Famous photographers is a topic that a lot of us agree on, but ask a group of photographers what makes a photo great, and you’ll get plenty of variety in their answers.
Some will offer answers that have to do with the technical nature of the photograph — it’s sharpness, the use of light, and so forth.
Others will comment about the artistry of the image — the framing or composition.
Still others will note the meaning and emotion of the photo.
Yet, ask who the best photographers of all time are, and you’re likely to get a much more streamlined set of answers.
Ansel Adams, Dorthea Lange, Robert Capa, and, of course, many others, are the ones that consistently appear on the “best of” lists.
It makes sense that this is the case.
After all, photography is both a technical and an artistic venture, so it stands to reason that different aspects of a photo draw the eye of different photographers, which results in such wide variability in answers to the question, “What makes this photo good?”
But the question of “Who are the best photographers?” generates a slimmer list of answers because of the impact these people have had on photography.
We often see their pictures, read their books, read articles about them, and study their work.
Their photos serve as examples of what’s good but also act like baseball cards for baseball fans. By that, I mean that just like there are tons of great baseball players, there are tons of great photographers. But only a select few ever have their cards and photos on the “best of” lists or their names associated with being a hero.
Having a photography hero is imperative because it gives you a benchmark to work towards, a standard of work to achieve.
This “best of” list offers up 31 of the very best photographers of all time in no particular order. It’s by no means a complete list, but it’s a great starting point for you to find your photography hero to inspire your work.
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce
You might not recognize any of the photos the Niépce took, but you will probably recognize his name associated with the world’s first photograph. He developed heliography, in which a print was created from an engraved printing plate. That was way back in 1825.
Just a couple of years later, he used a camera obscura to create the oldest surviving photograph, an image he titled View From the Window at Le Gras seen above.
It’s not the best photo — I’ll be the first to admit that — but the fact that Niépce is considered one of the fathers of photography, he gets a spot on the list.
For all you photography history buffs, Louis Daguerre created the process of the Daguerreotype, which was the first photography process used for commercial purposes.
That doesn’t mean the Daguerreotype was a simple process, though.
Creating a photo involved exposing a silver-plated copper sheet to iodine crystals, which in turn created a layer of silver iodide on the plate that was sensitive to light. Exposing the plate to light in a camera produced an image, but only after an impossibly long exposure.
However, Daguerre soon discovered that the “negative” created by the image — which was obtained much faster than the typical exposure — could be developed into a photo. That makes him one of the fathers of photography alongside Niépce.
Margaret Bourke-White was a trailblazing photojournalist, and one of the first female photographers for Life magazine.
Bourke-White had a reputation for being a fearless photographer, throwing herself into just about any situation to get the shot she desired. That includes suiting up and going on bombing raids during World War II to document the ravages of war.
She’s also got the distinction of taking the last portrait of Ghandi before he was assassinated.
David Bailey is known amongst photography circles as one of the masters of fashion and portrait photography.
He gained wide acclaim in the 1960s for his work, including portraits of The Beatles, Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol, and other iconic figures of the time.
He even took photos of East End London gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray, which have a gritty, high-contrast look that remains iconic to this day.
Perhaps the most well-known photographer of all time, Ansel Adams’ work likely adorns the walls of households and businesses more than any other photographer.
A master of black and white landscapes, Adams spent much of his time documenting the wilds of the American West, perhaps most famously Yosemite National Park in California and the Tetons and Snake River in Wyoming, as seen above.
His photos helped lead the charge to protect nature and wildlife, a pursuit Adams was as passionate about as photography.
Considered by most to be the father of photojournalism, Henri Cartier-Bresson mastered the art of street photography. When you think of a candid portrait — one in which the subject is perfectly natural — you should think of Bresson’s work.
He is also known for capturing some of the most seminal events of the 20th century.
He traveled to China during its revolution, the Soviet Union after Joseph Stalin’s death, and came to the United States after World War II to document the social and economic upheaval after the war’s end.
When it comes to photojournalism, it’s hard to find a better example to follow than Bresson.
Diane Arbus joins the list of the most famous photographers of all time for her documentary work that focused on the people on the fringes of society.
Where some of her contemporaries concentrated on wars, Hollywood, and social ills, Arbus made people like circus performers her muses.
Her photos are known for being highly emotionally intense, and, at times, even disturbing. Her use of flash for daytime portraits is another claim to fame.
Though Eve Arnold’s most well-known photographs are those of Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe, her career as a photographer was much more than taking portraits of the rich and famous.
In fact, her most compelling work is that of poor populations from around the world, including civil rights protestors, herdsmen in Mongolia, migrant workers, and injured soldiers.
On top of that, she’s perhaps the most well-known natural light portrait photographer of her time.
As connected as the name Ansel Adams is to landscape photography, the name Philippe Halsman is equally connected to portraiture.
For nearly 40 years, Halsman created portraits that weren’t just eye-catching, but were creative, thought-provoking, and even groundbreaking. For example, he often asked his subjects to jump in their portrait, creating a silly, playful portrait in a time when such things weren’t common.
His portraits of the likes of Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe are among the most iconic ever taken.
It’s no wonder, then, that Halsman has the honor of having more of his photos — a whopping 101 — on the cover of Life Magazine.
As far as fashion photographers go, Richard Avedon is one of the most influential of all time.
His work for publications like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar remain as ideal examples of how to create a high-fashion black and white portrait. In fact, his high key portraits of people set against a white background are among the best created in the 20th century.
In the middle of his career, Avedon branched out, photographing such widely varied subjects as the Berlin Wall, Vietnam War protests, and the Civil Rights Movement, proving that no matter the subject, he had a knack for creating a compelling image.
Best known for his photos of British society in the 1930s, Bill Brandt had a unique artistic vision that led to the creation of gorgeous atmospheric images that were often distorted.
His most famous work is a set of nudes he created after the close of World War II to celebrate peace.
However, Brandt was adept at landscapes and portraits of celebrities too, but as diverse the subject matter is, one thing remained consistent: his incredible grasp of using shadow and light to add depth and dimension to his photos.
Another photographer that earned her reputation through her photojournalistic work, Dorothea Lange is likely best known for her images of the Great Depression.
Her photographs have a distinct emotion about them that humanized the impact of poverty on Americans during one of the most difficult times of the 20th century.
That human element was influenced by her own plight — having been afflicted with polio she walked with a limp — which is why she often focused her work on bringing attention to the obstacles that the less fortunate often faced.
W. Eugene Smith
Known for his indelible images of World War II, W. Eugene Smith was a contributor to Life Magazine.
Over the course of his tenure with the magazine, he became adept at creating photo essays that became a visual and textual story about everyday people, places and events. In that regard, his work is similar to that of Dorothea Lange, in that it sought to humanize the daily struggles of people from around the world.
As humanized as his images were, Smith was also a technically masterful photographer, creating images that are worthy of study as perfect examples of employing photographic principles.
Best known for his portraits of Hollywood stars, George Hurrell is responsible for photographing just about every major movie star from the 1930s to the early 1990s.
Beyond that, Hurrell is known as a master of lighting. His glamorous portraits of leading ladies and men typified the use of simple, clean, yet dramatic lighting that elevated his portraits to an entirely other level.
If you want examples of how to create a stunning portrait, just check out his work!
Like many other entrants on this list, James Nachtwey is most famous for his work covering various wars throughout the 20th century, right up to the early conflicts of the 2000s.
But wars aren’t his only subject. Nachtwey documents all sorts of social and humanitarian issues, from civil rights to politics to famine. That includes being present in New York City on September 11, 2001, and documenting the aftermath of that event.
Nachtwey is still in the field documenting important events worldwide.
As famous photographers go, Lewis Hine is best known for documentary images that helped shape American social policy in the early 1900s.
His images of immigrants at Ellis Island helped humanize the newcomers to the country, and his photos of child laborers as part of his work for the National Child Labor Committee transformed the workplace with added protections for child workers.
After that, Hine documented the construction of one of the most iconic buildings in the world, the Empire State Building. To complete his duties, he was often positioned in a basket dangling off the side of the building hundreds of feet in the air.
Not only is Steve McCurry one of the most famous photographers of today, but he’s also one of the best photographers of all time.
His seminal work, Afghan Girl, donned the cover of National Geographic in June 1985 to wide acclaim. Since then, the photo has been named one of the most recognized images in history.
McCurry’s focus has typically been on cultural topics, like disappearing traditions, ancient rituals, and conflicts around the world. Yet his portraits, like the one of the Afghan girl, remain his most salient work.
Julia Margaret Cameron
One of the first truly widely-known portrait photographers, Julia Margaret Cameron had a unique artistic point of view. Her portraits of famous Victorians of the day were often intentionally not in focus.
The result of that treatment were portraits that were often haunting in their appearance, something that was only amplified by the available technology (and the appearance of people in the Victorian era).
Despite the unfocused nature of her photos, Cameron was nothing if not a perfectionist, often making her subjects sit for exposure after exposure as she sought to perfect each wet plate.
However, her labors were well worth it as her portraits have an intimacy about them that is striking to this day.
Though his career spanned decades, the nine years Larry Burrows spent covering the Vietnam War remains the period for which he is best known.
Along with his colleagues, Burrows was instrumental in turning the tide of public opinion against the Vietnam War. He did so with photo essays for Life Magazine that brought the ravages of war to the hands of people back home.
As a result, he’s often heralded as one of the best war photographers in history.
Perhaps the best portrait photographer of all time, Yousef Karsh managed to take portraits of some of the most important and influential people of the 20th century.
That list includes Andy Warhol, Muhammad Ali, Pablo Picasso, Jackie Kennedy, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, and many others.
One look at Karsh’s portraits and you can see why he was such a rock star photographer: he understood how to pose people and light them in a way that showed their human qualities, their personalities, and their emotions.
In fact, Karsh was a master of studio lighting, using unique techniques to draw out the best features of his subjects.
Where other photographers on this list are associated with a single type of photography, Edward Weston gained acclaim for his work in a variety of genres.
From nudes to still lifes to landscape photography, Weston demonstrated a knack for portraying his subject in simple, yet beautiful forms.
Perhaps more so than anyone on this list, Weston demonstrates that though there are many specializations in photography, given the right skills and understanding of photographic principles, one can indeed be a Renaissance Man and tackle many different types of photography and do it well.
Born in 1939, the world in which William Eggleston grew up heavily influenced his work.
His most famous works are those of everyday life taken in a snapshot style and in black and white.
Later on, Eggleston began to experiment with color, and eventually came to work with dye transfer prints that made color photography the new standard form of photography. As a result, he’s often referred to as the father of color photography.
His color works are noted as being vivid and modern, yet simple in subject matter.
Robert Doisneau’s specialty was documenting everyday life in France.
His images are known for having a gentle, natural, and sometimes humorous tilt on the mundane workings of daily life.
In fact, his photos often juxtapose people of different social classes, talents, personalities, and eccentricities to get that humorous tone.
When it comes to revealing the life of the inner city, Bruce Davidson is one of the most effective photographers.
His work in the 1960s and 1970s photographing the poorest areas of New York City brought him wide acclaim, especially the photos he took of riders on the city’s often dangerous subways.
To say that his documentary work broke barriers for photographers is an understatement.
At the turn of the 20th century, many thought of photography as a scientific and technical process.
Alfred Stieglitz changed that.
He was instrumental in bringing photography to the forefront of society as being an artistic form, something that likely had a lot to do with the fact that he was married to the famous artist Georgia O’Keefe.
His best known work is that of New York City, images that had a grittiness to them that was perfectly suited to the Big Apple.
Another documentary photographer in the 1960s, Garry Winogrand’s playground was mostly New York City.
Throughout his career, he was a prolific shooter, leaving behind a library of more than 300,000 images, including thousands of rolls of unprocessed and unproofed film.
Being from New York, Winogrand had a particular affection for street photography, and his work remains some of the best there is when it comes to finding prime examples of street photos.
In the realm of advertising and fashion photography, it’s hard to find a more famous photographer than Brian Duffy.
His work includes the iconic photo of David Bowie that adorned his Aladdin Sane album.
Throughout the 1970s, Duffy created more iconic photos, including surrealist images that stoked the imaginations of photographers and non-photographers alike.
But his documentary fashion photography style is regarded as his crowning achievement.
One of the first photographers to subscribe to environmental portraiture, Arnold Newman was a trailblazer for photographing people in their place in the world.
His portraits have an authenticity about them that goes well beyond showing who the person is, but also what the person is about.
From actors to politicians, artists to other photographers, Newman spent six decades perfecting his photography skills, particularly when it came to composition and lighting.
Andreas Gursky is unique on this list of the most famous photographers of all time because his focus was, in part, on public spaces and buildings.
His images are full of color and portray the high-tech, industrialized world as something that is both beautiful and surprisingly seductive.
To this day, Gursky’s work is at the forefront of the contemporary art movement, with a style that’s both unique and appreciated by the masses.
A portrait photographer by trade, Anne Geddes has won wide acclaim — and some criticism — for her portraits that focus on maternity, motherhood, and childhood.
That interest in children, in particular, was borne out of the desire to photograph babies in a more realistic manner that demonstrated the personality of each individual child.
Today, her fantastical images of babies are far from realistic, but evoke a sense of merriment and wonder that results in photos that are eye-catching and ooze personality.
Another photographer that cut his teeth as a war correspondent was Robert Capa.
He documented an astounding five wars, from the Spanish Civil war to the early days of Vietnam.
Though he’s known as one of the premier combat photographers of all time, Capa hated war and sought to bring attention to its negative impact through his photos.
His work is some of the most gritty, raw, and emotional photography of the 20th century.
Originally published at www.photographytalk.com on March 16, 2017.