Gallery of Fine Art Photography - Atlanta GA

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The Persistence of Vision

Creativity and Longevity in the Careers of:
Imogen Cunningham, Bernice Abbott and Paul Strand

Which of my photographs is my favorite? The one I’m going to take tomorrow.” – Imogen Cunningham
In a CBS This Morning video segment called Note to Self, the painter Chuck Close declares, “Inspiration is for amateurs.” Close believes art is created from a steady diet of work, rather than the gift of a muse descending from the heavens bearing a brilliant painting or novel or photograph. Imogen Cunningham, Berenice Abbott and Paul Strand would likely agree with Close’s view.
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All three photographers had impressive work ethics that drove them to create photographs until the end of their long lives. Cunningham died at 93; Abbott at 93 and Strand at 85.
Perhaps an abiding interest in the world beyond one’s self is a key to longevity. These photographers drew their inspiration from the external world, whether the impetus was to document changes in the way people live and work or a desire to explore different values and political systems. Curiosity is a trait linking these three very different photographers. The camera represented a kind of fountain of youth for Abbott, Cunningham and Strand, who were determined to use this still young medium as a powerful tool of understanding. These three Americans traveled the globe in search of photographic success in their own unique ways.
Berenice Abbott, NYC, 1986 - by Arnold Newman

Berenice Abbott, NYC, 1986 – by Arnold Newman

Bernice Abbott was part of the American expatriate community in Paris in the 1920s. After studying sculpture in Europe for a few years, she found her calling when she convinced Dadaist Man Ray to hire her as a darkroom assistant, despite her lack of experience.

“America was no place for the artist, and it was no place for me. Nothing would have happened to me here. A poor girl from the middle west with nothing open for me except marriage,” Abbott says in Martha Wheelock’s excellent film, Bernice Abbott, A View of the 20th Century. “There was a general feeling of hope. The war had lifted off of people’s shoulders. There is a café life there that’s very wonderful. People come there late in the afternoon after a days work. You exchange ideas and you’re alive.“
Paul Strand, NYC, 1966 - by Arnold Newman

Paul Strand, NYC, 1966 – by Arnold Newman

Paul Strand moved to Mexico in the 1930s to photograph labor and farming communities, after being invited by Carlos Chavez, director of the fine arts department of the Secretariat of Public Education, to document the changing landscape and people of Mexico. During the two years Strand spent there, he traveled the countryside photographing small towns, churches, religious icons and the people who inhabited the land. Eventually, Strand moved to France permanently in the 1950s. His adopted country became a base to explore Europe and Africa.

Imogen Cunningham, NYC, 1969 - by Arnold Newman

Imogen Cunningham, NYC, 1969 – by Arnold Newman

For part of her career, Imogen Cunningham was restricted geographically by familial duties, but she also traveled to Europe at the end of her life and photographed extensively there. Though her photographic endeavors were primarily centered on the West Coast, her projects where as diverse and expansive, as those of her peers in the Circle of Light exhibition.

Science backs up the anecdotal evidence that imaginative pursuits can fuel longevity, as Jeffrey Kluger writes in a 2013 Time Magazine article, “Increasingly, brain research is showing that in the case of creative people, this mortal cause-and-effect pays powerful dividends–that it’s not just the luck of living a long life that allows some people to leave behind such robust bodies of work but that the act of doing creative work is what helps add those extra years.”
Though what scientists call “fluid intelligence,” which includes memory and computational speed, almost invariably decline with age, the brain can actually repair itself and strengthen right and left-brain connections as it ages. Kruger continues. “Studies with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), however, show that in the older brain, one hemisphere is not shy about calling on the other for help if it’s having trouble with a task. ‘There may be a decline in function, but it’s partly compensated for by a reorganization in function,’ says cognitive neuroscientist Roberto Cabeza of Duke University. ‘The brain shows these changes into the 80s.’ That can pay particular dividends for the artist, Cabeza says. Language conveys meaning, but if you want to give it particular resonance, it helps to attach a picture to the words. So the left-brain has to reach into the right for help–the poet borrowing one of the painter’s brushes. That’s not easy to do–which is why not everyone can be a poet–but when the walls between the hemispheres get lower, the job gets easier.”
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