From landscapes to portraits, from pop culture icons to social commentary, from entertainment to high art, photography has been a truly powerful medium in our lives.
And with the strength of this medium, a few truly legendary photographers have emerged. Photography enthusiasts can (and will) debate the merits of their favorite artists but there are a handful who stand above the rest, who have broken down barriers and altered the very meaning of the artform.
Spanning a wide history, we have compiled a list of legendary photographers who have been pioneers and revolutionaries, and in the process of stirring things up, have created images that stand the test of time. In no particular order, here are the names you need to know:
Born in New Jersey in the 1890s, Lange is best known for her work during the Great Depression. Her 1936 photo, Migrant Mother, is one of the best known photographs of all time. In the 1940s, Lange turned her camera to the U.S. Japanese internment camps, capturing some of the darkest moments in American history. Her ability to stare directly into desperate moments to uncover the humanity that lies beneath has established Lange as a true legend.
It would be impossible to have a conversation about portraiture without mentioning Richard Avedon. From high-end fashion pics, to celebrity portraits, to everyday moments, Avedon’s unique vision and style helped to define an entire generation.
Winner of the Mainichi Art Prize in 1980 and the Annual Award of the Photographic Society of Japan in 1981, Kubota is synonymous with striking images of Asian landscapes, people and culture. Kubota has also been known to take profound images of American life, including powerful shots of the Black Panther movement in the late 60s.
No discussion of modern photography would be complete without mentioning Annie Leibovitz. Once a photographer for Rolling Stone, and now a contributor for Vanity Fair, she has worked with every A-list celebrity and created several iconic images of them. Some of her most famous shots include the Caitlyn Jenner Vanity Fair cover, a series of portraits of Susan Sontag, and the infamous photos of Yoko Ono and John Lennon captured on the day that he was shot.
Gaumy is a French photographer that is best known as a provocateur. He has used his striking images to expose corruption in the penal system and documented the French healthcare system. Gaumy also spent time documenting female fighters during the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
Vivian Maier is an outlier on this list. Maier lived and worked as a nanny, only taking pictures in her spare time. In 2007, just two years before she died, a collector found her stash of undeveloped negatives and the rest is history. Maier’s ability to capture vibrant street scenes and people going about their daily lives has made her an inspirational stuff of legend. Some talents will not be denied!
McCurry is best known for his world famous portrait titled “Afghan Girl” from the 1985 cover of National Geographic. While that is his best known work, it is just one stunning image in a portfolio full of stunning images. With an eye for travel imagery and social issues, McCurry has won more than his fair share of awards including the The Royal Photographic Society’s Centenary Medal which recognizes a consistent and meaningful contribution to the art of photography.
This Hungarian war photographer, born Endre Friedmann, manage to photograph moments from 5 different wars. Where most photojournalists and photographers kept their distance from danger, he believed that if you were not close to your subject, you could not get a good shot. This meant that he would climb down into the trenches with soldiers, for example, which provided an intimacy that was never before captured.
After travelling around Europe, Asia, Africa and South America, for three years, Nelson compiled a truly remarkable collection called “Before they Pass Away” which documents over 35 indigenous tribes. This stunning work serves a snapshot in time, preserving a glimpse of traditional cultures before they got lost to the winds of modernization and climate change.
When it comes to photography heavyweights, Ansel Adams reigns supreme. Using creative techniques in his darkroom, his black and white landscapes achieve stunning contrast and remain a benchmark in the genre. Adams’ love of nature and desire for conservation and preservation shine through in each shot.
Mary Ellen Mark is known for her portrait work and her ability to document people living on the “fringes” of society. Her work has been featured in major publications like the The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone. Her artistic eye and skill have allowed her to convey the beauty, vulnerabilities, and strengths of all her subjects.
In no way is this an exhaustive list. Did your favorite photographers make the cut? Who did we miss that you think should be included?