Photography’s history is about more than simply the invention of the camera—the artists behind the lens have played a big role in defining how images are taken today. From Ansel Adams to James Van Der Zee, here are 19 of the photographers that influenced the way we view images today.
Ansel Adams (1902-1984)
One of the most well-known photographers, Ansel Adams is known largely for his landscape work. Along with portrait photographer Fred Archer, he developed the zone system for capturing an accurate exposure every time. He’s best known for his black and white images of the American West, which he used for environmental activism as well.
Richard Avedon (1923 – 2004)
The models in fashion photographs were largely emotionless before Richard Avedon came on the scene. At the time, his images that were often outdoors instead of in the studio was rather unheard of for fashion photography, though he did return to the studio later in his career. His work appeared in Vouge, Life, and Harper’s Bazaar. When the New York Times published his obituary, they said that his work “helped define America’s image of style, beauty and culture for the last half-century.”
Diane Arbus (1923-1971)
With her husband, actor Allan Arbus, Diane Arbus started in fashion photography, but began to branch out in the 1950s. She’s the most known for her simple, straightforward portraits of people society deems unusual, like circus performers and giants.
Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004)
While he began his artistic career as a painter, Henri Cartier-Bresson picked up photography when the realized “that a photograph could fix eternity in an instant.” His desire to remain anonymous while photographing people candidly is credited with helping street photography get its start. He’s also credited with coining the phrase “decisive moment,” which also happens to be the title of his book.
Robert Capa (1913-1954)
Once described as the “Greatest War Photographer In The World,” Robert Capa was known for his images of the Spanish Civil War. He’s also one of the founders of Magnum Photo. The Robert Capa Gold Medal Award was established one year after he died in a landmine blast while photographing for Life.
Louis Daguerre (1787-1851)
One of photography’s founding fathers, it was Louis Daguerre that invented the Daguerreotype, a way of capturing images on a silver-plated copper sheet that eventually led to the development of film. Daguerre is also known for promoting photography both as an art and as a tool for science and discovery.
Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002)
The photographer that captured many of the famous faces of the 20th century including Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemmingway, Yousuf Karsh’s work is often recognized by the dramatic lighting and genuine expressions. After studying theatrical lighting, he incorporated those ideas into his portraits. His lighting techniques—and advice on getting to know the subject prior to the shoot—is still valuable today.
André Kertész (1894-1985)
André Kertész is known for using camera angles, that, at the time, were considered unusual. Despite the limited acceptance of his work early on, he was influential to photojournalism as well as the photo essay.
Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)
Even if you’ve never heard the name Dorothea Lange, you’ve probably seen her Depression-era images, particularly Migrant Mother. Lange’s work is very influential to the field of documentary photography.
Annie Leibovitz (1949-)
Perhaps the most well-known photographer still working today, Annie Leibovitz is a high-profile portrait photographer who has worked for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. Her images are easily recognizable from their bold colors and dramatic, yet also unusual, style.
Peter Lindberg (1944-)
Lindenberg perhaps defined the idea of the supermodel with the January 1990 cover of Vouge. He’s known for iconic, supermodel portraits captured not from elaborate makeup but attention to the best way to photograph each individual woman.
After finding success with his portraits, Nadar snapped the first ariel photograph in a balloon he built himself. He integrated posing tricks from painters into his portraits, yet focused on capturing their personality with their expressions.
Helmet Newton (1920-2004)
The prolific Helmet Newton was the first to incorporate a ring flash into fashion photography. His accolades include work for Vouge and Harper’s Bazaar.
Irving Penn (1917 – 2009)
Irving Penn was a photographer who understood that simplicity often works the best—he’s considered the initiator of the white/gray backdrop and using corners behind the subject in portraiture. He also worked with still life, with an eye for the shapes and lines that simple objects make.
Edward Steichen (1879 – 1973)
Trained as a painter, Edward Steichen’s fashion photography in the 20s and 30s is thought to have set the standards for even current images in the genre. Steichen wasn’t just a one-genre photographer, though. He also worked with landscapes, war photography, and architecture, even directing an Academy Award winning documentary and curating at the Museum of Modern Art.
Sam Shaw (1912-1999)
That iconic Marilyn Monroe photo with her white dress blowing from a subway grate? Sam Shaw was the photographer behind it. He shot on several Hollywood sets in the 1950s, branching into his own films in the 70s.
Garry Winogrand (1928-1984)
Garry Winogrand captured life in New York in the 20th century. His street photography continues to have an impact today—Critic Dean O’Hagan said, twenty years after his death, that Winogrand “defined street photography as an attitude as well as a style.”
WeeGee (Arthur Fellig, 1899-1968)
A news reporter, WeeGee was a self-taught photographer, known for his images that often resulted from carrying his own police radio and beating emergency services to the scene. He often used very basic equipment, and had a darkroom in the back of his car. Later in his career, he experimented with panoramas and distortions, later photographing nudists and circus performers, work later picked up by Diane Arbus.
James Van Der Zee (1886-1983)
While a lot of James Van Der Zee’s work involved weddings and portraits, he’s known for documenting Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s. He photographed celebrities like Florence Mills and Hazel Scott, but he’s best known for depicting middle class life with a sense of glamour. Van Der Zee was particularly skilled in double exposures and retouching.
Conclusion: Famous Photographers and The Legacy They Leave
Many individual photographers have helped to define the art as a whole. Photographers today, both new and seasoned, can still learn from viewing their images and reading about their technique. From lighting to getting to know your subject, famous photographers leave behind a legacy of learning.