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A full account of the most talented and most famous photographers of all time would be truly a massive tome. Multiple photographers have been embedded in our world's history through their photographs, if not always by their own names. Here is just a small sampling of some of the most notable photographers from the past hundred years or so, along with some thoughts on what brought them to such levels of notoriety.
Mary Ellen Mark
The recently deceased Mary Ellen Mark made her mark as a photojournalist and documentary photographer. Her signature subjects were unusual characters on the outer fringes of society. Her willingness to display the grittier realities of often-ignored groups of people earned Mary Ellen Mark numerous awards, including a Fulbright Scholarship to take photographs in Turkey, three fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts, and a 2014 Lifetime Achievement in Photography Award from the George Eastman House.
One of the most famous photographers of all time in the world of fashion and portrait photography, Richard Avedon was an extremely prolific photographer with a career spanning sixty years. The recipient of countless awards and honorary degrees, Richard Avedon's photographs have been featured in magazines, on album covers, and in art galleries, including permanent exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian—just to name a few. Avedon was an active photographer right up to the end: He was working on a project for The New Yorker when he died in 2004. We firmly believe that, had Avedon had an Instagram, he would have put these best fashion photographers to follow on the social networking medium to shame.
Robert Capa is considered by many to be one of the greatest war and combat photojournalists of all time. For two decades, between the 1930s and 50s, Robert Capa fearlessly placed himself in the midst of death and danger in order to capture the realities of war. One of his most notable photo series is known as The Magnificent Eleven, which refers to photos Capa took on D-Day with American troops storming Omaha Beach. Capa took over one hundred photos of the fateful charge, but all but eleven were tragically lost in an accident at the Life photo lab in London. Robert Capa's dedication to combat photojournalism finally caught up to him in 1954: While photographing the First Indochina War in Vietnam, Robert Capa stepped on a landmine and perished.
Dorothea Lange is undoubtedly one of the most famous photographers from the first half of the 20th century. While she captured many important photographs of the Great Depression in the United States, she is best known for one particular 1936 photograph titled Migrant Mother. The photo depicts a woman named Florence Owens Thompson, a starving San Fransisco mother huddled with her children in a makeshift tent. The photograph became one of the most iconic images of the Great Depression as well as one of the most famous photographs of all time, solidifying Dorothea Lange's mark on history.
The trouble with iconic portraits of historical figures is that you can't be sure if the power of the photograph comes from the power of the individual being photographed or the skill of the person behind the camera. While his famous 1941 portrait of Winston Churchill was a breakout moment in his career, you can't downplay the talent of Armenian-Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh, whose portraits appeared on the cover of Life magazine more than twenty times over the course of his career.
Henri Cartier-Bresson is one of the most famous photographers of all time thanks to his influence as a result of his pioneering work in humanist and street photography. Writing about his photographs and influence could fill numerous books on their own, but the spirit of his photography can be gleaned from the techniques he used. Cartier-Bresson only ever shot with a simple, small, portable Leica camera which he covered in tape, so as to make it less conspicuous. He always shot in black and white. He never used flash, believing it to be impolite, and he made a point of displaying all his photographs just as they were taken, with no additional cropping or editing in the darkroom, believing such practices to be artificial. This simple, human-focused approach helped Henri Cartier-Bresson become one of the most prolific and influential humanist photographers of all time.
Paul Strand was an American photographer who is notable for helping establish photography as a legitimate form of art. Though his photographs encompass several decades and continents, his dominant aesthetic outlet was modernism, which helped him to establish his style in the early 1900s and continued to carry the soul of his work through the end of his career upon his death in 1976.
Steve McCurry's career has had an interesting trajectory. After a short stint as a photojournalist in Pennsylvania, a young Steve McCurry left to travel and freelance in India in 1978. From there, it wasn't long before McCurry found himself photographing the bedlam in Afghanistan prior to the Soviet invasion. The photos that resulted from this trip, including the iconic Afghan Girl photo, which has been adopted as a symbol of sorts by National Geographic Magazine, earned McCurry a number of awards from several prestigious institutions. Despite recent controversy surrounding McCurry's photoshopping habit, McCurry remains one of the most prominent active photographers in the world.
Annie Leibovitz is another portrait photographer who has made her name taking breathtaking photos of iconic figures in history. One of her earliest and most iconic photos came in 1980, when she was working for Rolling Stone. The photo is a portrait taken of John Lennon mere hours before he was assassinated. Nearly 40 years later, Annie Leibovitz remains an important figure in portrait photography. One of her more recent iconic photographs was Caitlyn Jenner's debut cover photo on Vanity Fair in 2015.
Ansel Adams is a name practically synonymous with photography in the United States. His landscape and nature photography highlighting the American West have been widely distributed and appreciated by millions. Adams became a photographer somewhat unintentionally after beginning his life and early career as a musician. In the 1920s, he decided to dedicate his life to the pursuit of beauty, be that via music or photography. Now one of the most famous photographers of all time, Ansel Adams certainly succeeded in his goal of sharing that beauty with the world, becoming another person who could have easily smothered the best landscape photographers to follow on Instagram had the competition been pertinent in his day and age.