The hardest part of writing this month’s blog post was deciding who needed to be in the top 5. Frankly, my list of favorites is much longer. As a matter of fact, initially I had a top 20, but that was just too much. So, the process of elimination began, which was hard. The top 3 was easy! They were a given, but with number 4 and 5, I went back and forth a lot. You may or may not be familiar with some or all the photographers, or you may recognize some names without knowing too much or anything about them at all. Either way, enjoy! The two photographers in the “Honorable Mentions” deserved a brief introduction in my opinion. I do apologize though, for a somewhat lengthy post. (Again!) I just don’t know how to make these posts shorter without causing an injustice to the subject.
Hopefully, the photographers featured here will teach you something about the art of photography. Study them! Study all of them, some of them, or create your own list of favorites and study those. Experienced and novice photographers alike can learn a lot from photographs and their photographers if you let them.
Here we go:
1) Alfred Stieglitz – January 1, 1864 – July 13, 1946
He was born in Hoboken, New Jersey as the first born of German Jewish immigrants. His father was in the wool business. After selling his business, the family moved back to Germany, mainly because they found the local schools for their children inadequate. While in Europe, Alfred became very interested in photography. He became a contributor of the then new magazine “The Amateur Photographer” and he became involved with the pictorialists in France and England. In England he was invited to join “The Brotherhood of the Linked Ring.” (“The Linked Ring”) This was a British Group of Photographers who seceded from “The Royal Photographic Society”. The main purpose of the group was to promote photography as a form of art while being simultaneously a form of science.
Soon after his return to the USA in the early 1890’s, he was made co-editor of “The American Amateur Photographer” magazine, which solidified his position in the still young photography world. He was also active in “The Camera Club of New York”. This membership was used as an opportunity to express his strong opinions about photography as a legitimate form of art. He became the editor of the club’s magazine “Camera Notes”. Despite his dedication to the club, his vision of the future of photography became different than the club’s and they separated. In 1902 he started his own group “The Photo Secession”. This group was initially meant as an extension of The Linked Ring back in England. Like the Linked Ring seceded from the British Royal Photographic Society, The Photo Secession seceded from The Camera Club of New York. According to Stieglitz, the group (meaning himself) seceded from the conventional idea of what constitutes a photograph. The initial members of this group were handpicked by Stieglitz who by then had already a substantial influence in the photography and art world. During this time, and with the help of Edward Steichen, they started “The Little Galleries of the Photo Secession”, which was basically two rooms of an apartment across the hall of Edward Steichen’s apartment on 291 Fifth Avenue, New York. “The Photo Secession” had their own periodical “Camera Works”. This periodical was virtually handmade, beautiful, and highly praised by everybody who was somebody. The sole purpose of the group and everything that came with it, including the gallery, was to establish a firm place for photography in the art world. That was also Alfred Stieglitz’s life work; make the world see that photography is art.
Through Gallery 291, as the Little Galleries were called, Stieglitz and Steichen introduced the American art world to a good number of European and American Artist such as Rodin, Picasso, Matisse, Marin, Weber, Dove, Hartley, and O’Keeffe. Edward Steichen was living part time in France and knew many of the modern French artists, whom he introduced to Stieglitz as candidates for Gallery 291. Many of the now highly regarded artists like Strand, Marin, Dove, or Hartley were starving artists at the time. Stieglitz took them under his wing, and they became part of Stieglitz entourage, at least for a while. Eventually they all went their separate ways.
His family was very wealthy. He lived off a generous allowance for most of his life. Fortunately, his financial independence allowed him to do a lot of the things he wanted to do. It was a luxury that most didn’t have.
The thing I like most about Alfred Stieglitz is his selfless devotion to photography as art, art in general and, most impressively, to the artists themselves.
2) John Sexton – born in 1953 – Still breathing.
John Sexton specializes in black and white landscapes and industrial photography. He is especially known for his intimate landscapes and black and white space shuttle work. The photographic medium he uses is film of medium and large formats. He was Ansel Adam’s assistant from 1979 until Ansel Adam’s death in 1984. After Ansel Adam’s death he became a “Special Projects Consultant” for the “Ansel Adams Publishing Right Trust”. He didn’t write the ultra-technical books like Ansel Adams did, but he learned everything that is in those books. Sure, John Sexton went to college, received an Associate of Arts degree, and majored in photography, but that was just the basics. Practical photography was taught to him mainly by Ansel Adams. However, John Sexton is in my eyes a prime example where the student outgrew the teacher. Sexton’s work is technically and artistically perfect. There is no other word for it than “perfect”. In my opinion he is equal or maybe even better than Ansel Adams in some aspects of photography. John Sexton is also a master print maker. That is not just a title in his case, he truly is the master! During his days as Ansel Adams’s assistant, he did a lot of printing for him. He still prints all his work himself. John and his wife are still active with photographic workshops, gallery shows, print sales, and who knows what else in the photographic world. In 2018 he was inducted into The International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum
“A few weeks later our photography professor, David Drake, encouraged our entire Technical Photography class to visit an exhibition of photographs—Master Photographers: Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock, and Edward Weston—at the Pasadena Museum of Art, (today, the Norton Simon Museum) in Pasadena, California. Each student was required to write a report on the exhibition. I had never been to a photography exhibition before (other than a display of student photographs at the Los Angeles County Fair), and I was stunned and mesmerized by the images I saw. I had never seen anything quite as beautiful and moving as these spectacular original silver prints. It was the first time that I experienced a photographic print bringing tears to my eyes. Attending that exhibition changed my ideas about photography, as well as my life, and that is not an understatement.” – John Sexton Newsletter- May 2023
I have the same feeling looking at John Sexton’s photographs! He is one of the two biggest influences on my own photography. The other one is Eliot Porter. (More about him later) Sexton’s book “Quiet Light” is one of my most beautiful photography books on my bookshelves.
3) Margaret Bourke – White. – June 14, 1904 – August 27, 1971
“If you banish fear, nothing terribly bad can happen to you” – Margaret Bourke-White
She was the most fearless photographer since the beginning of photography! That’s it. That’s all you need to know about her. Okay, since I don’t think that’s how she wants to be remembered, allow me to tell you a little bit more about Margaret Bourke-White.
She picked up photography as a hobby while she was still in college. After college she became a full time industrial and architectural photographer and just a short two years after that, in 1927, she was hired by Henry Luce as a photographer for his new Fortune Magazine. Here she was, a married young emerging female photographer in a dominant men’s world, able to arrange a meeting with a wealthy and powerful publisher and convincing him to hire her in a field (photojournalism) she knew nothing about. Let that sink in for a second. For that alone she deserves the title “Fearless”!
In 1930, Fortune sent her to Germany to photograph the Krupp Iron Works factory. (Not to be confused with Krups the coffee machine maker). While being there, she made a detour to Russia to photograph the introduction of the first five year plan of the Soviet Union. During these turbulent 1930’s, she went back several times to Germany and Russia. Remember, there was a lot going on in both Germany and Russia in those days, and most people would have stayed away, but not Margaret. Like the Farm Security Administration photographers Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and a few others hired by that administration, she also photographed the Dust Bowl in the American West. (Not as an FSA Photographer)
In 1936, she became one of the first four staff photographers for Life Magazine. As a testament to her talent, one of her photographs of the Montana’s Fort Peck Dam was on the cover of the very first issue of Life Magazine. Her photos were also used in the feature story of that first issue. (I can imagine that some of the other 3 male photographers were not happy about that.) When Life Magazine sent her to Russia in 1941 “in case the Germans would invade Russia”, she took five cameras, twenty-two lenses, four portable developing tanks, three thousand peanut flashbulbs, and twenty-eight detective novels, adding up to 600 pounds of luggage. I don’t know if she brought film or if she got that locally. Life Magazine got what they wanted. Shortly after her arrival the Germans decided to attack Moscow. She risked her life by standing on the roof of her hotel for 22 straight nights photographing the air raids. Later during World War II, she worked directly with U.S. armed forces to record the hardship of the allied forces, and she was right there at the front lines in full army gear. It made her the very first female war photographer. Rightfully so, she gained the full respect of the military and particularly of general Patton. Towards the end of the war, she crossed the river Rhine with him into Germany. (One of the worst battles of WW 2) and she photographed the Buchenwald concentration camp liberation, which must have been awful. I understand that people around her tried to stop her, but she insisted that the world needed to know what she experienced. No need to go into details at this time.
There are too many stories and accounts about her experiences to mention them all here. For instance, one of the transport boats she was on coming back from Northern Africa, was torpedoed and sank. No problem for Margaret Bourke-White, she survived, managed to get camera equipment, and went on like nothing happened. She was also the only photographer (male and female) allowed to fly with a crew on a bombing mission. She was fearless and very driven to let the people know what was going on in the world. Her colleagues nick-named her “Maggie the Indestructible.”
After the war, she went on with Life Magazine until she couldn’t do it anymore. One of the assignments during that time she is known for is her picture story about Gandhi and the mass migration from Hindu India to Muslim Pakistan. Six hours after her session with Gandhi, he was murdered.
She was also a correspondent in the Korean war, but not much “behind the scenes” is known about that. In the late forties and early fifties, she stayed in South Africa for 5 months to report and photograph the great injustices in that country at that time. (Considering the political climate in the US in those days, Life Magazine never published the real truth about what was going on in South Africa, she so faithfully photographed while there.)
In 1952. She found out she had Parkinsons disease. Her last assignment for Life Magazine was in 1959. She passed away in 1971. In 2015 she was inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame
When we think about photojournalists, and particularly war photojournalists of the era, most think about men like Robert Capa and W. Eugene Smith but I tell you, Margaret Bourke-White was the real deal and could walk circles around most of those men. She is one of my very few heroes!
4) Eugene Atget – 12 February 1857 – 4 August 1927
Eugene Atget was born in the Bordeaux region in France. He moved to Paris in 1878 where he joined a traveling group of actors, street performers that played on town squares and county fairs. An infection of his vocal cords however, forced him to quit the group after a few years. In 1887, he moved to the Provence (rural France) where he started to paint, but without success. So, he gave photography a try. In 1889, he moved back to Paris. In Paris he continued to photograph. He is best known for his very extensive collection of documentary photographs of the old Paris. He was known as a “Flaneur” in France, which literary means “Stroller” in English. The Flaneur style of photography is, I guess, known as “Street Photography” today. His business card reads: “E. Atget, Creator and Purveyor of a ‘Collection of Photographic Views of Old Paris.’”
He sold his photographs to some local musea who were interested in that sort of thing. He also sold his images to painters and other artists as reference photos and for inspiration. Picasso was a regular client. In a way, he was one of the first stock photographers, even though he sold about 1000 pictures a year. But like stock photography today, there was very little money in it and consequently, he and his wife were very poor most of their lives. Without the help of some of their friends, they probably would have ended up in the poor house or suffered starvation.
He worked with a wooden camera with 11 x 14 inch glass plates as the photographic medium. Every single morning, he lugged that heavy and cumbersome equipment through the streets of Paris and every afternoon, he developed the crop of the day and prepared the next batch of plates for the following day. Talk about dedication! In 1924 he met Berenice Abbott, the assistant of Man Ray, who was also a client. Berenice Abbott was very impressed with his work and thanks to her efforts, he received finally some recognition during the last few years of his life. John Szarkowski, Director/Curator of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) from 1962 to 1991, said that he could pick any random photograph out of a stack of a thousand of Atget’s photographs and every one of them would be a masterpiece. According to Ansel Adams: “The Atget prints are direct and emotionally clean records of a rare and subtle perception and represent perhaps the earliest expression of true photographic art.”
5) Eliot Porter – December 6, 1901 – November 2, 1990
Eliot Porter had 4 siblings and was the brother of the fairly well known painter and art critic Fairfield Porter.
He was always a conservationist, but not always a professional photographer. He earned a BS degree in Chemical Engineering from Harvard in 1924 and an MD in 1928 from the Harvard Medical School. He stayed with the university until 1938 as a teacher and researcher. That was the year he decided to give it all up in favor of a career as a professional (nature) photographer. From childhood on, he had a special love for nature, particularly birds. Lucky for him he received a box camera when he was still very young. This gift gave him the opportunity to capture landscapes and birds. He embraced the opportunity, and was hooked on capturing the things he loved until his last breath. His love of nature was the reason he photographed. I don’t think he ever retired. His whole life he was a conservationist first and photographer second..
Through his brother, he became acquainted with Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams. He showed his bird images to Alfred Stieglitz who told him he was talented but had to work harder, which is what he did! Ansel Adams told him that his 35mm Leica wasn’t adequate for his bird photography and to try a large format camera so he could better capture the fine details of the birds. (Like a huge cumbersome wooden camera on a mandatory tripod would make things easier to capture birds!) Sometimes Porter had to stay put for hours, with his camera set up and ready to go, waiting and hoping a bird would land on the right spot, and with the right photogenic modeling attitude.
His patience and tenacity paid off though. Porter became quite quicky well known for his bird photography and in 1939 Alfred Stieglitz gave him a show at “The American Place” gallery. The American Place was Stieglitz’s gallery after Gallery 291 and was as well respected in the American art world as 291.
1940 was a colorful milestone year for Elliot Porter. He wrote a book about birds which was illustrated with his black and white bird images. The publisher he tried to convince to publish that book, rejected it because black and white didn’t do the colorful birds any justice and it made it very difficult to differentiate one bird species from another. This rejection prompted Porter to try out the then new Kodachrome color film. Even though it was very challenging, the try-out must have been successful because he stuck with color for the rest of his life. He was not happy though with the overall quality and color balance of the film. It wasn’t truthful enough. To have more control of the color accuracy, he started to use the very complicated “Kodak Dye Transfer Printing Process”. This process involved making separate red, green, and blue negatives from one original negative. From these negatives, other negatives called “matrices” were made. These matrices were coated with Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow dye. One matrix for each dye. These matrices were then used for contact printing on paper. One matrix at the time. After each use, the matrices had to be washed and redyed. This was good for about 150 prints, after that, new matrices had to be made from the Red, Green, and Blue monochrome negatives. It was a very complicated and tedious process that had to be painstakingly followed for things to go right. The level of control was however unequaled with extremely stable archival properties. Porter’s degree in chemical engineering was very helpful in all of this. Obviously, all the negatives and dyed matrices had to be aligned/registered very precisely and Eliot Porter, as the scientist he was, made a lot of the equipment himself to do just that. Kodak was the only company who manufactured all the required chemicals and specialty film. To give you an idea, Kodak’s manual with step by step instructions was 30 pages long. (I miss the old Kodak)
Again, his patience paid off, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1941 to photograph birds, and in 1943, the Museum of Modern Art exhibited his “Birds of Color” portfolio. In 1946, his Guggenheim Fellowship was renewed for 3 years. During the fifties, he traveled the world to photograph the places he visited. These photographs were shown in exhibitions and published in an extensive collection of books. His most famous book “The Wilderness is the Preservation of the World” was published in 1962 by the Sierra Club. This book was the result of a 20 year process trying to combine his color nature photographs with quotes from works by Henry David Thoreau. Despite Porter’s fame, the Sierra Club was the only one who was willing to publish this book. I happen to have a reprint of this book and it is beautiful.
In 1964, The United States Congress became interested in Porter’s work, which ultimately led to the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964. This law is still the strictest law available to protect our environment in the US. Many know Ansel Adams as the photographer whose photographs helped with the creation of laws and policies to protect the environment, but he was not the only one. Eliot Porter is definitely a name to remember as well.
“Every photograph that is made whether by one who considers himself a professional or by the tourist who points his snapshot camera and pushes a button, is a response to the exterior world, to something perceived outside himself by the person who operates the camera.” – Eliot Porter
Eliot in Action Image not related to the image on the left.
- Ernst Haas – March 2, 1921 – September 12, 1986
Ernst Haas was an Austrian born photographer who lived and worked in New York. It is safe to say that he introduced color photography to photojournalism. One of his trademarks was the so called “In Camera Movements” as opposed to later in the darkroom. His style was a dynamic style that conveys the hustle and bustle of a big city extremely well. He was truly a trendsetter who got some recognition during his lifetime, but became mostly forgotten after his passing. He was the first photographer, outside the founding members, to be invited by founding member Robert Capa to join the Magnum Photo Agency. He was also the President of Magnum for a while. I tried to look him up on Magnum Photo, but his name is nowhere to be found on their site. Why is that? I emailed Magnum asking that very same question, but no response. Is there something nobody wants to write about, or do they just favor others that really copied him or walked in his footsteps?
1957 New York
- Peter Lindbergh – 23 November 1944 – 3 September 2019
Peter Lindbergh was born in Leszno in German occupied Poland. He had the German nationality but lived part time in mainly New York and Paris. Paris was his home base. That’s where he passed away in 2019. He changed singlehandedly the fashion photography landscape in its entirely. As far as I know, there was no other fashion photographer like him since Edward Steichen was challenged “to promote fashion as a fine art by the use of photography” in 1911. Peter Lindbergh is regarded as the initiator of what is now called the supermodel. Nobody would know about Cindy Crawford or Naomi Campbell for instance if it wasn’t for Peter Lindbergh. He also photographed the famous and elusive Pirelli calendar three different years, did numerous album covers, and even made some films. He worked mainly in Black and White and for what I understand, did most of the editing himself, sometimes even on the spot. He was very well liked in the industry, a remarkable photographer and a remarkable person.
One of the images that changed the Fashion modeling world. 1988 American Vogue Magazine
Fan Ho, Bill Cunningham, Robert Glenn Ketchum, Roy DeCarava, Joseph Sudek, Julia Margaret Cameron, Peter Henry Emerson, Andre Kertesz, Leonard Misonne, Henry Cartier-Bresson, Louis Hynes, Clarence White, James Nachtwey, Horst P. Horst, Berenice Abbott, Edward Steichen, Bill Brandt, Robert Frank, Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Galen Rowell, Brassai, Paul Strand, Brett Weston, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, Saul Leiter, Mary-Ellen Mark, Andreas Feininger, Michael Kenna, Tina Modotti, Richard Avadon, Irving Penn, Robert Maplethorpe, Jacques-Henri Lartique, and………..
There are thousands of books out there about the work and lives of great photographers and it shouldn’t be difficult to find some books about your favorite ones. Nevertheless, I can recommend two books that cover a lot of ground:
1) “The Great Life Photographers” by The Editors of Life (Magazine).Little, Brown and Company, 2004 (Copyright Time, Inc.)
Over 600 pages packed with images and very little writing about each photographer. As Life Magazine intended, the images speak for themselves.
2) “Looking at Photographs” by John Szarkowski. Museum of Modern Art, 1973
One of my favorite books with 100 pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Each image has an engaging narrative by John Szarkowski
As mentioned, this list with some of my favorites is very subjective and your list might be completely different. The list “Other Notables” is simply a list of the photographers I didn’t have room for to write about without boring you to death. Nevertheless, I could write a paragraph or two about most of the photographers mentioned in this list just from what I already know about them.
So, thinking about this, maybe it’s a nice idea to write a dedicated blog post about each of these people in my next series of blog posts. (That should keep me busy for a while) What do you think?
Monday, May 30, 2023
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The above are strictly my personal opinions, understandings, interpretations, and/or experiences.
Images and text that are created by the author of this article enjoy copyright protection as defined by the laws of the United States and the rules of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) of which the United States is a member. All other images and quotes are used under the “Fair Use” doctrine. (Educational)
This essay was 100% written by me. No Artificial Intelligence what so ever was used. That includes all the typos and grammar mistakes that only humans are allowed to make.