Sunday, April 17, 2011

20 Photographers

For fun I decided to put together a post about my favourite photographers (a selection of them, anyway). Since there had to be more than 10 (too few!) I decided to make it 20, the next nice round number. What follows is a series of brief comments about some of the photographers whose works have been inspiring to me over the past 15+ years.

Julia Margaret Cameron (England, 11 June 1815 – 26 January 1879). At a time when photography as an art form was still nascent--most photographers were aping the compositional and stylistic features of painting--Cameron's portraits stand out as part of the beginnings of a distinct artistic practice in photography. While some of her work looks more traditional, for me it's her unusual portraits that are the best, for example the one below of mathematician Sir John Herschel; the images look remarkably modern while also evoking something like the aesthetic I associate with Rembrandt, and they stand out in comparison to what was being produced by her contemporaries. In the 19th century it was also extraordinary for a woman to be so encouraged and involved in artistic activity (she was friends with Alfred, Lord Tennyson and he promoted her work).



Alfred Stieglitz (U.S.A., January 1, 1864 – July 13, 1946). Stieglitz was an American photographer and critic who founded the first photographic journal, Camera Work, around the turn of the 20th Century, and founded the "Photo-Secession". During his lifetime he was one of the foremost proponents of photography as a distinct art form. I think this is what stands out about him, for me--his untiring advocacy of photography as more than a mere mechanical reproduction of "reality" (a definition that is problematic in many ways). Below is one of the many photographs that Stieglitz took of painter Georgia O'Keefe's hands (O'Keefe was also his lover).



Erich Salomon (Germany, April 28, 1886 – July 7, 1944). Salomon was a pioneer of political photography, helping to pave the way for an important place for photography in the documentation of political events. His pictures are fantastic; when I first came across them I was surprised that I'd never seen them in print before. These are the kinds of photographs that are now known as "candids", or the informal/unplanned shots that contrast with the staged/posed "photo op" pictures produced for the newspapers and magazines and usually taken at formal events. In fact Salomon was also notorious for shooting covertly in situations where cameras would not normally have been allowed. In the photo below, Aristide Briand--Prime Minister of France--points at Salomon, saying "Ah, there he is, the king of the indiscreet!" (Paris, Quai d'Orsay, August 1931).



Man Ray (U.S.A., August 27, 1890 – November 18, 1976). One of the first photographers to really make an impression on me, Man Ray was a New Yorker living in Europe who was associated with the Dadaists and the Surrealists in the early part of the 20th century (I've been a fan of Surrealist and Dadaist art since high school). I became aware of his work partly because I accidentally solarised some prints one day in the school darkroom. I discovered Ray's images made from solarised negatives. He also famously created what he called "Rayographs", prints made by placing objects or casting shadows directly onto the photographic paper (rather than exposing and image from a negative). When I visited England in March of 2008 I caught the Duchamp/Man Ray/Picabia exhibition at the Tate Modern, and I got to see some of Ray's other work alongside pieces by his well-known collaborators/contemporaries Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia in a wonderful show that captured something unique about the historical, artistic and social contexts of art of that period.



André Kertész (Hungary, 2 July 1894 – 28 September 1985). Like a number of others on this list, Kertesz was a European-born (Hungarian) emigre to the United States in the 1930s, via France. When first looking at his images I got the sense of a shift in photographic values; the difference between late-19th-century photography and its "modernist" progeny is something like the difference between "Gone with the Wind" and "Citizen Kane", or between Delacroix and Courbet. For me Kertesz's work reflects that kind of shift. I've always loved his composition and use of contrast and light, shifts of focus, and unusual perspective, as well as a knack for "capturing" people candidly (he reminds me of Cartier-Bresson). I agree with his comment that "Everybody can look, but they don't necessarily see".



Dorothea Lange (U.S.A., May 26, 1895 – October 11, 1965) . Like Walker Evans, Lange was an FSA photographer and she created some of the more memorable pictures of the Great Depression in the United States (including the iconic image, "Migrant Mother"). She also produced highly political images of the Japanese internment after Pearl Harbour (the images were banned by the U.S. government).



Weegee (AKA Arthur Fellig; U.S.A., June 12, 1899 – December 26, 1968). An early "street photographer", Weegee worked in New York City and produced his most well-known images from the 1930s-50s. Grabbing the photographic moment in its gory and mundane detail, Weegee was often at the scene of a crime before the police arrived, since he was tuned in to their radio system whilst sitting in his car (which had photographic materials stashed in the trunk).



Ansel Adams (U.S.A., February 20, 1902 – April 22, 1984). Adams' stunning black and white landscapes picture U.S. geographies in clear, detailed black and white. As an environmentalist his photographs also constituted a significant aspect of his activism. Adams was a master of technique, and wrote a well-known series of instructional books about the photographic process (called The Camera, The Negative and The Print). For my part, I could stare at these pictures for hours, just drinking in the depth and the crispness of the light and shadow, the delicious articulation of every edge.



Walker Evans (U.S.A., November 3, 1903 – April 10, 1975). When I look at Evans' work I often feel like we "see with the same eyes"--as if, had I been there, I would have wanted to show the same things. Evans shot moving portraits, and he photographed buildings, signs and street life. Like many of the photographers on this list, Evans combined aesthetics with politics and cultural documentation. His most well-known pictures are from the Great Depression of the 1930s when Evans worked as a photographer with the U.S. Farm Security Adminstration (FSA), staying with sharecropper families and documenting their lives.



Margaret Bourke-White (U.S.A., June 14, 1904 – August 27, 1971). Bourke-White's biography reads like a litany of "firsts": she was a highly influential documentary photographer who created images of everything from American industry to the Great Depression to the India-Pakistan violence of the 1940s (she was the first female war correspondent). In the '30s she was the first Western photographer to be allowed into the Soviet Union; she was with U.S. troops when they liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1945 and she took some of the first pictures of the camps and their survivors. She was also among the first photographers hired by Life magazine after it was founded in the mid-1930s, and the first cover of Life was graced by one of her pictures. Bourke-White's commitment to capturing an image is demonstrated in this incredible shot of her taken on the 61st floor of the Chrysler Building in New York City.



Henri Cartier Bresson (France, August 22, 1908 – August 3, 2004). Another hugely influential figure, Cartier-Bresson was, like Man Ray and other photographers of his time, influenced heavily by the Surrealist movement. He was also an early "street photographer" and photojouralist like Weegee and Walker Evans. He went so far as to wrap black tape around his camera in order to reduce its intrusiveness--something I was reminded of when I bought my digital cameras, choosing black/matte designs for the same reason. I appreciate many of his techniques including the avoidance of flash (I never use it myself) and the assumption that photos should be "framed" through the camera and not cropped after shooting. Cartier-Bresson had an eventful life, travelling through and photographing many different countries in Europe and later Asia, and serving with the French army in WW2, as well as spending a long period in a German prison camp. Cartier Bresson's name is often associated with "the decisive moment", a phrase he coined.



Helen Levitt (U.S.A., August 31, 1913 – March 29, 2009). Levitt was known for her photographs of street life in New York City, including many shots of children playing. Mentored by Walker Evans, Levitt achieved early success, producing many notable images during the 1930s and 40s. Her pictures show something of the lifestyle of New York's urban working class before such technologies as television, telephones, stereos and computers were installed in every home.



Diane Arbus (U.S.A., March 14, 1923 – July 26, 1971). Arbus is frequently associated with people considered "deviant or marginal", though she said herself that she'd hope not to be known in that way. What I find intriguing about her photos is not only what she chooses to shoot, but more the way that she reduces or brings everything to a certain aesthetic in every shot no matter who the subjects happen to be--what I mean is that "normal" people look strange through Arbus' lens; they are on the level with her more unusual subjects.



Richard Avedon (U.S.A, May 15, 1923 – October 1, 2004). Like Annie Leibovitz, Avedon is known both for his celebrity portraits and art photography as well as for documentary work. I became particularly interested in his large-format portrait images, the rich depth and detail produced by shooting something up-close with large format film, and also his use of light and shade in portraits such as those below (taken of the Beatles in 1967) and this one of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.



Robert Frank (Switzerland, 1924-). Frank was an immigrant to the U.S. from Switzerland (he now lives in Mabou, Cape Breton, and New York City). Considered to be one of the "founders" of street photography (and also influenced by Walker Evans), Frank was an outsider who first came to prominence with his book "The Americans", images taken during his travels around the United States; he also was friends with the beat writers of the 1950s. I loved Frank's work from when I first came across it (I don't remember how, but I was probably 15 or 16). Robert Frank is the only photographer on my list with whom I was lucky enough to have any contact. Not only did I get to see an exhibit of Frank's prints from "The Americans" that also included his negatives and contact sheets; I also saw him speak in person at a small gathering celebrating the exhibit.



Annie Leibovitz (U.S.A., 1949-). Leibovitz worked for Rolling Stone magazine in its early years (in the 1970s and early '80s). This included documenting Nixon's resignation. However, her staged portraits of celebrities are the work for which she's most well-known. Leibovitz's partner was critic Susan Sontag, who authored "On Photography". Below: portrait of sculptor Louise Bourgeois.



Edward Burtynsky (Canada, 1949-). Burtynsky photographs industrial landscapes, although this description feels like an understatement. I've been an admirer of his work ever since I saw the documentary "Manufactured Landscapes". I've always loved taking pictures of industrial scenes, so Burtynsky's work was like a dream come true, large-format and hyper-detailed, generating a mixture of awe and aesthetic enjoyment, in some cases with a kind of horror at the scale of what's being pictured.



Sally Mann (U.S.A., 1951-). Mann is particularly famous (notorious?) for her controversial, beautiful portraits of her children. It's not the controversy that interests me here; that Mann's photos have been called "pornographic" is to me more of a comment about those complaining than about the work itself. I find that for me, all her work evokes a sort of 19th century aesthetic (going back to Julia Margaret Cameron, for example), though Mann didn't start to go after this effect more explicitly until later in her career.



Nan Goldin (U.S.A., 1953-). Goldin shot portraits of friends and lovers in the "underground" LGBTQ scene of Boston in the late 1970s and 80s. Goldin's blurred shots, intimate and often dark yet somehow saturated with colour, depict queer and drug-addicted subjects with whom she often had close relationships, in their own milieux.



Cindy Sherman (U.S.A., 1954-). I always loved her famous "Untitled film stills" series. I often find it more difficult to connect with studio/staged photography, but in Sherman's series I like the stagey-ness, the grainy images that do look like they could have come from someone's 1960s movie, the way Sherman positions herself in the different roles, always also taking on the role of photographer/voyeur into the scene she creates as well as playing "someone else" rather than presenting a generically "true" self-portrait.

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