The 10 Most Influential Photographers of All Time

Bill Becker

Introduction. Speaker Wm. B. Becker, Director of the American Museum of Photography chose as his topic for the evening's presentation The Ten Most Influential Photographers of All Time. This list was developed in consultation with a group of photo historians on the internet. "Surprising to me", says Bill, "many of my favourite photographers did not make the list and what I did learn about the other photographers proved most interesting. I explored the idea of photographers being influential both on the world, on world events and on photography itself. I present them in roughly chronological order.

1. William Henry Fox Talbot. "The first would be William Henry Fox Talbot, who published his first account on photography in 1839. Talbot was chosen over Daguerre because in the grand scheme of things Daguerre’s process was a bit of a dead end. Talbot's extraordinary vision led to a greater influence on later photography. He was more of an active photographer than Daguerre. His book, The Pencil of Nature, was illustrated with actual calotype photographs is described as “the Gutenberg Bible of photography” because it showed the range of capabilities and future possibilities of the medium.

2. Matthew B. Brady. "Next would be Matthew B. Brady, born about 1822, who conceived the idea of using photography for image building in order to create fame. Brady's studio in New York was located next to the museum run by Phineas T. Barnum. Barnum had all of his attractions photographed and sold the prints as souvenirs or disseminated the images across the country as a means of publicity. Abraham Lincoln even credited Brady’s photograph of him for helping him win the presidency. Brady was also responsible for the photographic record of the American Civil War, hiring many great documentary photographers who did the actual shooting.

3. Alfred Stieglitz. "We skip over a great bunch of important photographers: Julia Margaret Cameron, Nadar, Muybridge, Carleton Watkins, in Canada William Notman, even George Eastman and P. H. Emerson. We come to Alfred Stieglitz who was one of the most influential figures in photography as well as art in the 20th century. Steiglitz in the 1890s was active in the camera club movement which was only for very accomplished and serious amateurs. He edited Camera Notes which eventually became so lavish that it outshone other club activities. He broke away to form the Photo Secession, initially an outgrowth of the Pictorial movement, and published Camera Work, illustrated with deluxe gravures. He was a constant promoter, campaigning to have photography recognized as an independent art. He may be overrated as a photographer but he cannot be underestimated for the impact and influence he had on the course of photography for more than half a century.

4. Edward Steichen. "Edward Steichen, born in 1879, was introduced to Stieglitz in 1900 and was an early supporter of the fight to have photography recognized as a fine art. He served as the Director of Aerial Photography during WW I. After a period of experimentation and a break with the Stieglitz circle he became the Art Director for the Condé Nast publications in 1922. He stayed in that position for 16 years, a time of very important changes in photography of which he was in the forefront. His portraiture and fashion photographs were often breathtaking. In 1947 he became the Director of the Photography Department at the Museum of Modern Art. He organized The Family of Man the most influential photographic exhibition in history which travelled all over the world for decades.

5. Edward Weston. "In 1902 at the age of 16, Edward Weston took his first photograph. He moved to California where he ran a portrait studio until 1922 working in the style of the Pictorial Secessionists. On a trip to New York he changed from the soft gauzy pictures to sharp, direct photographs of industrial subjects - a bold change in his career to straight, true images. After a stint in Mexico he helped found the f/64 Group of purist photographers for whom sharpness, detail and tonal values were the most important - rejecting all manipulation.

6. Yousuf Karsh. "Yousuf Karsh is the only Canadian to make the list. Of Armenian ancestry he immigrated to Canada to work for an uncle who ran a portrait studio. He was apprenticed to the accomplished portraitist John Garo in Boston before starting his own studio in Ottawa in 1931. His most pivotal photograph was the portrait of Winston Churchill during WW2. Karsh's lighting was heavily influenced by Edward Steichen but he developed a dramatic sense of composition all his own. He photographed all the noted personalities of the world. His influence is even felt today by those wishing to make portraits with the dramatic lighting and impact of the work by Yousuf Karsh.

7. Ansel Adams. "Ansel Adams dates his first portfolio back to 1927 and in 1932 he joined with Edward Weston and others in forming the f/64 Group. In 1939 along with Beaumont Newhall and David McAlpin he helped start the Photography Department at the Museum of Modern Art and had a long career there as a teacher. In 1941 he took his world famous photograph Moonrise Hernandez of a small town in Mexico. In 1967 he founded the Friends of Photography serving as its first President. Adams' influence was spread not only by his fine photographs but by his writings, workshops and his teachings.

8. Henri Cartier-Bresson. "Henri Cartier-Bresson had a turning point in his career when he acquired his first Leica camera in 1931. Two years later he mounted his first exhibition. He became noted in his photographs for choosing the decisive moment. He is also noted for his paintings.

9. W. Eugene Smith. "W. Eugene Smith, an American photographer born in 1918, advocated the photographer's right to direct editorial control over layout of images, captions and text for publications and exhibitions. He was known to study his subjects in painstaking detail before shooting a single exposure. Perhaps more than any other photographer he is responsible for the great success in the middle of the 20th century of photojournalism. He felt his best photograph was Tomoko in Her Bath part of the Minimata story on mercury poisoning in Japan. I think W. Eugene Smith is one of the most influential photographers of all time. The fact that he was so active in publishing photo essays during the great rise of the picture magazines is another reason why his work became so widely known.

10. Diane Arbus. "Our final photographer chosen for the list is Diane Arbus. I have to say that I have a visceral reaction against the harshness of her photographs. The humanity seems to be drained from them when compared to pictures like those of Eugene Smith. But there is no question that Arbus was extremely influential throughout the 70s with her photographs of subjects who were physically unusual. She said, "Most people go through life dreading they will have a traumatic experience. These people were born with their trauma."

Coda. Bill’s talk concluded with a study of a single, highly-influential photograph – Gene Smith’s masterpiece Tomoko in Her Bath. He discussed the controversy over this image, which the subject’s family is seeking to withdraw from publication and exhibition.

What? No images? Bill's talk was illustrated with a slide show; however, he asked that we not reproduce any of the images here in light of copyright laws. Instead, I have linked each section to other web sites providing biographical material and images. The Coda on Gene Smith's controversial image links to an essay by Jim Hughes who published the image and associated Minimata essay written by Eugene Smith years ago in Camera 35 -- one of my favourite magazines at the time.

In any case, I was unable to attend Bill's talk in person since I was on a month long trip to Western Canada to hike and relax with my youngest daughter. The trip was a gift from my family in celebration of my 65th birthday. This synopsis of the talk was written by Bob Lansdale and vetted by Bill Becker.

Robert Carter

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