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Robert Cumming, whose photos changed camera work, dies

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Robert Cumming, an artist best known for conceptual photography that was instrumental in a major shift in camerawork in the 1970s and early ’80s, died December 16 in Desert Hot Springs, California. He was 78 years old.

According to his partner Margaret Irwin-Brandon, Cumming died of complications from Parkinson’s disease.

Cumming worked primarily in black and white, the established format used to distinguish photography as serious art rather than an element of commercial mass media that favored colour. He often made large-scale contact sheets, emphasizing his commitment to directness and honesty versus costliness and manipulation in the darkroom. But he discarded the usual sober, documentary pose of modernist fine art photography, preferring to throw a wrench into the visual mix.

Typical was “Ansel Adams Raisin Bread(1973), a diptych with a whimsical reference to Adams, the reigning king of glamorous, seemingly uncomplicated landscape photography. A store-bought pre-packaged loaf of bread, some individual slices, several plates and a box of raisins with a sunny image of a young woman in a field with a platter of fruit are casually arranged on a table set outdoors in a garden patio.

The image is devoid of elaborate composition or lighting. A second photo of the couple is virtually identical — except this time each slice of bread is conspicuously studded with a few dozen raisins. The bread is an echo of the tabletop, a flat plane on which ordinary objects are placed. Human intervention in the scene is inevitable. The photographic truth is underlined and taken ad absurdum.

Critic Andy Grundberg once remarked about his photographs: “Cummings almost catches our eyes. But true deception never interests him, only appearances, and he shows his dexterity with every piece.”

Along with friend and sometime studio mate William Wegman, who initially shot videos but eventually turned to stills centered around his soulful Weimaraner Man Ray, Cumming was among the first conceptually influenced photographers to achieve early success. The new genre of camerawork has sometimes been exhibited under the umbrella of ‘fabricated to be photographed’, recognizing the extent to which all photographs inevitably contain a fictional, manufactured element.

Sometimes Cumming used his own body as an eccentric subject, as in 1975’s “67-Degree Body Arch Outside Circle Center.” In profile with hips pushed forward, torso arched back, and neck and head awkwardly aligned with his legs, he’s a mathematical one or scientific demonstration whose geometry evokes the graceful rationality of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man‘ in his ear. The title’s geometric shapes, drawn around his body on the surface of the photo, may have been created with an oversized nib that subtly conceals the hand on Cummings’ hip.

The artist’s photo, like a drawing, is a work of art.

His work as a painter, sculptor, and performance artist shaped his distinctive, often witty, approach to images made with a camera that Cumming began exploring in 1969 and continued for more than a decade. Artists as diverse as Eve Sonneman, Jan Groover, Lew Thomas, Judy Fiskin, and Lewis Baltz have blurred traditional boundaries in different but conceptually compelling ways. Photography would never be the same.

Cumming was born in 1943 in Worcester, Massachusetts, a once vibrant industrial city that declined after World War II. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Massachusetts College of Art in Boston in 1965 and an MFA from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in 1967, both in painting. After an initial teaching position at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where he began his transition to cinematography, he was hired at Cal State Fullerton in 1970.

Cumming’s first major group show was 24 Young Los Angeles Artists at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1971. Two years later, when he was 30, his first solo exhibition of photographs opened at Cal State Long Beach. A 1986 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York made its way to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He exhibited extensively.

Cumming received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts in photography (1973), the experimental New Genres category (1974) and printmaking (1983), and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in 1980-81. 33 of his photographs are in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum; His work is also featured at the Whitney, SFMOMA and the New York Museum of Modern Art.

In 1978, Cumming returned to New England to teach at the Hartford Art School in Connecticut, one of the oldest art schools in the country, and later established his studio in the small western Massachusetts town of Whately.

In 1988 he met Irwin-Brandon, a professor of European Baroque music at Mount Holyoke College. The couple moved to Desert Hot Springs in 2013. In addition to Irwin-Brandon, Cumming is survived by a sister, Virginia, and a brother. Edward.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2021-12-21/robert-cumming-photographer-obituary Robert Cumming, whose photos changed camera work, dies

Caroline Bleakley

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