A search for prints by world-renowned photographer Imogen Cunningham — one of America’s first and foremost female portrait photographers — for Cornish College of the Arts led to images that haven’t been seen since 1935.

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For years Bridget Nowlin, curator of “A Stitch in Time: Imogen at Cornish,” tried to verify rumors that world-renowned photographer Imogen Cunningham had studied or taught at Cornish College of the Arts, or had something to do with the Seattle arts institution.

What Nowlin didn’t know was how close the answer lay.

In 2009, the Imogen Cunningham Trust — complete with the photographer’s archive — moved to Lopez in the San Juan Islands, where Cunningham’s granddaughter, filmmaker-photographer Meg Partridge, had charge of it. In a sense, Cunningham, who grew up in Seattle, had come home again. And thanks in part to Partridge’s diligent stewardship (go to imogencunningham.com to see the Trust’s beautifully managed website), the details of Cunningham’s Cornish connection finally came to light.

You can see the results at “A Stitch in Time,” an exhibit of 17 silver gelatin prints in the President’s Gallery at Cornish’s Lenora Street campus.

Exhibition review

‘A Stitch in Time: Imogen at Cornish’

9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays through June 30, President’s Gallery, Cornish College of the Arts, 1000 Lenora St., Seattle (206-726-5169 or cornish.edu).

Cunningham was born in Portland in 1883 and spent part of her girlhood in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood. She earned her degree in chemistry at the University of Washington (thesis title: “Modern Processes of Photography”), then ran her own portrait studio in the city between 1910 and 1917.

After marrying, she moved with her young family to California — and there she stayed until her death at age 93 in 1976. There, too, her archive stayed, handled by her son Rondal Partridge and his wife for the next 30-odd years, until Meg Partridge took the helm. She helped Nowlin track down Cunningham’s Cornish images, all dating from 1935, the year of Cornish’s 21st anniversary. And it turned out there was a story behind them.

“Cornish wanted to make an amazing catalog to promote the school,” Nowlin says. “Imogen came here. She photographed. She actually developed and processed the film in (great Western photographer) Edward Curtis’ studio, because she used to work for him.”

On Lopez, as she pored over the images, Nowlin realized she’d seen quite a few of them in the archives of Cornish and the University of Washington’s Special Collections. At UW, she tracked down previously unattributed prints from the 1935 sessions.

“And those were originals!” Nowlin exclaims. “As a photo historian, I’m completely and utterly geeking out there.”

A couple of the images in “A Stitch in Time” — including a beautiful triple exposure titled “Three Harps” — were later widely circulated without their Cornish connection being emphasized. The rest hadn’t been seen in 80 years.

In making her selection, Nowlin particularly had present-day Cornish students in mind: “I wanted them to come and be able to see themselves … place themselves in the context of history at this college.”

One image that struck a special chord with theater students shows a lighting designer in action during a rehearsal or performance. Under his left hand, he has a script in a three-ring binder he’s following, while his right hand is placed on gearshift-like lighting controls.

“Obviously the technology has changed,” Nowlin says. “But this notebook, and the little tabs in it, and the stage management, is done in the exact same way.”

The show also includes two photographs of key figures in Cornish’s history that weren’t for the catalog: choreographers Martha Graham (taken in 1931) and Merce Cunningham (in 1957).

None of the students in the photographs, Partridge said in a phone interview last month, have been identified. But she hopes visitors to the show may be able to say who some of them are.

“People remember Imogen,” Partridge chuckles. “She definitely stood out in a crowd, despite the fact that she was probably 5-foot-nothing.”

Partridge herself has a living connection with her grandmother. When she was a teenager, she worked with her in her San Francisco studio.

“I really got to know her,” she says. “She didn’t have time for grandchildren, and didn’t like taking kids off on the weekends and doing kid stuff with them. She was just a really busy person.”

Partridge was there when Cunningham received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1970 that allowed her to go back into her old negatives and print work from the early 1910s. That same year, the UW Press brought out the first book on her, “Imogen Cunningham: Photographs.”

“The Smithsonian also was a big purchaser of her work that year,” Partridge recalls. “There was a surge of interest in her as not just a regional photographer or a character of San Francisco, but a woman of international acclaim in the photography world.”

Cunningham, at the time, was in her late 80s.

“It really took that long,” Partridge laments. “She was often asked, ‘What does it take to be a successful woman photographer?’ And her answer was: ‘You have to live long enough.’ ”

The maverick touch that Cunningham brought to her Cornish commission was typical.

“She always took advantage of the opportunity to see what was in front of her and make something for herself out of it, as well as something that her client — in this case, the Cornish School — would want,” Partridge notes.

Look closely at the string players in “Three Musicians,” and you’ll see what she means.

“She put a black cloth over one of the performers’ heads, because she just wanted to take away distractions,” Partridge laughs. “That was her ‘pre-Photoshop’ illumination technique. … Imagine being asked: ‘Put this black cloth over your head. I like your hands but not your head.’ ”

“Three Musicians,” along with all the other prints in “A Stitch in Time,” is on sale for $1,800, with half the proceeds going to the Cornish Fund and half going to the Imogen Cunningham Trust.