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25 Famous Photographers in History

Why is the history of photography important?

Having a better understanding of the history of your craft, and those that helped form it, will undoubtedly help make you a better photographer. If you strive to take great photographs, studying the work of the masters will give you insight into just what IS a great photograph and what makes it great.

If you strive to take great photographs, study the work of masters. - Darlene HildebrandtClick To Tweet

What makes a great photograph great?

stieglitz_steerage
The Steerage – Scan courtesy of “Masters of Photography
Years ago when I was in photography college one of my instructors showed us an image by Alfred Stieglitz called The Steerage and raved on and on about it.

I didn’t get why it was so great. I truly did not understand the image, or its significance, until well into my career, when I finally had my epiphany and “got it”.

I will let you form your own opinion and understanding of this image by doing your own research. It’s a great image to study.

The lesson here for me, and you if you are willing to take it on, is that there is deeper meaning in many of history’s great photographs if only you take the time to look at them a bit closer.

All the greats have heroes, get yourself one

Think about your favourite sports star or celebrity.

Inevitably at some point they will be asked who their hero or heroine is, and they all have one.

It’s the one that made them get into their field, the one that keeps them striving for excellence. It may be someone living, but perhaps not.

If you are a hockey fan you will probably know that Wayne Gretzky’s hero was Gordie Howe, whom he eventually met, smashed most Gordie’s records and even played alongside him in a game or two.

Having a hero is a great motivator and gives you something to work towards.

I’ve compiled a list of some iconic photographers throughout history to get you started. This list is not exhaustive by any means, but rather the ones that have meant something to me. If you have other favourites, please list them in the comments section below and tell me why they are your heroes.

25 Iconic Photographers in History

In no particular order:

  1. Joseph Nicéphore Niépce – in 1825 he created what is generally considered the worlds first photograph. So he should rank as #1 on any list because without his invention, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
  2. Alfred Steiglitz – prominent photographer in history, he played a large part in photography becoming thought of more as art at the turn of the century (1900s). He was married to painter Georgia O’Keefe and his iconic images of New York City of the period are true works of art.
  3. Gandhi by Margaret Bourke-White ©LIFE
    Gandhi by Margaret Bourke-White ©LIFE
  4. Margaret Bourke-White – one of the early women photojournalists and photographer for LIFE magazine, she is one of my own personal heroes. If you can get your hands on a copy of the movie depicting her life (she’s played by Farrah Fawcett brilliantly) do so and watch it! She was known to be fearless (or crazy) and she created the last portrait of Gandhi hours before his assassination.
  5. Henri Cartier-Bresson – French photographer, considered by many historians to be the “father of photojournalism”. He was a master of street photography or “candids” and coined the phrase “The Decisive Moment”. His is the standard to which many journalists aspire still to this day.
  6. Robert Capa – combat photographer that covered 5 different wars from the Spanish Civil War to WWII. One of the founding members of Magnum Photos (the world’s most prestigious photographic agency)
  7. adams_half_dome
    Moon over Half Dome by Ansel Adams. Image scan courtesy of Master of Photography
  8. Ansel Adams – probably one of the most well known nature and landscape photographers, you’ve likely seen his images whether you knew the maker or not. His black and white photographs of Yosemite Valley CA are well spread in galleries, on posters and in books. A search for “Ansel Adams” on Amazon yields over 5600 results! He also created The Zone System with Fred Archer (a complex system for creating the correct exposure using black and white films and papers).
  9. Edward Muybridge – known for this pioneering work in motion photographic studies and motion pictures, he is often credited with having created the first movie projector. He also studied animals and motion and through his images discovered the horse’s gait includes all four feet off the ground simultaneously.
  10. Philippe Halsman – master portrait photographer of the 1940’s through to his death in 1979. He holds the distinction of having more covers of LIFE magazine than any other photographer at 101. He and surrealist painter Salvador Dali had an ongoing collaboration and friendship for 37 years, from which he published the book “Dali’s Moustache”. His portraits were creative, innovative, and thought provoking. His book “Halsman at Work” is one of my favourites, especially when I’ve needed inspiration. He photographed everyone from Marilyn Monroe, to Winston Churchill, to Alfred Hitchcock and even Albert Einstein. He was also quite well known for making his famous subjects jump in front of the camera. You can get a feeling for his sense of humour, his sense of playfulness, of willingness to experiment and look foolish – by browsing his family holiday cards.
  11. W. Eugene Smith – World War II photographer for LIFE, and master of the photo essay, producing such notable tories as: Country Doctor, Spanish Village and Man of Mercy (on the work of Albert Schweitzer). I was fortunate enough to see an exhibit of Smith’s work. It was even more powerful in person, and effected me profoundly.
  12. lange_migrant_mother
    Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange. Image scan courtesy of Master of Photography
  13. Dorothea Lange – documentary photographer and photojournalist known for her images of the Great Depression humanizing the plight of the workers and those most affected by the depression. Her iconic image “Migrant Mother” was taken in 1936 at a migrant farm workers camp.
  14. Edward Weston – one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century; Weston is famous for his images of natural forms, nudes, close ups and landscape photography. Take a look at his images of bell peppers and his abstract nudes, then tell me what you see? His legacy is now a three generation span of photographers, his sons Cole and Brett, and grandchildren Kim and Cara.
  15. Louis Daguerre – inventor of the Daguerreotype, the first commercially used photographic process. Known as one of the fathers of photography.
  16. James Nachtwey – google the term “war photographer” and you’ll find this man, due in part to a documentary of his life by the same name, produced in 2001. However, many people do consider him synonymous with the phrase. For over 30 years he covered war torn areas, civil rights struggles, famine, and socio-political issues. I highly recommend watching the film, even if you aren’t interested in conflict photography. It will provide insight into what it takes to be a photographer under those conditions, and how difficult it really is to shoot a camera while the other guys are shooting bullets back.
  17. Marlene Dietrich by George Hurrell
    Marlene Dietrich by George Hurrell
  18. George Hurrell – master portrait photographer to the stars since 1929 when he was hired by MGM Studios. He has photographed every major Hollywood star since the early 30’s until his death in 1992. If you want to learn about portraiture and lighting I highly suggest you become familiar with his work. If you aren’t, go have a look at his glamour style portraits anyway, and learn a few things about light.
  19. Lewis Hine – documentary photographer whose images were instrumental in helping change child labor laws in the United States through his work with the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) in the early 1900’s. He was also hired to document the building of the Empire State Building, often being hung in basket 1000 feet above 5th Avenue. Early in his career he photographed the arrival of 1000’s of immigrants to Ellis Island. Don’t think photography is important or makes a difference? Watch this video on US Child Labor Laws 1908-1920 then tell me it doesn’t. It’s easy to get lost in the stories of these kids, especially in the Lewis Hine Project!
  20. Robert Frank – Swiss-born photographer and film maker, his 1958 book, “The Americans”, not only ruffled some feathers, but was influential for many other photographers looked through their viewfinders, and how Americans viewed themselves. It was an America that wasn’t quite so pretty, or popular. See an inside view of some images from the book in this video.
  21. Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry
    Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry
  22. Steve McCurry – American photojournalist famous for his image “Afghan Girl”, cover of the June 1985 National Geographic. The image was named: “the most recognized photograph” in the history of the magazine. McCurry has been honoured with many prestigious awards for his work photographing conflicts, disappearing cultures, and ancient rituals. His stunning portraits of people from six continents are what he’s most known for. In researching this article I just spent over 30 minutes on McCurry’s site browsing his images, looking at expeditions he offers, being in total awe, and dreaming.
  23. Elliot Erwitt – French born, New York City implanted photographer known for his sense of humour, and for photographs of ironic and bizarre situations in everyday life. His passion for dogs shows, having published four books with images of canines. He is still working and recently created an alter ego for himself (André S. Solidor which abbreviates to “ass”) as a satire to contemporary photography.
  24. Robert Mapplethorpe – controversy surrounded his erotic images of male nudes, but they are technically masterful. He received acclaim for his large format black and white portraits and images of flowers.
  25. Harold Edgerton – technically not a photographer, he is credited with developing the strobe light from a lab instrument to a photography tool capably of freezing fast moving objects such as a bullet piercing an apple, and a balloon exploding.
  26. Churchill by Karsh
    Churchill by Karsh
  27. Yousef Karsh – Armenian by birth, but claimed by Canadians as our own. Undisputed as the best, most famous portrait photographer in history. He not only photographed 51 of the most notable people of the century (named by International Who’s Who in 2000), but himself was included on the list! His iconic portrait of Winston Churchill launched him to star status and led to him photographing world leaders, royalty, hollywood celebrities, artists, religious leaders and anyone of any importance. You’ve likely seen his portraits.
  28. Garry Winogrand – famous for his documentation of American life in the 1960’s, especially in his home city of New York. He was extremely prolific and died way too young, at age 56. He left behind a legacy of over 300,000 images that were found after his death including 2500 rolls of unprocessed film, 6500 unproofed rolls and others he just hadn’t gotten to yet. The archives of his work can be found at the Centre for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona. For street photography tips his work is inspirational and there’s much to learn from him.
  29. Richard Avedon – fashion and portrait photographer from 1941 until his death in 2004, his obituary in the New York Times read: “his fashion and portrait photographs helped define America’s image of style, beauty and culture for the last half-century.” His work was highly influential on me as a new photographer, especially his book “In the American West” which is among my highly valued possessions.
  30. Irving Penn – actually started as an illustrator for Harper’s Bazaar and went on to be one of the most prominent photographers for Vogue magazine. His fashion photography, nudes, and still life images were ground breaking and innovative for his time. Coffee table books of his work grace many prestigious homes.
  31. Arnold Newman – possibly the first photographer to embrace and practice “environmental portraiture”, Newman went to his subjects milieu to create not only a likeness of their face, but to capture a sense of the inner being of the person. He photographed politicians, artists, musicians, actors, and even photographers in his over 60 year career. He was a master of composition, lighting, lens selection, and background for effect. One must only seek out his portrait of armaments manufacturer Alfried Krupp to see how masterfully he controlled the elements to make a statement.

Action Plan

I suggest you use this list as a starting point and let yourself get into a Google drift. Research these and other important photographers in history. View their images, look at their books, watch documentaries on their lives and their work. Most libraries contain a great many books on photography history, take a few out and see who speaks to you.

Whose work do you relate to?

Who do you aspire to be like?

Finally, whenever possible go look at photography exhibits. I am fortunate enough to have seen the work of five of the photographers on this list. Many of the prints original, and hand made by the artists themselves. It is one thing to look at images on the internet and in books, it is quite another to stand in front of a true masterpiece in all its glory. To wonder what the photographer was thinking when they snapped the shutter? Start thinking more like that instead of what aperture you use and you will grow as a photographer.

Cheers,
Darlene-1-250x130.png

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  • Ron

    This list is heavily weighted towards the inclusion of “people” photographers. I think you missed Eliot Porter and Galen Rowell. Also, Canadian photographer Freeman Patterson should qualify for this list at some point.

    • Hi Ron – as I said these were photographers that influenced me in my photography career. Thanks for those additions, also good ones. I’m actually not that familiar with Eliot Porters work, thanks for suggestion him so I can have a closer look myself.

      As for Rowell and Patterson they are both amazing nature and landscape photographers, I was just going back a little further in history with this list to more of the founders but they certainly are deserving of the title of icon.

  • Thank you for sharing these iconic photographers and their work. They are inspirational.

    I watched the “War Photographer” documentary about James Nachtwey last year, and it was amazing what he goes through to get the photo. I have deep admiration for him.

    Here in Washington state, one of the great photographers regionally was Asahel Curtis, who was based in Seattle and was famed for his work at Mount Rainier. The Washington State Historical Society has 60,000 of his images.

    • Thanks for that Andy, yes amazing movie hey! If you liked that one, look up another called “The Bang Bang Club” it’s about the guys that were covering the end of Apartheid in South Africa. Also really well done and shocking at the same time.

      • Ralph

        Darlene,
        Ive just watched some trailers re Bang bang club. wow ive got to see that sometime.
        Quote from one of the trailers, “One picture can change the world” how id love to take one of the pictures.
        Thank you for that posting Darlene

        • If you’ve ever seen the photo of the starving child and the vulture sitting, waiting for it to die. That photo and the circumstance around it is just one of the images shown in this movie.

          • ralph

            Darlene,
            Ive just purchased the dvd from amazon

          • Awesome!

    • Ralph

      Andy,
      Amazing inclusion.
      I would also like to mention Don McCullin, quote “Don McCullin’s senses were assailed by sights beyond his comprehension.”
      Hailed as the world’s greatest living war photographer and Ive just recently watched a new documentary which was an amazing insight into the man himself and his work through the horror of war.
      US marines are quoted as saying “he became one of us” during a certain battle in the Vietnam war.
      Ive navigated the web on all suggestions and im absolutely amazed, thank you all.

  • Bronte

    What an amazing list. Thanks

    I know everyone has an opioion and the list could be endless but what about Eugene Atget? Is he not the father of documentary photography?

    The NSW Art Gallery in Sydney just had an exhibition. Amazing!!

    • Yes his is another name I considered. My list was getting too long so I had to end somewhere. I also had several others including: Atget, May Ray, Joel Peter Witkin, Imogen Cunningham, Mary Ellen Mark, Diane Arbus, and a few more.

  • Ralph

    Hi Darlene,
    I would like to mention three others who inspire me.
    Helen Levitt, ”Everything I ever saw influenced me.”
    William Klien , he did not want to continue with mundane fashion poses, but wanted to take “at last real pictures, eliminating taboos and cliches”.
    David Bailey. “I’ve always tried to do pictures that don’t date. I always go for simplicity”

    People photographers I know but amazing atmospheres created within their photographs.
    Its great to just vew what all these amazing photographers listed achieved.
    I hope more are listed as I will search them out and hopefully continue to be inspired.

  • Stephanie

    Great list! My add is Brian Lanker — when I was younger, I saw his exhibit “I Dream A World” — it featured African-American women, some famous, some unsung heroines, who were influential through the civil rights movement up to present day. The photos were larger than life and just amazing to me. Influential in leading me to begin taking photography classes as a young adult.

    • Ralph

      Stephanie,
      Thats a great add if I may say so. After my own heart, thank you for listing.

  • Some great additions, thanks everyone keep them coming!

  • JodyB

    Andre Kertesz –love both his people shots and his abstracts — a lot of whimsy there

  • Cville

    Excellent list. One slight addition to the timeline for Capa — He also covered the French-Indochina (Vietnam) war in the 1950’s. It is where he stepped on a land mine and died.

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