuguese working men, except Conseulo… She’d go anywhere and do anything. She was perfectly able to do anything at any time the paper told her to. They could send her to places where an unattached woman shouldn’t be sent and Consuelo was never scathed. She was a dasher.” 

Lange wouldn’t begin taking documentary photographs until 1932, by which time Kanaga had been practicing a version of that art for over a decade. She’d also bring her radically inclusive eye to people of color, producing portraits of exceptional beauty and power.

Consuelo Kanaga
Consuelo Kanaga

Friends who shoot together, stay together. . .From left, Imogen Cunningham, Alma Lavenson, and Consuelo Kanaga