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Portraits of Mills College By ROBERT McDONALD Special to the Planet

Tuesday February 21, 2006

“A Portrait of Mills: Photographs by Imogen Cunningham,” like other significant art exhibitions, instructs while it gives pleasure. Visitors will find in it, to their satisfaction, some of the iconic images for which the artist has long been famous as well as images with which they are unfamiliar. 

The artist (1883-1976), who long graced the Bay Area with her active presence, ranks among our nation’s most important photographers for her role in establishing the medium as a fine art and may still rank as our most important female photographer.  

The title is ambiguous, for this is not only an exhibition of photographs that Cunningham took of the Mills campus and of some of its faculty, it includes images from the college’s permanent collections.  

Director Stephan Jost initiated the exhibition but, having accepted a new directorship in Vermont and having been devoted to student involvement in the Mills Museum, asked senior student Pamela Caserta to assume responsibility for completing its organization. 

As curator, Caserta, having had previous museum experience at the highly respected Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, brought a practiced eye to her task. Her resources were the museum’s substantial holdings of Cunningham materials and the college library’s collection of “snapshots.” Caserta also made use of the several indispensable volumes about Cunningham, including the work of Richard Lorenz, who subscribed to the tradition that all works of art in whatever medium are self-portraits of the artists. 

So it was with Cunningham. Despite arguments that photography is a cool and objective medium like no other and despite divergencies and eclecticism in the work of a very long-lived artist, there was a relatively consistent vision that ranks her among our master photographers. 

The occasion for the exhibition is the 100th anniversary of the firm of the Ratcliff Architects, headquartered in Emeryville. Led by patriarch Walter Ratcliff (now deceased), this firm was responsible for the design of the Mills music building and its art museum, surely one of the most beautiful and satisfying exhibition spaces in the Bay Area. 

Its proportions, while grand, are, nevertheless, humane in scale. Its ceiling of panes of frosted thermoplastic, permitting the use of natural light (now supplemented by artificial illumination) is supported by a beautiful grid of Spanish Baroque inspiration. The building’s exterior was also initially designed to be a Spanish Baroque fantasy rather than the minimalist form that appears in one of the several photographs of the structure appearing in the exhibition.  

Among the iconic images of great personalities, visitors will find formal portraits of poets Theodore Roethke and John Masefield, painters Morris Graves and Lionel Feininger, the artist’s father Isaac Burns Cunningham and photographer Alfred Stieglitz standing in front of a painting by his wife Georgia O’Keefe. Missing, unfortunately, is any image of dancer Martha Graham, a pivotal figure in the invention of modern dance and an artist whose career was closely linked to Cunningham’s throughout their long lives.  

Why should viewers concern themselves with images that have often appeared in books and catalogues? Because they will find in them a presence that is absent from reproductions, no matter how skillfully printed. Cunningham’s works permit person-to-person communication.  

The same observation holds true for portraits of other subjects, although unknown, probably, to most viewers. For example, Alfred Salmony, Chinese art scholar at Mills; Joseph Sheridan, painter, whose image with its network of rectilinear and curvilinear elements, including furrows in the subject’s forehead, may owe something to the influence of photographer Man Ray; German Olympic Fencer Helene Mayer, who taught German at Mills during the 1930s and 1940s. 

Informal portraits of faculty—scientists, humanities professors and artists—include French composer Darius Milhaud working with two students at a piano keyboard. The focused concentration is palpable, though music is the most evanescent of the arts.  

Cunningham’s images of the Mills campus convey the serenity that is still characteristic of the college today—at least in comparison with most other Bay Area campuses. “Patio of the Tea Room” (1940) with students in dresses, skirts and blouses and professors in suits and ties; “Music Building and Pond” (ca. 1940); “Amphitheater” (ca. 1920), a classic study of curving minimalist forms in which shadows appear as substantial as concrete; and “Lake Aliso” (ca. 1930), which now seems to be disappearing because of environmental abuse—all convey the ethos of a time seemingly gentler than our own.  

Five works in particular, however, make direct connections to the present and enduring themes of life, and not just in the Bay Area, specifically sex and politics. 

In “Mills Nursery School” (ca. 1950), a small boy and a somewhat larger and ostensibly more aggressive girl play in a sand box. In “Sunbathing/Legs” (ca. 1950) viewers see nothing more than the erotically charged, inverted V’s in four two-inch square snapshots assembled two-by-two in a work of art improvised by curator Caserta. 

“Election Week” will resonate especially with those who experienced the struggles for civil rights and free speech in the last century. An automobile of circa 1920 is crowded with and followed by jolly young ladies wearing what appear to be uniform jumpers and straw hats. Banners, streamers and balloons decorate the automobile. On the back of the photograph is written, “Down with Student Government”—which has been crossed out! 

Finally, two images of magnolia blossoms (1925), though often reproduced, are, here on the museum walls, such definitive statements of erotic beauty that they must ravish any viewer who is not dead. That is truly an awesome experience of art. 


“A Portrait of Mills: Photographs by Imogen Cunningham,” is on view through March 12 at the Mills College Art Museum, 5000 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland. For more information, call 430-2164 or see