The photos from this period, often tightly framed to the point of almost cropped, cast off much of Cunningham’s earlier romantic tendencies in favor of a modernist sharpness and chiaroscuro that, while still moody, nears abstraction. The leaves of rubber plants and flax plants become spears, and in close-up, paper-skinned magnolia blossoms almost look like thighs.
“I go back to her work when I think about how to make a portrait, essentially, of a specific plant,” says Seattle photographer Melinda Hurst Frye, who trains her lens on the ecology of the Northwest. “I’ve been thinking about how she works with the light and shadow, and the really graphic nature of showing these botanicals — but not as nostalgic, necessarily pretty images,” she says. “It’s more about the structural integrity of the plant.”
Because Cunningham branched out into new fields and changed up her game so much, it can be hard to pin down a “Cunningham style.” But what emerges from these works — and her later portraits and street photography — is an incisive eye, a clear-headedness about what did not belong within the frame. She zoomed in on the subtle shapes of nature and humans: a girl’s feet suspended mid-jumping rope, a pregnant woman slumped asleep in a rocking chair, the kick of a dancer’s leg, a patch of rock that looks like the weathered skin of a cowboy, an aloe’s spikes hiding secrets in hard shadows.