The nearly 200-year history of camera-based photography is a tale of social upheaval, sudden technological leaps, and visionary artists and journalists, all using a simple but powerful tool to create modern art and document an ever-changing world. Though some of history’s most important photographers lived generations ago, their examples still teach us plenty about artistry, photographic technique, and careers in the creative arts.
If you’re interested in art history, photography, or creating a name for yourself in a creative field, check out our list of eight famous photographers you need to know. They may only be a fraction of the great photographers that have made an impact on the field, but these artists and their storied careers can provide valuable lessons for emerging and established creatives developing themselves and their work today.
Careful compositions and technical precision characterize Adams’ iconic black-and-white landscapes of an open and unspoiled American West. Adams’ work helped elevate photography from mere documentation to fine art by effortlessly communicating beauty, majesty and what one critic described at the time as “the redemptive power of the natural world.” Adams capitalized on his artistic achievements to place himself among the earliest and most successful environmental activists in U.S. history; his seven-decade body of work continues to inspire other artists while raising awareness of the need for conservation.
Lesson for today’s creatives: Use your creative talents to serve a higher purpose beyond the specific needs of your career.
Avedon’s stylish, inventive work put him on top in as both a fashion photographer and portraitist. He transformed fashion photography by leaving behind emotionally distant, clothes-centered images and creating intimate celebrations of personal style — a technique that still dominates the field a half-century later. Avedon’s portraiture is powered by his knack for engaging subjects with deeply personal conversation to bring out their vulnerabilities. The result is an endless stream of minimalist, personality-driven images. His restrained yet revealing portraits of the Beatles are still included as prints in copies of The White Album.
Lesson for today’s creatives: Find your own path and ignore accepted limitations, even in more commercial projects. .
Acknowledged across the globe as the original master of street photography, France’s Cartier-Bresson is considered a founding father of photojournalism. Bresson, an early adopter of 35mm film, never cropped or otherwise manipulated his work. His primary interest was in capturing the “decisive moments” of real life, when a number of elements come together to express the essence of a particular time or place. Cartier-Bresson believed that knowing when to take a picture was the height of creative ambition for a photographer, and that wisdom was a matter of both experience and intuition. He traveled tirelessly to bring a global perspective to his pioneering photojournalism.
Lesson for today’s creatives: Remain open to ways of life that are different from your own, but rely on your own experience to know how and when to create your work.
Possibly the greatest portrait artist of our time, Leibovitz has a special affinity for pop culture and a rare gift for capturing on film the true natures of her celebrity subjects. Her work has often graced the cover of Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, two publications at which she served as Chief Photographer. Her methods focus on getting to know her subjects prior to a shoot and including them in the creative process. Her iconic images include the famous final portrait of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, a pregnant, nude Demi Moore, and the cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. album. Leibovitz became the first woman to hold an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Lesson for today’s creatives: Don’t forget the importance of advance preparation, and always approach your subjects like they are your collaborators.
A founder of the Dada anti-art movement and one of the world’s first avant-garde photographers, Ray began working with photography as soon as the medium was invented. For Ray, the ideas driving a work of art were more important than the finished work. With his experimental bent and mischievous approach to art-making and portraiture, Ray celebrated absurdity and called for unceasing revolution in art. He also invented a new photographic form he called the Rayograph, in which he created images by placing objects on light-sensitive material and avoided use of a camera.
Lesson for today’s creatives: Embrace new possibilities in your work, and don’t shy away from learning new and transformative technologies.
A late-20th-century pioneer of postmodern art and one of that era’s most impactful photographers, Sherman used her images to examine the roles women play in modern society–particularly in media and popular culture.
Sherman first achieved international recognition through her series Untitled Film Stills, sixty nine self-portraits that feature Sherman subversively posing in stereotypical film roles. Using performance and photography, she has continued to explore issues of gender and identity throughout her career, and is now considered a a key figure in contemporary art.
Lesson for today’s creatives: Develop a unique perspective to guide your work — especially if you’re interested in making an impact.
W. Eugene Smith
One of photojournalism’s true innovators, Smith created the first full-length, journalistic photo essay for Life magazine in in 1948. Entitled Country Doctor, the essay examined the tribulations of a rural physician handling life and death situations alone in a vast rural area. . The photos helped popularize Smith’s empathetic, humanist perspective and helped shape 20th century photojournalism. The stark images and raw emotion of Smith’s work remains influential to this day.
Lesson for today’s creatives: Expand the potential of your creative medium by developing new ways to explore contexts and tell stories.
One of the top pictorial photographers of the early 20th century, Stieglitz was among the first to use photography for self-expression and push the medium into fine-art territory. He used composition and tone to develop a painterly quality in his photographs, something no artist had done before. He also is remembered for his singular role in bringing modern art to America as a writer, editor, publisher, art dealer, and innovative exhibition organizer.
One of the top pictorial photographers of the early 20th century, Stieglitz helped push photography into fine-art territory. A writer, editor, publisher, art dealer, and innovative exhibition organizer, Stieglitz created the first-ever U.S. exhibition of African art, along with the first stateside showings of work by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Paul Cézanne, among many others.
Lesson for today’s creatives: Think big, support other artists , and do whatever you can to help move your entire field toward a brighter future for all.
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