When we first get involved with an artistic activity like photography, we tend to focus on what’s modern, what’s “trendy”, or even what we can contribute to the field. These are all great things to think about, but it can be equally important to familiarize yourself with the history of your profession or hobby.
In the case of photography, learning about famous and iconic photographers can help you by inspiring you with new takes on old ideas or simply by giving you an ideal to work towards. There are so, so many important photographers we could talk about, but today we’ll look at just a few who made their mark on the industry.
Ansel Easton Adams was a landscape photographer who first started publishing photographs in the 1920’s. He was an environmentalist as well as a photographer, and he’s best known for his black-and-white photographs of the American West, which were deeply involved with his conservation work. One of his most famous images is Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, taken of the Western face of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.
Dorothea Lange was a photographer and photojournalist who is best known for her work during the Depression Era in the United States. To many people, even today, her images are the face of the Great Depression. At the time, her work served to document and humanize the way people struggled and survived during the Depression. Her most iconic image is Migrant Mother, which depicts Florence Owens Thompson and her two children. Later, in the 1940’s, Lange also documented the internment of Japanese Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Many of these images were not permitted to be published at the time, but they are now available online and can be seen at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.
Louis Daguerre was a French artist and photographer who influenced the field of photography when it was still new technology. Daguerre developed a method of producing photographic images on copper sheets, which he called “daguerreotypes”. He promoted this invention as a means of artistic expression as well as a scientific tool, by photographing sculptures as well as scientific specimens to display its versatility. Unfortunately, much of his early and experimental work was destroyed in a fire, and only a handful of original daguerreotypes still exist today.
George Edward Hurrell was a photographer who worked in Hollywood in the 1930’s and 40’s and contributed to the image of Hollywood grammar that was so characteristic of that time period. Over about a decade of work as the head of portrait photography with MGM studios, he photographed every star contracted with MGM, and this work played a central role in the studio’s marketing of their talent. Following this contract, he went to work with Warner Brothers Studios, and later, Columbia Pictures. When this glamor style fell out of favor in Hollywood, he became a photographer for fashion magazines, print ads, and even album covers.
Margaret Bourke-White was a documentary photographer and photojournalist best known for her work during the 1920’s-1950’s. She was the first female American war photojournalist, and the first foreign photographer allowed to take photos of Soviet industry during the 1930’s. She took portraits of many famous people in the Soviet Union, including Joseph Stalin and members of the Stalin family, Karl Radek, Sergei Eisenstein, and Hugh Cooper. These photos were published in Fortune magazine as well as the New York Times. Later, in 1941, she happened to be the only foreign photographer in Moscow when German forces invaded, and she was able to capture the events on camera.
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce
I would be remiss to finish a list of notable photographers without mentioning the father of the field himself. Joseph Nicephore Niepce is widely agreed to be the inventor of photography, thanks to a technique he developed known as heliography. He worked for a time with Daguerre to find a better process, and it was after his death and thanks to his inspiration that Daguerre developed the daguerreotype. It’s unknown when exactly Niepce first began experimenting with photographic processes, but what’s certain is that we would not have photography as it exists today without him.
Learning about the field of photography, whether you are a casual photographer or a pro, can only grow your expertise and your passion. I hope that I’ve piqued your interest with this quick rundown of a few of history’s most influential photographers. If you want to broaden your horizons even further, check out these photography courses which are aimed at making you a better, more confident photographer and photo editor. You can also join our Facebook community to chat with peers about all things photography, all the time.
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