It was a stroke of great fortune for the late photographer Imogen Cunningham and her son, photographer Rondal Partridge, that his daughter inherited their keen sense of ...

Share story

IT WAS A STROKE of great fortune for the late photographer Imogen Cunningham and her son, photographer Rondal Partridge, that his daughter inherited their keen sense of observation and talent for visual storytelling.

While Cunningham, who died 30 years ago in San Francisco, and Rondal, who’s 88 and still shooting photos at his home in Berkeley, slummed in artsy coexistence with mid-century contemporaries such as Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams, little “Muggins” was hovering in the background, drinking in her kid’s-eye view of the Bay Area’s high-caliber arts scene.

Those “rather rowdy and entertaining evenings around the dining-room table” also included appearances by San Francisco sculptor Ruth Asawa and her architect husband, Al Lanier, the writer Felix Green, Lange’s husband, Paul Taylor, and the influential architecture critic Allan Temko, who was immortalized in Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” as the character Roland Major. The elderly Cunningham would catch a ride across the bay to Berkeley with whomever she could find to drive her.

“It was a wild, pretty wonderful time,” filmmaker Meg Partridge says of her childhood. “You always thought as a kid, ‘This is reality; this is normal.’ “

Partridge had some clue as a child, but certainly recognized at the start of her film career in the 1980s how extraordinary it was to grow up in the orbit of some of the 20th century’s most celebrated photographers, from her acid-tongued grandma “Imo” to her famously eccentric dad, Rondal, to her fiercely matriarchal godmother, Lange, “the grand dame.”

These were the people who fed Partridge’s mind — strong-willed women and charmingly off-center men, wandering souls with uncannily focused lenses.

But today, at age 52, Partridge is the one helping put things into sharper focus, namely the legacy of her family and their dazzling, talented social circle.

Cunningham, a Portland native who grew up and started her career in Seattle under the tutelage of Edward Curtis, and her son Rondal, who worked briefly for Life magazine’s Seattle bureau, shared a rather casual attitude about archiving their work and making it accessible to others.

When Cunningham was preparing to move her family from the home studio she used at 1117 Terry Ave. in Seattle to the Bay Area in 1916, she lightened her cargo by smashing most of her early glass-plate negatives and throwing them in the garbage.

By the late 1960s, Cunningham was working out of an “earthquake shack” on Green Street in San Francisco. She washed prints outside in a cold-water basin and put her granddaughter to work filling in white specks on enlarged prints.

“I ‘spotted’ prints in her kitchen-slash-bedroom-slash-dining room, which was all one room,” Partridge says with a grin. “She was so funny. I’d be working on a print and she’d say, ‘Oh, don’t worry about that. It’s just going to the Museum of Modern Art.’ “

” ‘You know,’ ” Partridge recalls Cunningham telling her about printmaking, ” ‘people pay more money for the stained ones.’ “

Partridge, who now spends most of her time producing and raising money for films, has helped archive about 100,000 surviving negatives from throughout Cunningham’s career. Her dad made many of the platinum prints that are now part of the Imogen Cunningham Trust, selections from which can be browsed at the online gallery Partridge runs, In addition to Cunningham’s famously sensual close-ups of magnolia blossoms, there is a selection of her nudes, for which she once was infamous.

Partridge also frequently travels back and forth to Berkeley to create order out of her father’s equally massive but loosely organized stockpile. His first and only photo book, “Quizzical Eye” (California Historical Society Press, $21.95), came out in 2003, about 70 years after he shot his first image and went on the road as a young field assistant to both Lange and Ansel Adams, who knew his mom.

Going through her father’s stash, Partridge says between belly laughs, was something of a free-for-all. “We were literally pulling stuff out of the attic, out of the closet!” Images by Rondal will appear over time at Partridge’s Web site. “He knew how to catalog, but he just didn’t do it. There’s always another layer.”

PARTRIDGE WAS SO inspired by her elders that she turned all three of the major figures in her life into the subjects of acclaimed documentaries — the Oscar-nominated “Portrait of Imogen,” along with “Dorothea Lange: A Visual Life,” and “Outta My Light!: Photographer Rondal Partridge.”

The films show a side of photographers that viewers of their finished work seldom see — their obsession with getting the perfect shot and their stubborn independence for sure, but also their social and environmental concern, attachment to certain subjects and their utter quirkiness.

“Portrait of Imogen” has Cunningham nonchalantly reflecting on the nude self-portraits she took outdoors on the University of Washington campus in 1906, the year before she graduated with a degree in chemistry. “I set it up and jumped into it — and that was it,” Cunningham is heard saying about the shot.

“A Visual Life” captures Lange, legendary chronicler of Depression-era struggle, memorably saying, “One should really use the camera as though tomorrow you’d be stricken blind.”

“She was this tiny woman who was totally intimidating,” says Partridge, who was 12 when Lange died.

“Outta My Light” shows Rondal trying his darndest to beautifully photograph a sliced cabbage.

“We like to tease (Rondal) and say he’s the last guy around, the last man standing,” Partridge says of her dad and his community of California photographers, which also included Edward Weston. “He was sort of the younger part of that crowd.”

Rondal’s insider view offered him priceless glimpses of supremely gifted photographers mastering their craft at a time when many were more concerned with successfully completing assignments than being museum fodder.

In the late 1930s, Rondal took intriguing snapshots of his mentors, Lange and Adams, at work: California migrant-worker camps in the case of Lange, high in the Sierra Nevada in the case of Adams.

More than a fly on the wall of photographic history, Rondal was a participant and chronicler. His daughter followed his lead. But Rondal’s own influences are clear, too.

Rondal’s photos of California youth and landscapes from the 1940s and ’50s owe much to his two mentors, while showcasing his wit and environmentalism. His intensely detailed indoor images, architectural photos and still-lifes partly reflect his mother’s unblinking approach to subjects from flowers to painter Frida Kahlo and dancer Martha Graham.

These days, Rondal is up front about those influences and about what he’s passed on to his daughter.

“I learned more from Dorothea than anybody else in the world, except maybe my mother,” he says. Lange and Cunningham had been friends since the 1920s.

His mother, says Rondal, “was not self-conscious about anything in this world, whether it was sexual or emotional or anything. She said, ‘There’s nothing in the world that men can do that I can’t — nothing.’ “

With bosses such as Seattle photographer Edward Curtis, and friends/rivals such as Ansel Adams, Cunningham learned how to thrive among men. Most important, “she basically didn’t care what people thought,” concurs Gail Gibson, owner of G. Gibson Gallery in Seattle, which represents Cunningham. “Her chutzpah and her integrity carry through in the family.”

Cunningham was ahead of her time in many respects.

Rondal remembers that in the 1920s, girls from a nearby college in Oakland would pay her visits to get tips on contraception; she always reminded Rondal to take condoms when he went out on the town as a young man.

“Funny life,” Rondal says, referring to his mom, whose portraits depicting her ex-husband and Rondal’s dad, the etcher Roi Partridge, frolicking nude on Mount Rainier, caused a stir in the Seattle press.

Cunningham probably would describe her son’s life as equally “funny.”

Rondal basically hired himself to work as an assistant to Adams by walking into his studio one day and telling him bluntly, “I came to be your assistant.”

” ‘What do you mean, assistant?’ ” the sometimes irascible Adams asked.

“One of these days, you’re going to need me to help,” Rondal told him. “He said, ‘Well, let’s go.’ “

So off the two went to Vernal Falls in Yosemite National Park. They hiked up to an elevation of 4,000 feet for the shoot.

“My arms burned,” Rondal remembers. “I can still feel it. But I didn’t say a damn word. We went to the top of the falls, he took a picture, and we came down. That’s the way I am to this day. You can’t stop me — and you can’t stop Meg.”

RONDAL ISN’T SHY about heaping praise on his daughter.

“Meg is the most self-sufficient person I’ve ever known,” he says.

Still, he can’t help discussing the time he sold a print of his mother’s portrait of photographer Alfred Stieglitz, worth perhaps $20,000, for a mere $6,000 back in 1972, when Meg needed emergency cash during her bohemian days studying theater arts and dance in Paris.

On the flip side, he relishes the anecdote about his statuesque daughter traveling by train through Italy when a male passenger gooses her.

“She’s about 6 feet 2,” Rondal says, spinning his yarn. “She yanks him with her arm and she says, ‘Walk underneath’ to humiliate him. When she got off the train, everyone on the platform was silent. The news had gone ahead of her! That’s the type of woman she is.”

Partridge can’t deny that a certain directness and a joyful disregard for convention seeped through the family tree to her.

She and her husband, blacksmith Craig Withrow, two years her junior, got married March 8, after more than 25 years of living together. They met in a Bay Area photography class. She was teacher; he was student.

“It’s been a running joke,” she says of their failure to tie the knot. “I’d ask him, and he’d say no; he’d ask me, and I’d say no. After about 10 years of that, we stopped asking each other.”

Partridge and Withrow purchased their clear-cut swath of land on Lopez Island “sight unseen” in 1995, she says.

Withrow built a rustic wood house, blacksmithing studio and chicken coop there. The couple moved up from California in 1999, continuing the family tradition of working where you live, and living simply.

Rondal lived like a pauper with his wife, Elizabeth, and their five kids in Berkeley. He once kept two TVs in the basement darkroom: one just functional enough to show a picture, the other just functional enough to muster sound. Partridge remembers rocking tubs of chemicals in the darkroom when she was a child (“Two minutes, not shorter,” dad would command). He’d often pile the whole family, including two dogs, into his huge Cadillac for photo assignments back East.

On more than a few occasions, Partridge and her siblings, Joan, Joshua, Elizabeth and Aaron, would obliviously interrupt their dad’s photo sessions, forcing Rondal to shout over and over, “Outta my light! Outta my light!” Hence the title of the film about him, co-produced by Lange’s granddaughter, Dyanna Taylor, and Partridge’s sister, Elizabeth.

Rondal actually took countless snapshots of Partridge and the rest of the family, images so ingrained that as a young woman Partridge missed not having him there, camera in tow, to record every moment. He was relentless about taking pictures.

Even today, Partridge says, “He will leave the house and if he doesn’t have his camera, he’s like an old man without his hat.”

Still, Partridge has to make her dad sign his prints, a business formality he wouldn’t bother with otherwise. Like mother, like son.

Whenever Partridge visits her dad, she rummages through his darkroom to see what’s going on in his life, photographically and personally. That’s how she came across old audio recordings Rondal made of Cunningham talking about her life and career — recordings that now grace the “Portrait of Imogen” documentary, available at

It’s clear that Partridge still misses the experience of being caught — accidentally or not — in her dad’s light.

Now that Cunningham’s catalog is organized, she’s eager to shed a little light on him.

Tyrone Beason is a Seattle Times staff reporter. He can be reached at 206-464-2251 or