What’s lacking in many lists of all-time photography greats is an eclecticism of styles and strengths, periods and characters. Here is a sampling of twenty photographers whose works have stretched the medium as we know it, in twenty different directions, be they commercial, artistic, or ideological. We sought to include the canonical alongside the rising to give you the greatest breadth possible in your search for inspirational figures, and to instill appreciation for the infinite facets of a timeless art.
Perhaps Jeremy Cowart’s most significant contribution to photography is his modernist approach to the career; he is regarded as the most tech-savvy of today’s notable photographers, and if you’re wondering not only how to take a decent photo, but also to get paid for it, Cowart is the obvious talent one to watch. His usage of social media, coupled with an approachable DIY aesthetic, represent a masterful integration of the art into the contemporary period. Consequently, he’s an inspiration even to those with nothing more than a camera phone–a device he’s sometimes used for entire shoots, to startling effect.
Joe McNally is a veteran of the craft, with a steady, decades-spanning career with both LIFE magazine and National Geographic. It’s entirely understandable why he is one of the most prodigiously award-winning personages in the field, what with his explorations of dynamic postures, complete mastery of lighting, and unconventional use of props, such blinking lights added to accent the progressive stages of a moving object. Today he’s most recognizable for Faces of Ground Zero, a truly heroic collection of portraits depicting the firefighters and policemen of the 9/11 attacks.
One of the most widely-regarded photographers on any list of greats, Richard Avedon is best known as a fashion and portrait photographer, whose works hold a deep influence on American culture and imagery. Avedon’s major innovation seems modest enough to us now, but was groundbreaking in his time–he did away with lifeless static postures in his fashion portraits, and demanded instead that his subjects show movement, emotion, a living pulse. Consequently, he took some of the most iconic celebrity photos we have today of personalities such as Bob Dylan, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Malcom X, the whole history book.
Bernd Shaefers’ photography seeks to freezes all the fleeting moments, all the little stories that we normally pass by on commutes or walks, so that we can step inside and admire the intricacy of what is normally invisible. Hence, he favors candid moments in his black and white street photography, preferring to let them speak for themselves, the subway tiles, the striding limbs on the sidewalk, and the pedestrians absorbed entirely in themselves.
Another master that came to photography in the midst of WWII, W. Eugene Smith served for the Australian armed forces before he came to fashion photography. As a wartime photojournalist, he never shied from depicting horror or discomforting thoughts; for his unflinching vision, Smith went toe-to-toe against Japanese conservatives for depicting the Minamata disease outbreak, a chemical disaster resulting in the mutilated bodies of thousands of infected Japanese. In interviews, he frequently reveals his dedication to change minds with film–an endeavor, he says, which outweighs even one’s own safety.
Helmut Newton is best known for the striking, often monochrome eroticism representative of his fashion photography, which hid none of its pleasures: decadence, sadomasochism, and fetishism abounded, uncensored in his works. His photography is often recognized for its singular use of lighting, often as an accent for the nude female form. Newton’s work continued to shock well into the 1980s, with famous works such as the “Big Nude” series, which proved he was definitely still able to outrage late into his career.
An awkward duck in every sense of the word, David Bailey endured undiagnosed dyslexia and abject poverty, including a cheap private school education which he scarcely took advantage of, instead nurturing a predilection for natural history, which eventually led him towards photography. Bailey shot multiple high-profile celebrities across the decades, from Kate Moss to the Rolling Stones, in stunning black and white. He eventually came to be an affecting figure to his peers at Vogue, both in his vivacious personage (which is saying a lot, considering it’s the staff of Vogue after all) and the sheer volume of his works.
It’s hard to say which historical events Henri Cartier-Bresson was not there to document. His life took a steadily radical trajectory, rebelling against his upbringing as a young Communist, and leaving home to study painting under Andrew Lhote Finally, after tiring of a stint in the army and hunting in Africa, he soon arrived at photography. His approach involved applying principles learned from his years painting, which are apparent when studying the composition of his works. Known for his ability to capture whatever locale he found himself in, to say he was well-traveled would be an understatement.
Robert Frank is best known for his lauded photography book The Americans, which focused on individuals of all racial and economic backgrounds at the time, and the frictions between them. Its stylistic eccentricities outraged critics, but it flourished regardless, partly due to a foreword by Jack Kerouac at the height of the Beat movement. Where the Beat questioned the motives of mainstream American life, Frank’s photography let that life speak for its own frustrated, alienated state.
Though his repertoire of styles is large, Irving Penn is frequently remembered for pioneering the simple technique of sparse still lives before a gray or white backdrop; variations on this technique included background props that came to exotic, angular compositions. He brought the same sense of stylized artifice even to his fashion photography, where models were adorned with similarly stylized props, to a vivacious, but believable, circus-like effect.
Guy Bourdin was another virtuoso whose art was born during active duty in World War II. As a photographer, Bourdin enthusiastically took the surrealist principles of his mentor, Man Ray, into his own photography. This is quite apparent, even in the world of product advertisements, as he always injected a sense of mystique and suggestions of narrative into even the commercial. One is struck by the aggression and sexuality in his pieces, which, you could say, sought to corrupt the fantasy-object treatment of women that had been prevalent in the generation before.
In the late 1950s, Diane Arbus captured the rawness of New York City as few had before. Her prime subjects were locales we might call ‘unseemly’ or mundanely public, and individuals who hid a world of emotion beneath a veneer the public shies away from–she saw tenderness where others couldn’t see past a learning disability, and the spirit of the present in casual street-walkers. While it seems we understand something of these people and places as a result of her photos, there lingers a sense of impenetrability surrounding them.
Many describe Edward Weston’s style as possessing a distinctly Western, and specifically, Californian aesthetic to them, which is apparent from his most famous images: sand dunes, forests of cacti, the silhouettes of scraggled brush against a landscape of dust. Most interesting in his work is the way it excises the subject from its context, allowing it to stand naked in its form, and consequently, rife with meaning.
As a paragon of the Pictorialist and Modernist movements, and publisher of the influential photography journal Camera Work, Alfred Steiglitz was one of the foremost figures who labored to elevate the medium towards artistry, as well as actively supporting daring painters of the day. But for all his avowal of the experimental, he is maybe best known for a modest photo often called one of the most important of the century–entitled The Steerage, it depicts lower-class passengers at the bow of a ship, passing the time, craning their necks to see, and overflowing from the railings.
In a famous instance of her personability and dedication to her craft, Margaret Bourke-White once photographed the interior of a steel mill, much to the suspicion of the workmen and overseers, who were doubtful that such a place was fit for a woman with a camera. Nevertheless, she took some of the most stunning industrial images we have from the era, and overcame the challenge presented by the harsh and unfamiliar lighting of the welding equipment and heated metals by using a new type of magnesium flare that burned white. The strides she made for women in photography cannot be understated, as she helmed her career with an adventurism and daring that made her even more ostentatious in an industry dominated at the time by men.
Ansel Adams is perhaps the most recognizable master of photography the world over, and for good reason. We remember him best as a solitary figure in the wilderness he loved, accompanied only by a single pack animal bearing the tools of his craft. The magic of his pieces lies in the fact that they are simultaneously real in a sense that no human eye can capture, but also unreal in the fact that they depicted landscapes, mountains, lakes, and pueblos, as only Adams himself could see. After the arrival of his portfolios, none could place photography anywhere below the status of high art.
Jerry Uelsmann has the reputation of a magician, a master of photoshopping techniques long, long before Photoshop had ever been conceived. This stems from his obsession with darkroom techniques, and an unconventional ‘collector’s’ approach to imagery. His negatives can be likened to clay which he combines, molds, and bends towards impossibly vivid and suggestive pieces, and he often utilizes recent photos with those shot years past. Above all else, he seeks to challenge the viewer, to present something that must be engaged with in order to be appreciated.
A Lisbon-based photographer of the contemporary period, Rui Palha has been praised for his starkly moving images of singular figures, huddled or contentious against an environment that surrounds them in a flood of pattern and geometry, whether they be natural or man-made. His photography favors black and white for an inherent truth in the mode, an indispensible advantage in his expressions of unique, human stories.
Another widely-spoken name in contemporary street photography, Swiss native Thomas Leuthard’s process is simple: scan, and note. Note the strange, note patterns, humor, the whispered story–from interviews, one gets an image of Leuthard as unpretentious in his approach, favoring digital to film, and switching back and forth between color and black and white, as few photographers would advise. His images speak towards a simple connection between himself and his subject that cuts through convention and interference.
It’s surprising that aspiring photographers can learn so much from a photographer living and working during such an early period of the art’s history. Brady made his mark when the United States was still maturing, and is best known for his brutal portrayal of the Civil War, a sight, one must remember, which was still new to the nation: Brady was the first to photograph a battlefield before the corpses of the day’s battle were even removed. In doing so, he brought a reality of the war that was not only new to the young country, but to the medium of photography as well. In addition, Brady also documented the moments of the living in vivid detail, as the soldiers of his portraits carried on with the small aspects of life between battles, thus innovating war documentation by humanizing the subjects of war.
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