Photography is a peculiarly modern art form. While other art movements are considered and described as ‘modern,’ they are all simply permutations of classic and even ancient forms – modern painting, modern music such as jazz, or modern dance. But where those other art forms have their roots in traditions that go back centuries or millennia, photography as an art form can only be said to go back as far as the first recorded photograph, which was taken by Nicéphore Niépce in Burgundy, France in about 1826. Niépce is generally considered the inventor of photography.
That relatively brief period of existence means that most of the famous photographers lived until very recently or are still living. Today, photography is in a state of upheaval as Smartphones have placed relatively powerful cameras in everyone’s pockets, and Apps have made photographic effects much easier to apply. This will almost certainly drive artistic photography to extreme ends in much the same way photography drove traditional portraits and other painting into the abstract and modern art movements in an attempt to differentiate itself.
That makes this the ideal moment to pause and reflect on some of the geniuses who made photography so powerful for so many of us. Here are five names of famous photographers you need to know if you’re going to hold up your end of the cocktail hour conversation on photography.
Ansel Adams is one of the few names that everyone, even people who have little interest in photography, have heard. Adams was born in 1902 in San Francisco, and his love of the natural world led him to take a job as a caretaker in Yosemite National Park, which at the time had only been recently established. He began photographing the awesome natural beauty of Yosemite, and his stunning landscapes in black and white have become iconic in their subject matter and composition. It’s safe to say that to this day about one-third of all US college students have an Ansel Adams poster hung in their dorm rooms!
Born in Germany, Newton’s family fled the rise of the Nazi party in the 1930s and settled in South America. Newton later lived in Australia where he began taken photographs, and eventually rose to become the most influential fashion photographer of the modern age. His stark black and white photos have a clear influence on today’s photographers that you can clearly see: His shocking images often juxtaposed nudity, fashion, and implied violence in ways designed to disturb and provoke. Even today, Newton’s photographs make a very strong impression on people who see them for the first time.
Diane Arbus was a fascinating person. Married to another famous photographer (Allan Arbus, better known to some for his acting work on the television show M*A*S*H), Diane Arbus suffered from severe depression, eventually leading to her taking her own life at the age of 48. Her photography career spanned many styles, from the fashion photography she and her husband sold to glossy magazines to the more disturbing work that won her artistic acclaim. Her work often featured subjects designed to disturb the viewer, such as circus performers or the mentally and physically disabled. Interestingly, when she photographed celebrities they were often unhappy with the results, as Arbus deliberately introduced subtle hints of darkness or disturbance into her portraits.
In contrast to other fashion photographers, Richard Avedon made his initial mark by encouraging the models he was photographing to dispense with the blank-faced artificiality of most fashion shoots and be natural. His fashion photographs often featured models laughing, being playful, or in gorgeous casual moments. Later he photographed the civil rights movement in America in the 1960s, using the same techniques to create devastating real-life images that moved people all over the world. Today he is considered one of the most ‘American’ photographers, and one of the most influential.
Often dismissed as a ‘baby photographer,’ Anne Geddes won fame for her photographs of babies, usually in very stylised settings and often in costumes. Her unique style, however, has forever altered portrait photography, especially that of children, and her fame has done nothing but grow since she sold her first photo in 1988. The mark of any famous photographer is whether or not you can identify their work with just a look – and Geddes definitely qualifies. Her work is very simple in its approach, composition, and lighting, focusing on the emotional content of her concept rather than on technical aspects of the shoot.
Photography is an art form that is always changing, and the next generation of artists will no doubt break the mould created by these titans. But these five names will always be in the discussion of great photography no matter where the art goes from here. If you would like to incorporate these ideas in your home, why not check out our fabulous fine art photography collection now?