Robert Cumming, an artist known for his conceptual photographs which were instrumental in a major transformation of camera work in the 1970s and early 1980s, died December 16 in Desert Hot Springs, Calif. . He was 78 years old.

According to his life 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, which favored color. He often produced large format contact prints, emphasizing a commitment to candor and honesty rather than preciousness and darkroom manipulation. But he rejected the usual understated documentary pose of modernist fine art photography, instead preferring to throw an adjustable wrench into the visual mix.

Typical was “Ansel Adams Raisin Bread” (1973), a diptych with an offbeat reference to Adams, the reigning king of glamorous and ostensibly straightforward landscape photography. A store-bought loaf of bread, individual slices, several plates and a box of raisins depicting a sunny photo of a young woman in a field holding a plate of fruit are laid out casually on a table, which is set up at the ‘outside in a garden terrace.

The image is devoid of any composition or clever lighting. A second photograph of the pair is virtually identical, except this time each slice of bread is prominently sprinkled with a few dozen raisins. The bread is an echo of the table, a flat plane on which ordinary objects have been placed. Human intervention in the scene is inevitable. The photographic truth is emphasized, while being made absurd.

Critic Andy Grundberg once noted of his photographs: “Cummings almost puts a damper on our eyes. But he is never interested in the real deception, only in its appearance, and he gives his knack in every room.

Along with his friend and sometimes studio mate William Wegman, who started making videos but eventually moved on to still photographs centered on his moving Weimaraner, Man Ray, Cumming was among the first concept-influenced photographers to know a early success. The new genre of photographic work was sometimes exhibited under the “made to be photographed” umbrella, which recognized the degree to which all photographs inevitably incorporated a fictitious and fabricated element.

Sometimes Cumming would use his own body as an eccentric subject, as in 1975’s ’67 degree body arc out of center of circle’. Shown in profile with hips pushed forward, torso arched back, and neck and its head awkwardly aligned with the angle of its legs, it is a mathematical or scientific demonstration whose geometry puts on its ear the graceful rationality of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man”. The title’s geometric shapes drawn around her body on the surface of the photograph could have been done with an oversized feather, in which Cumming’s hand on hip is discreetly hidden.

The artist’s photograph, like a drawing, is an artifice.

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

Cumming was born in 1943 in Worcester, Mass., A once vigorous industrial town in decline after World War II. He received a BA in 1965 from the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston and an MFA in 1967 from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, both in painting. After a first teaching position at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where he began the transition to camera work, he was hired in 1970 at Cal State Fullerton.

Cumming’s first major group exhibition 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 photography exhibition opened in Cal State Long Beach. A 1986 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City visited the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He exhibits widely.

Cumming received National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships in Photography (1973), in the “New Genres” Experimental Category (1974), and Printmaking (1983), as well as a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in 1980-81. Thirty-three of his photographs are in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum; his work is also represented at the Whitney, SFMOMA and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

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, before establishing his studio in the small town of Whately, in the west. from Massachusetts.

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


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