Photography is so much more than just pressing a button. The greatest photographers spend their entire lives mastering and perfecting their craft. A Great photograph is one that makes a lasting impression on those who view it. When executed with great care, photography can evoke deep emotions and tell complex stories. The following is a list of some of the best and most influential photographers of all time. Their work is extraordinary and their discipline impeccable. In no particular order, I present to you some of the greatest photographers the world has ever known. Don't forget to check out my fine art photography gallery after you read this article.
"It's about reacting to what you see, hopefully without preconception. You can find pictures anywhere. It's simply a matter of noticing things and organizing them. You just have to care about what's around you and have a concern with humanity and the human comedy"
It is without a doubt that Elliot Erwitt is one of the greatest photographers to ever pick up a camera. His work is a commentary on what it means to be human. His photographs capture life’s ironic, comedic and sometimes absurd moments in a way that is both brilliant and surprising. Erwitt’s images are perfect slivers of time that are spontaneous yet very deliberately and carefully composed. With a particular fondness for dogs, Elliot published not one, but four books on canines.
Elliot Erwitt was born in Paris France in 1928 and emigrated to the United States in 1939. As a teenager in Los Angeles California, Elliot became interested in photography and began working in a commercial darkroom before enrolling in Los Angeles City College where he would further his study of the craft. In 1951 he was drafted by the US military and worked as a photographer while being stationed in Germany and France. In 1953 Erwitt joined Magnum Photos and became president of the organization for three years in the 1960’s. Erwitt worked as a freelance photographer for publications such as Collier’s, Look, LIFE and Holiday.
"It’s important for you to spend your time photographing things that matter to you. You need to understand the things that have meaning to you, and not what others think is important for you."
With a career spanning over four decades, Steve McCurry has captured some of the most iconic images of humanity. His striking imagery often involves his subject staring directly into the camera’s lens with a piercing gaze. Rich yet natural colors complement his scenes and help tell the story of the people within them.
McCurry’s photographs exhibit the rich diversity of the human race across the globe. When you look at a Steve McCurry photograph, you feel as if you are standing where the image was taken. It’s almost as if you could have a conversation with the person on the other side of the lens. When photography feels as touching as McCurry’s, the world becomes a little smaller and the viewer begins to understand the beauty in diversity. It is impossible not to feel a connection when observing his work and because of that, he is one of the greatest photographers of all time.
Born in Philadelphia Pennsylvania, Steve gained an interest in photography when he began taking images for the Penn State newspaper. After College Steve traveled to India to document the country with his camera. In May of 1979 Steve crossed over into Pakistan where he met some Afghan refugees who asked him to document the civil war that was underway in their homeland. The refugees helped smuggle him into Afghanistan where he spent several months living with and documenting the Majahideen fighters who were organizing to resist a coup takeover that took place the year before. Due to the closed borders, Steve’s images were some of the first to show the brutality of the soviet backed war.
His early images paved the way for a photojournalism career that would land his work on the cover of National Geographic multiple times. In 1985, his cover image “Afgan Girl” was published and has become known as the most recognized image in the magazine’s history.
McCurry has published 21 books over the course of 35 years. These books contain some of the most iconic photos ever taken. You can buy one of Steve’s books here.
“Gear is the least important part of the equation. Having a vision and being able to articulate an idea visually are much more important.”
Paul Nicklen is one of the hardest working wildlife photographers on the planet. His close proximity imagery shows nature in a way that is rarely seen. The majority of Paul’s images come from the polar regions where he spends much of his time under the water photographing Leopard Seals, whales, penguins and other marine life.
Nicklen has had eleven stories published in National Geographic and opened up the Paul Nicklen Gallery in Soho New York. Paul is not only an incredible photographer but he is also a champion of the natural world and a member of the International League of Conservation Photographers.
In 2017 Nicklen and his wife Cristina Mittermeier founded Sea Legacy with a mission to preserve the ocean while educating the public about how human impact is affecting the environment and all of the living things within it.
“Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”
Don McCullin is one of the most brilliant social photographers of the 20th and 21st centuries. He is best known for his war images and for his work documenting the poverty of London’s East side. McCullin’s work exhibits masterful compositions that effectively tell a narrative. His photographs from war and poverty torn countries are as technically good as they are heart-breaking. It is impossible not to feel something when looking at his work which is why he is such an effective photographer. His war scenes are as truthfully dark as war itself. He has been shot and badly wounded in Cambodia, imprisoned in Uganda, expelled from Vietnam and had a bounty on his head in Lebanon.
Later in life Don mostly focused on less violent subjects including documenting the English countryside and producing elegant still life photographs. In 2017 McCullin was knighted by the Queen of England for his service to Photography.
“Let us not be afraid to allow for “post-visualization.” By post-visualization I refer to the willingness on the part of the photographer to re-visualize the final image at any point in the entire photographic process.”
Jerry Uelsmann was truly a photographer ahead of his time. When we think of image manipulation we often think of digital images and Photoshop, but Jerry was combining multiple images together in the darkroom long before the days of computer editing. Jerry is known for his surreal and dreamlike gelatin-silver print photomontages. His photographs combine incredible darkroom precision with unbridled creativity that results in highly captivating fine art prints
Uelsmann spent his entire professional life dedicated to the arts. In 1960 he began teaching photography at the University of Florida in Gainesville and in 1974 he became a graduate research professor at the same university.
If you like to see more of Jerry’s incredible images check out his book Uelsmann Untitled: A Retrospective.
“The most memorable photos are layered, in good light, and have something really interesting going on in them. If you can get all three elements into a single frame, now you're talking.”
Joal Sartore’s specialty is documenting endangered species and landscapes across the world. He is a master of animal portraiture which can be seen in his 25 year project The Photo Ark. The Photo Ark is a quest to document every single living species living in zoos and wildlife refugees across the globe. Joal photographs most of the animals in a studio setting with strobes just as any portrait photographer would do so in one of their shoots. The focus of his project is to educate the public about wildlife and the threats that it faces. His animal portraits are absolutely remarkable.
In addition to photography, Joal is a conservationist, author, speaker and teacher. He is a National Geographic photographer with 40 stories published in the magazine. Joal sells a wide variety of books including The Photo Ark book on his website and can be purchased here.
“To know ahead of time what you're looking for means you're then only photographing your own preconceptions, which is very limiting, and often false.”
Dorthea Lang is best known for her work for the Farm Security Administration during the great depression. Lang is important in photographic history because her work influenced the development of documentary photography. Throughout the course of her career she documented important social issues throughout the United States including the forced removal of Japanese Americans by the federal government during World War II. At the time, the government impounded most of Lang’s work of the internment process.
Today her photography of the evacuations and interments are available in the National Archives as well as in her book Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment. If you like a definitive book that spans Lang’s career read Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures
“I never think about a shoot before I do it. Because there's no formula for people. What I try to do is to strip everything away rather than go in with preconceived notions. If I do that, I might miss a gem or a jewel that the person is offering me.”
Platon is famous for his close up and intimate portraiture with clean backgrounds. He often shoots just slightly below eye level to give his subjects a dominating look. Platon’s work includes some of the world’s most famous and prominent people. His subjects span a gamut of backgrounds from world leaders and business people to musicians and movie stars. Some of his most notable portraits include Barack Obama, Stephen Hawking, Spike Lee, Vladimir Putin and Muammar Gaddafi. Time Magazine has a really great article titled The Craziest Man in the Room about Platon’s experience photographing one of the world’s most dangerous dictators.
Over the years, Platon has produced images for Rolling Stone, the New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ and the New Yorker. Platon’s most recent work has been centered around civil and human rights. In 2009 he teamed up with the organization Human Rights Watch to help celebrate those who stand up for equal rights and justice in countries that suppress those freedoms. In 2013 Platon founded a non-profit called The People’s Portfolio. The organization's mission is to enlist the public to build support for human rights around the world.
“I feel it is the heart, not the eye, that should determine the content of the photograph. What the eye sees is its own. What the heart can perceive is a very different matter.”
Gordon Parks is one of the most important photographers of the 20th century and was the first African American photographer to be hired by Life Magazine. Even though Parks was completely self taught, he received limited success as soon as he picked up the camera. His work was praised by the clerks who developed his first roll of film and encouraged him to seek out a fashion shoot. Parks went on to build a portrait business in Chicago while he simultaneously began to document the experience of African Americans. This work lead him to win the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1942 that would ultimately land him a job for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in Washington, D.C. and later, the Office of War Information (OWI). Parks most important work consistently explored the social and economic impact of poverty, racism, and other forms of discrimination in the US.
Outside of photography Parks was a musician, writer, painter, poet and filmmaker. In 1969,Parks became the first African American to write and direct a Hollywood feature film titled The Learning Tree. In 1971, Park released the critically acclaimed film Shaft.
Parks continued to work as a documentary and commercial photographer until his death in 2006.
“The camera makes you forget you're there. It's not like you are hiding but you forget, you are just looking so much.”
Annie Leibovitz is one of the best known portrait photographers of the 20th and 21st centuries. She is most famous for her celebrity portraiture which includes Mick Jagger, Angelina Jolie and the Queen of England. Her polaroid portrait of John Lennon and Yoko Ono was taken five hours before John Lennon was murdered. That photograph is Rolling Stone's most famous cover photo. The Library of Congress declared her a living legend and she became the first woman to have an exhibition in Washington’s National Portrait Gallery.
Leibovitz studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute but switched her major to photography after taking her first photography course. In 1973 Leibovitz landed a job as a staff photographer for Rolling Stone magazine where she would photograph countless celebrities and help define the magazine's look for ten years. In 1975 she went on tour with The Rolling Stones as their concert photographer where she produced one of her most famous portraits of Mick Jagger in an elevator.
Leibovitz landed a gig with Vanity Fair Magazine in 1983 where she worked as a photographer until 2000. Today she continues to work as a portrait photographer and educator. Recommended books by Leibovitz include Annie Leibovitz. The Early Years, 1970–1983 and Photographs Annie Leibovitz 1970 -1990
“I never was an apprentice or assistant to another photographer. Everything that I know I learned by trial and error and by a lot of experimenting. I consider every assignment as a problem and my picture as its solution. I don’t belong to photographers who shoot out of instinct. A lot of thinking goes into my taking--or should I say making of -- pictures”
Creative is an understatement when describing Phillipe Helmsman’s work. He would go through great length to create photographs and concepts that had never been seen before. His concepts often required elaborate setups and creative positioning of the camera. He photographed social figures including Elbert Einstein, Richard Nixon and Clint Eastwood and is one of greatest portrait photographers of his time.
Later in his career, Helmsman began suspending his subject in mid air by asking them to jump right before he hit the shutter button. Many of these images are compiled in his book Jump. The concept behind Jump was that when a person is preoccupied with jumping in the air they are no longer paying attention to what the camera is doing.
In 1941, Helmsman met Salvidor Dali and the two became good friends. They collaborated on projects together for over 30 years. The two most famous photographs from their session are “Dali Atomicus” and “In Voluptas Mors” or Voluptuous Death.
“Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph, is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk.”
Born in 1886, Edward Weston was one of the most influential and innovative photographers of his time. His subjects mostly included portraits, nudes, still life and landscapes. For the first twenty years of his career he calculated exposures based on estimation of his previous experience. Weston gained acclaim with his nudes but he began to shift his focus after the artist Henrietta Shore gave him honest feedback, explaining that he was taking too many nudes and the images had lost their spark. Weston looked to her work for inspiration and began creating some of his most famous photographs including Nautilus, (1927) and Pepper No 30, (1930). It was around this same time that Weston began to focus on landscape photography. Weston was introduced to Ansel Adams by their mutual friend and photographer Willard Van Dyke. Adams and Weston would go on to become great friends and would take many photographic trips together. In 1937 Weston became the first photographer to receive the Guggenheim Fellowship which allowed him to travel the US and focus on his landscape photography.
Today, Weston’s photographs are some of the most expensive ever sold with “ The Nude” selling for $1.6 million dollars in 2008.
“I think a photograph, of whatever it might be - a landscape, a person - requires personal involvement. That means knowing your subject, not just snapping at what’s in front of you.”
Frans Lanting is one of the great wildlife and nature photographers of recent time. His work spans more than three decades with a focus on the preservation of our planet and all of the species that call it home. Lanting is a frequent contributor to National Geographic and was the photographer in residence of the magazine for some time. He is also a member of the photo society.
In 2006 Lanting launched "Life: A Journey Through Time". The project represents a vision of life on earth from the big band to present day. Lanting has said the Life project was a synthesis of his career and was released as a book, exhibition as well as a multimedia symphony with music by Phillip Glass.
Frans Lanting has a selection of eight photography books on his website that are dedicated to this great planet that we call home.
“It’s a combination of trial and error, by getting it wrong, you learn how to get it right.”
David Yarrow is a wildlife and fine art photographer based out of London. His work takes on two forms. The first is that of traditional wildlife photography but often from very low angles to emphasize the animal that he is photographing. The second form is cinematic photographs that appear to be out of a strange wild west movie. These images often involve models interacting with seemingly wild animals such as wolves, cougars and lions. His concepts are well thought out, beautiful and sometimes shocking. Books by David Yarrow include Wild Encounters: Iconic Photographs of the World's Vanishing Animals and Cultures and West: The American Cowboy.
“Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer – and often the supreme disappointment.”
What would a greatest photographers of all time list be without Ansel Adams? Ansel Adams is perhaps the most well known photographer in the world and is responsible for some of the most iconic images of the United States National Parks. The Yosemite Sierra Nevada engulfed his entire being at an early age and could be considered one of the greatest influences in his photographic career. In 1919 Adams joined the Sierra Club while becoming the hut keeper for The Leconte Memorial Lodge. The Sierra Club became responsible for Adam’s early photographic success as they published his images in the club’s 1922 bulletin and offered him a one person show at the club’s headquarters in San Francisco. Adams would eventually serve on the Sierra Club’s board of directors for 37 years.
Adam’s work was elevated when he met Albert M. Bender who was patron of the arts and published Adam’s first portfolio. Adam’s would go on to become friends and work with many of his era’s most celebrated photographers and artists including Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe and more. One cannot fully appreciate landscape photography without fully appreciating Ansel Adams.
Adam’s published many books over the course of his career, Ansel Adams: 400 Photographs is a beautiful book that covers the gamut of his works. If you’re interested in learning more about Ansel Adam’s life and photographic story, the book Ansel Adams: An Autobiography is absolutely fantastic. Adams goes into detailed and sometimes humorous stories from his entire life. I cannot recommend this book enough.