Imogen Cunningham and Twinka, Yosemite, 1974
For months after Andrew Gruft’s sudden death, I often seemed to hear his voice booming in my ears – nowhere more frequently than when I was in a gallery, looking at art. Andrew was always the best of company in such moments: merciless, impassioned, expletive. Now, with him gone, I wish I could ask him what he made of this work: an early purchase and one of the comic gems in the collection.
The picture reminds me of him because it is both wise and funny. Of course, it captures the contrast of youth and age with tenderness (another Gruft attribute), with youth manifested in the person of the impossibly beautiful Twinka Thiebaud in the nude, and the elfin photographer Imogen Cunningham approaching. Cunningham’s twin-lens reflex Leica is hung about her neck, the weighty instrument of her profession, and she holds up a halting, appraising finger to the young model, as if to fix her in space. Both photographer and muse seem overcome with shyness.
The other woman present in this moment cannot be seen: the photographer Judy Dater, who took the shot. She was an admirer of Cunningham’s, and remained her friend for life. Known best for her capable and often probing portrait work in and around her San Francisco community, Dater will nonetheless always be remembered for this picture: a masterpiece of timing. The photograph is about flirtation, play, but it’s also about the gravitas that comes of long experience. It seems to express the twin poles of a life well lived: purpose and commitment on the one hand, and merriment and pleasure on the other. What more could we want here on earth?
In its relationship to time, photography is forever haunted by the Angel of Death, who seems to hover in the treetops here. (Cunningham would die two years later.) But the elements of this scenario – a beautiful young woman somewhat incongruously unclad; the transcendent natural landscape of California, with its ancient redwoods; and the well-seasoned artistic spirit in the wings, emergent – these were the elements of the life Andrew Gruft perfected. I think this picture says it all.