10 Famous Photographers (and What You Can Learn from Them!)

Photographers today can learn much from the famous photographers that have paved the way before us.  Most of these photographers are now deceased, but a few of them are still taking beautiful photos today.  I wish I could include a few of the pictures from each of the photographers, but I don’t want to ruffle any copyright feathers.  I have included in this post pictures of a similar genre to the photographers listed just so this isn’t an all-text article, but none of these photos were taken by the famous photographers listed.

Obviously, this is not an exclusive list.  The list is composed of a few famous photographers that I respect as well as a few photographers that were nominated by the Improve Photography community on our Facebook fan page.  If there are other famous photographers that you believe should be on this list, leave a comment below telling us the name of the photographer and what you have learned from him or her.

An example of street photography, which was the genre of choice for Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson

This list of famous photographers would be absolutely meaningless without Cartier-Bresson.  In many ways, Cartier-Bresson’s style is precisely the opposite of Jerry Uelsman.  Where Uelsman relished in creating composites, Cartier-Bresson did not even like developing his own photos.  His photojournalistic style has done more to influence photography than any other photographer’s contribution.  He was one of the first photographers to switch over to the 35mm format and used exclusively Leica cameras with 50mm lenses.  Like Ansel Adams, he shot almost exclusively in black and white.  You can see Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work here.

What you can learn from Henri Cartier-Bresson: The great tragedy of Cartier-Bresson’s photography is that he gave up the craft entirely long before he died.  In 1975, twenty-nine years before he died, he became bored with photography and turned his attention to painting.  He locked his camera in a safe in his home and rarely even took it out.  Bottom line–DO NOT let this happen to you!  If your goal in photography is to do anything other than enjoy it, then you will likely burn out after time.

 

This portrait, taken by a different photographer, is similar to the style of Annie Liebovits’s dramatic portraits.

Annie Liebovitz

Annie Liebovitz is a contemporary (born in 1949) portrait photographer who is well known for her work over the years with Rolling Stone Magazine and Vanity Fair.  Perhaps her best known photograph is a portrait of John Lennon with Yoko Ono, which was taken the same day that John Lennon was murdered.

Recently, Liebovitz has found herself struggling through financial disaster caused by poor financial planning.  As collateral for a contract, she has provided her entire portfolio of images.  What a shame!

As is evident in viewing Ms. Liebovitz’s photography, she prides herself in taking intimate portraits which communicate about the subject.  She is quoted as saying, “A thing that you see in my pictures is that I was not afraid to fall in love with these people.”  You can see some of Annie Liebovitz’s photography here.

What you can learn from Annie Liebovitz: Your portraits will always look lifeless until you begin to take portraits that communicate the life of the model.  Get to know your model and say something about her in your photography.

 

This photo is taken by a contemporary photographer in a location where one of Ansel Adams’ most famous photos was taken in Yosemite.

Ansel Adams

I think it would be safe to say that Ansel Adams is the most famous photographer of all time.  Even non-photo nerds know Ansel Adams and have seen his stunning landscapes.  Adams is well-known as a master of the darkroom.  His black and white landscapes of Yosemite and Grand Teton are outstanding for the captivating contrast that he achieved with extensive dodging and burning in the darkroom.  Even later in his life, he continued to use large format cameras.

What you can learn from Ansel Adams: While on vacation this summer, my wife and I read a book containing his letters and journal entries.  What helped me improve my photography from reading those letters is that Adams felt trapped later in his life because he no longer had the physical strength and stamina to do the photography that he wanted to do.  Keep yourself in shape so you can enjoy photography for a lifetime.

 

Brian Duffy

Brian Duffy is an English photographer best known for his work shooting fashion in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Later in life, Duffy lost his interest in photography and even burned more than half of his entire portfolio of negatives in a fire.  Fortunately, some of the photos were saved from the flames and remain on exhibit today.  One year before Duffy died, he began taking photos again.

What you can learn from Brian Duffy: People are prone to rash decisions when they feel stuck in a rut.  Duffy lost a tremendous part of his life by burning his photos, but he came back later and regained his interest for the art.  If you find yourself bored with photography, leave all the gear at home and simply go on a few photowalks in places where you have never been.  Fall in love with photography again.

 

A photo representing the Depression era.

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange was an American photojournalist who is best known for her photos of the Great Depression.  Her photo Migrant Mother is one of the most well-known pictures in history.  Aside from her well-known work documenting the Great Depression, she also worked tirelessly to photograph the internment camps in the 1940’s.

What you can learn from Dorothea Lange: Most photographers spend their time taking one random picture here, and another random picture there.  Great photographers like Dorothea Lange dedicate their time and talent to fully capturing one theme or person before moving on to the next photography project.  Dorothea Lange said, “Pick a theme and work it to exhaustion… the subject must be something you truly love or truly hate.”

 

This dramatic and intimate portrait is of the same genre of photography that Yousef Karsh shot.

Yousef Karsh

I’m going to be honest here.  I have carefully selected some of the best, in my opinion, photographers in history; however, I simply don’t understand some of their photos and why some of them became famous.  With Yousef Karsh, every single photo is a masterpiece.  You can’t look at any one of his photos and wonder why the photographer got famous.  His portraits truly speak volumes about the person.  He is the Ansel Adams of portraiture.

Karsh is quoted as saying, “Within every man and woman a secret is hidden, and as a photographer it is my task to reveal it if I can. The revelation, if it comes at all, will come in a small fraction of a second with an unconscious gesture, a gleam of the eye, a brief lifting of the mask that all humans wear to conceal their innermost selves from the world. In that fleeting interval of opportunity the photographer must act or lose his prize.”  Many photographers claim to capture such moments, but Karsh truly had a gift for taking portraits that communicate.  You see one of his portraits and you feel like you truly understand the model.

Another interesting fact about Yousef Karsh is that he always lit the hands of the subject separately from the lighting on the rest of the person.  He felt that the hands were a vital part of the story of any portrait.  You can see photos from Yousef Karsh here.

What you can learn from Yousef Karsh: Never take a portrait that doesn’t speak something about the person.  Pay attention to the hands as an important part of the story.  Be super famous and rich enough to own a 76-room house in Manhattan.  Accomplish any of those things (especially the last one, which is true about him) and you’ll be better off for reading about his life.

 

Brassai

Brassai, whose real name is  Gyula Halasz (no wonder he picked a nickname), was a photographer best known for his work on the streets of Paris.  He did not photograph celebrities or have fame or fortune like many of the other famous photographers listed here.  However, his street photography showing ordinary people has made him famous throughout time.

What you can learn from Brassai: I often hear from photographers that they enjoy photography, but don’t have the money to travel to find great locations.  Brassai was born in Hungary, but lived in Paris for most of his life.  He did not travel around the world to do photography or have celebrities come to him to have their portraits taken.  He did his work in one city and he took captivating photos of ordinary people.  Don’t use excuses for your photography!

 

This wartime photo is the same genre of photography that Robert Capa shot.

Robert Capa

Robert Capa is best known for his war-time photography.  He worked tirelessly to cover five different wars, including World War II.  Capa was one of the co-founders, along with Cartier-Bresson, of Magnum Photos.

Not only was Capa a great photographer, he was also a fantastic business man.  His name is actually Endre Friedman.  He and an associate decided to form a partnership in which he would take the pictures and do the dark room work, the associate would do the marketing and sales, and they would credit “Robert Capa” as being the photographer.  They found that they could get a much higher price in selling the pictures to the newspaper if they sold the photos under the made-up name “Robert Capa” and inventing the story that he was a rich man. Fraudulent?  Probably.  Did it work?  Definitely.  You can see Capa’s photography here.

What you can learn from famous photographer Robert Capa: Capa is frequently quoted as saying, “If your picture isn’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”  This was significant because he was a combat photographer!  He was known for literally getting down in the trenches with the soldiers to take photos, rather than taking photos from a distance as was the common practice.  So, get close to the action and your photos will improve!

 

Jay Maisel

Maisel is one of the most famous modern photographers.  He takes a simplistic approach to photography that is largely unencumbered by complex lighting set ups and fancy gear.  In fact, he likes to shoot with one lens and simply look for interesting light and shapes in the city.

Perhaps the best way to learn from Jay Maisel is to subscribe to Kelby Training.  They have two video courses which feature Jay Maisel where he walks around the city and shoots with Scott Kelby.  It is truly fantastic to watch a master do his work.  You can see Jay Maisel’s portfolio here.

What you can learn from Jay Maisel:  Ditch the gear and start paying attention to color, shape, and light.  As you go about your day, find little things that have an artistic flair to them.  Photography isn’t just about the knock-you-in-the-face obvious shots.

 

This composite photograph is similar to the genre of photography that Jerry Uelsman preferred.

Jerry Uelsman

Jerry Uelsman has established a photographic style using multiple photos to create a surrealistic and impressionist composite image.  Born in 1934, he used film for many years and built his works using film cameras.  His work became famous mostly for his abilities in the dark room.  Few others were capable of creating composites using so many images with such skill.  Although Uelsman is alive today, he never switched to digital cameras.  He said, ” “I am sympathetic to the current digital revolution and excited by the visual options created by the computer. However, I feel my creative process remains intrinsically linked to the alchemy of the darkroom.”  You can see Jerry Uelsman’s photography here.

What you can learn from Jerry Uelsman: Don’t let “photography forum” talk convince you that there is anything wrong with creating surrealistic images.  Photography is art and you can express yourself in whatever composited, blurred, cloned, dodged, burned, and liquified way that you want.

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Comments from the I.P. Community

  1. says

    Wonderful collection of great talents.
    I applaud you. I have to disagree about Bresson however… I feel that it is perhaps the greatest thing he did.. he followed his inner voice… where you see great sadness and perhaps get a sense of desertion, he undoubtedly had the incredible joy and love one has when something is new. His bravery is what you should learn… how to follow your voice no matter where it takes you.. that is the bigger picture.

    Namaste.
    Jason Joseph
    http://www.JasonJosephStudio.com

  2. says

    @Mike Shipman – Thanks for the comment. Good to hear from a fellow Boise photographer.

    Just FYI: I realize that the images from the photographers could be used, but as a law student, I have to point out that just being “editorial” doesn’t automatically make it okay. If I have learned anything about the law, it is that you can be completely RIGHT about a legal issue and still face life-changing problems if someone wants to fight it out with you. So, I exercise an abundance of caution.

    You also pointed out that I didn’t credit the photographers of the images that I did use. The images are from stock and I PURCHASED the license to use them without providing credit. The photographers agreed to that when they put their images for sale on various microstock websites.

    Great additional insights on a few of the photographers. I appreciate your thoughts and read through them carefully.

  3. Mike Shipman says

    Hi, Jim, from a fellow Boise photographer. I saw Scott Kelby posted your link in a post he made on Google +, so I checked it out. I like your list (even though there are a couple I’m not familiar with), but I think you missed some important points on the “what can I learn from….” part from each photographer.

    If I can take up a little space on your blog for a reply to this article. I’ll respond to each, in order:

    Cartier-Bresson quit photography because he felt he had said all he wanted to through that medium. He came to photography through painting, then returned to painting in his later years. He was never really interested in the printed image, only the capturing of particular moments (the decisive moment) in the camera. What happened to the image later didn’t concern him that much. His attitude toward photography was, I think, not so much as an artist might approach photography, but as a technician uses a tool to accomplish a certain task. Photography was simply the tool he needed to use for his purpose of recording the world in a certain way (the only tool available for that purpose). And, when that purpose was complete the tool was no longer needed.

    With Annie Leibovitz, her business-related issues and her artistic talent as a photographer are two distinct things. She’s obviously better at one than the other. Getting to know your subject (or about your subject) isn’t anything unique to her. From the piece, what you could learn from her is to become more knowledgeable about best business practices and practice them.

    Ansel Adams got old, like we all will. Even at 80 he was probably more fit than 90% of photographers out shooting today. Regardless, physical fitness is still very important to photographers. What we can learn from Ansel Adams is persistence, dedication to quality and skills improvement, seeing both the existing subject and the finished product simultaneously, and engaging in the discussions of the medium.

    I’m not familiar with Brian Duffy, but I am aware of many photographers (some of them well known) trashing negatives for various reasons. I had a personal discussion a few years back (and continued via emails) with Al Weber, a contemporary of Ansel Adams and champion of photographers creating archives of their works. I’m not sure, if a person is that fed up with photography to burn/trash/delete images, going out to shoot with one camera and one lens is going to save them. But, if you’re overwhelmed with the poundage of gear you haul around all the time and the seemingly endless equipment choices you have to make when setting up a shot, then maybe paring down your gear is a good idea.

    Dorothea Lange, and other Farm Security Administration photographers in the Depression, were assigned to document the effects of the Depression. I think you’re accurate in your description that we can learn from photographers like Lange who dedicated themselves to a particular subject or subject matter, which allows the photographer to know and understand their subject better (thus creating better images) and make images that tell a more complete story to viewers unfamiliar with the subject matter or circumstances.

    Karsh is certainly one of the great portrait photographers. While he did receive some important breaks early in his career, he was very talented in his dealing with people, able to get his subjects to reveal themselves to the camera (and then skilled enough to recognize when that occurred so he could capture it in his camera). Platon, perhaps a close comparison to Karsh, also has this ability (as do others). Your “what can we learn” here is the same as with Leibovitz – get to know your subject. I think having a mansion (or money in general) is irrelevant to talent and skill (but may assist in opportunity and access).

    Brassai is another I’m not familiar with, but I think your description here is lacking in regards to the perception that photographers must travel to find good photographs. Early photographers like Atget, and contemporary photographers like Erwitt, photographed in their ‘backyard’. Erwitt even asked (I’ll paraphrase) “if you can’t find something interesting in your backyard to photograph, what makes you think you’ll find it in Paris?” I think you meant to say “don’t use excuses to LIMIT your photography”

    Capa definitely got in there when he was photographing. Other contemporary photographers like Steve McCurry, James Nachtwey, and the late Tim Hetherington, among others, are also right in there, getting up close and putting themselves in danger of injury and death. While most photographers don’t have to risk their lives for every shot, becoming involved in the process, getting in the thick of things, becoming engaged with your subject, will certainly help improve your photographs of the event and engage your viewer in a more intimate way than if they were shot from down the block.

    I’m also glad you included Jay Maisel, one of my inspirations. When I “discovered” Jay’s work I noticed a similarity with my work. Not necessarily the subjects but the way he saw things. I eventually was able to take a workshop with him a bunch of years ago and it helped validate for myself that I was on the right path (for me). Along with color, shape and light, is gesture, one of the most difficult things to describe and to capture in an image. Three things from Jay: photograph what you love, if you don’t go out and photograph you will only hear about it, always carry your camera with you.

    Jerry Uelsmann. Agreed, though I think his skill in the darkroom is secondary (only a means to an end) to the storytelling of his composited images. An opposite to the previsualization crowd of Adams and Weston, Uelsmann believes an artist can use whatever methods necessary, at whatever point in the process, to create the work they need to create.

    Overall, I think this was a useful article. Thanks and also for the opportunity to reply.

  4. says

    Excellent post, but where’s Pete Turner??? From my perspective Ansel Adams is my top in all of B/W, and then Pete Turner is the one for color, not including him here kind of makes it feel incomplete…

  5. says

    @Jim:
    I agree, nice post and great photos. Now, my rant: Ok, so you purchased a license that allows you to legally post these photos without crediting the photographers, we get that. They are stock photos, ok we get that, too. But your article is about photography and it wouldn’t have detracted one bit to give credit to the actual photographers, not just their progenitors. Why not do that? If the reason for the article is to inspire photographic art and the vehicle utilizes work from struggling artists, doesn’t it actually help make the point to give credit? Even if the print was tiny?

    I acknowledge it is your prerogative since you bought the right to do as you please, I’m just saying it would have been nice…

  6. says

    The name may not be familiar, but the images of Brassai are iconic. In his first book Paris de Nuit (Paris by Night), published in 1933, Brassai presented a collection of dazzling photographs devoted to Paris and night photography. “The Steps of Montmartre” and “Avenue de l’Observatorie” are two of my favorites. Henry Miller, the American author and Brassai’s good friend, dubbed him “The Eye of Paris”. If you haven’t seen the work of Brassai, you haven’t seen Paris!

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