CUNNINGHAM, “Ada Clement” (1878-1952)


“Ada Clement,” cofounder San Francisco Conservatory of Music
Vintage silver gelatin photograph, 7 1/4 x 5 5/8 inches

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Imogen Cunningham, (American 1883-1976) was an American photographer best known for portraits and images of plant life.

Cunningham studied at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she developed an interest in photography. Her earliest prints were made in the tradition of Pictorialism, a style of photography that imitated academic painting from the turn of the century. After studying photography at the Technische Hochschule in Dresden, Germany, from 1909 to 1910, Cunningham opened a portrait studio in Seattle in 1910 and soon established a solid reputation. Her commercial portraiture was straightforward, but she continued to produce soft-focused allegorical prints. She married printmaker Roi Partridge in 1915, and the couple moved to San Francisco in 1917. By the early 1920s Cunningham began to change her style, creating close-up, sharply detailed studies of plant life and other natural forms. Her experiments with form allied her with other Modernist photographers at the time, and in 1932 Cunningham joined the association of West Coast photographers known as Group f.64. Like other members of the group, she rejected the soft-focused sentimental subjects that were then popular in favour of images such as Two Callas (c. 1929), which conveys a sensuous delight in nature.  In the early 1930s, Cunningham worked briefly for Vanity Fair and produced images of entertainers and celebrities. After the breakup of Group f.64, she ran a portrait gallery and taught at several California art schools. A retrospective monograph, Imogen! Imogen Cunningham Photographs, 1910–1973, was published in 1974, and her final photographs were published in After Ninety in 1977.


Ada Clement, founder of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, was born in San Francisco on March 15, 1878. Her father was a lawyer with no formal musical education, yet he played violin and piano. Her mother had been a school teacher before her marriage and shared with Ada’s father a pleasant voice. Ada began her musical education at age seven with the piano. Her talent progressed, and in 1909, when she was 31 years old, Ada prepared to leave for Europe to study with musicians Josef Lhevinne in Berlin, and Harold Bauer in Paris.

To help finance her trip Ada gave a benefit concert at her friend Mrs. Otis’ home. According to Ada’s autobiographical memoirs, “A few reminiscences by Ada Clement for her family and friends”, the tickets were sold at “fancy prices” and a large sum was made. When Lillian Hodghead was in New York studying at The Institute of Musical Art, she met another young woman who would also be instrumental in the founding of what would become the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. At the Three Arts Club, a residence for young women studying Music, Art or Drama she met Nettiemae Felder. Nettiemae’s mother had a girl’s school in Texas, and invited Lillian and Nettiemae to teach there for a year. After that year, the two came to San Francisco along with four girls, three of whom were studying piano with Lillian. That is when Ada Clement, Lillian and Nettiemae met.

Ada was still living in a boarding house at the time, so Nettiemae and Ada decided to move in together. All three were teaching piano lessons, as were the two girls from Texas who remained in San Francisco. Somehow the idea came up that they should start a piano school together. Lillian’s parents lived in a large house on Sacramento street with a cottage to one side. They convinced her parents to move into the cottage and during the Summer of 1917 took over the large house, moving in and remodeling most of the rooms into studios. The school was named the Ada Clement Piano School. When the doors of the school first opened, they had a faculty of five: Ada, who taught the advanced piano students, Lillian, who taught piano and theory, the two girls from Texas, Opal Perkins and J.V. Carlisle, who taught the intermediate students, and Nettimae who taught the children.

San Francisco Conservatory of Music founder Ada Clement dictated accounts of her life to her close friends Lillian Hodghead and Nettimae Clement in the summer of 1952. This was the year of her death and although she was weak with illness, she was able to impart stories from her life that are treasured by the Conservatory today. The account begins with Ada’s memories of hiking in the Sierras with her friend Lillian. Part of this adventure was to climb Mount Brewer. Ada dictated: “It was quite a hard and long climb and, as we reached the top, quite rocky. At the very top, however, we were in the rain and thunder with lightning all about us.”  She describes in detail her first meeting Ernest Bloch, who would become the Director of the Conservatory from 1925 until 1930. “This wonderful day was not only the beginning of a great personal friendship which has lasted through our lives, but, more important, has been the means of exerting a great musical influence on San Francisco and all California.”  Ada remembered the great 1906 earthquake and fire of San Francisco. “That morning my mother and I were awakened by the violent shake and crash and as we were in adjoining bedrooms we talked it over without getting up at first.”  Other memories include Ada’s journey to Europe to study with musicians Josef Lhevinne and Harold Bauer, as well as the founding of the Ada Clement Piano School, which would become the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.