Iconic Photographers and Inspiration

Ansel Adams photo by J. Malcolm Greany

Ansel Adams photo by J. Malcolm Greany

The other day, I posed this question to our Facebook group:  “What iconic photographers are you inspired by the most right now?”  This, along with the stipulation that we limit our answers to photography’s iconic Masters and leave out the currently popular gurus of the craft.

As of this writing, here are the results and some comments provided by our members:

#1 Ansel Adams

Well, this was a surprising winner to me but it makes sense; Adams’ standing as a true Master of photography is undeniable.  He took the medium to new heights with his iconic landscapes and the development of his Zone System.  He not only influenced more than one generation of photographers but the industry as a whole.  Some of his works became iconic themselves; recognizable and marketable to this day as art posters and wall calendar images.

“Ansel Adams was the first photographer I ever knew anything about,” commented Joseph Ferreira. “I grew up in the Bay Area, and my next door neighbor use to fix [Adams’] cameras when he was alive. My neighbor gave my parents an initialed print of Moon and Half Dome (which I hope to inherit), and I used to study that print and enjoy its beauty before I ever knew who Adams was.  I do feel silly sometimes when I’m asked who inspires me because Adams is always the popular choice.”

#2 Yousuf Karsh

Ok, now you’re talking my language.  Although I, and almost every other photographer I’ve ever known, revere Ansel Adams as a hero of the craft of photography in general, and landscapes in particular, he’s not the first one you think of when it comes to iconic portraiture.  That distinction might go to Yousuf Karsh.  Whether it be a prominent politician or celebrity, Karsh was able to deliver portraits of unparalleled distinction.  The poses, expressions, composition and lighting he brought to a portrait could make any subject appear to be the leading player in their field or the most relevant person of their era, even if they weren’t.

#3 Helmut Newton

Not surprising at all, the “bad boy” of his time is also a favorite with several people in the group.  Newton pushed the boundaries of what was considered good taste and propriety by featuring sexually charged images of strong women breaking all sorts of taboos in the opulent worlds they inhabited.  He changed the look of fashion advertising and I quite honestly think he legitimized a certain type of provocative imagery.  Sex sells, and Helmut Newton really understood that.  His commercial work was brilliant and artistic.

Other’s mentioned were David Bailey, Richard Avedon, Lewis Morley, Robert Capa, Edward Weston, Man Ray, and a host of others.

Sarah Moon and Ellen von Unwerth, both models turned photographer, were mentioned.

Said Jim Buckley, “I recall back when I first started being captivated by Sarah Moon’s soft focus, diffused, pastel images; often taken in fields with or without flowers way back in the 1970’s. So much so that it prompted me to buy the Cokin system with the various pastel, soft focus and diffusion filters… I really must dig them out and try them on digital.”

That’s inspiration.

June Salomon said of Robert Mapplethorpe, “[his] portraits of women are stunning. There was a book published in 1986 called, Some Women.  Whenever I look for inspiration I go there.”

Denise Birdsong credited Steven Meisel similarly, “I love how he shows women’s sexuality as their own, not just something for others to view.”

We each can definitely trace our approach to photography, and our personal aesthetic, back to the works and artists that resonated with us as we became aware of photography and began our relationship with it.  Going back every now and then to the iconic photographers and artists that got us excited about working with a camera is a good idea.  Sure, learning a new lighting or pixel-editing technique might be useful, but it’s the Masters of the art and craft of photography that literally make you want to drop everything, grab your camera, and make pictures.  And that’s what it’s all about.


Millie Jonsson

I certainly agree with Ansel Adams and Yousuf Karsh. I am looking at books in my office on both of them and they are an inspiration always. Another great photographer from the early years was Julia Margaret Cameron. I happened to see an exhibit of her work at the Tate Gallery in London and she has remained an inspiration to me ever since. She brought a sense of the Pre-Raphaelite art to photography and helped legitimize photography as art. There are so many more I could name!

Ed Verosky

I agree and also thought of Julia Margaret Cameron and her tableau work. Her story is fascinating, too. I believe she started on photography later in life, and used friends and family as models for her work.

Joel Altman

Andreas Feininger His book Feininger on Photography was my constant companian when I was young. He inspired my street photography. Even now I struggle to match his iconic vision.

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