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American has a fantastic tradition of photography with iconic photographers capturing the essence of the country as it grew from its infancy in the late 18th Century into being a world superpower in the present day. Photography has played a key role in shaping the nation and the people’s idea of themselves.
From the early pictures that emerged from the frontiers of the West to the building of New York City, images of the Civil Rights Movement and the tragic attacks of 9/11, photography has helped to tell the story of America.
As one of the most famous photographers of the 20th Century this American did more than almost any other to help photography to be seen by the general public and galleries as a serious form of art, on a par with painting, sculpture and classical music.
He also had a passion for modern art, which he went to great lengths to promote through his New York based galleries where he was able to bring many of the avant garde artists from Europe to America to increase their exposure.
In his photograph entitled ‘Winter – Fifth Avenue’, taken in 1892, you can clearly see his passion for painting and art as he composes a beautiful shot of a carriage riding through the snow. The image is haunting and feels almost as though it was an impressionist painting.
His powerful photography aimed to capture the realistic essence of his subjects, a process that he called ‘straight photography’, showing that the camera could match the methods of the traditional artists of his day. His compositions were thought provoking and evocative, as one of his most well known photographs, The Steerage clearly shows. This bustling image, taken in 1907, shows a crowd of working class Americans on board a ferry ship and gives an honest glimpse into the life of the people of the time.
After graduating from the Clarence H White Photography School, Margaret Bourke-White briefly worked in industrial photography before quickly coming to the notice of Henry Luce who published Fortune, and in 1929 she was sent on assignment to the Soviet Union; and so began her globe trotting political and sociological photography.
During the Great Depression of the 1930’s she worked to capture the human suffering of the time and later, in World War II produced powerful photo essays about the chaos in Europe and at the end of the war, in 1945, she was with Patton’s Army as they liberated the concentration camps of Germany.
Following the war she continued her work, famously photography Gandhi in India, racial turmoil in South Africa and many other major world events.
She had a great eye for aesthetic details, was a truly independent, strong and courageous person that managed to document some of the most important moments in 20th Century history. Her photo of the “Father of India”, Mahatma Gandhi is the way most us picture Mahatma Gandhi in our minds. This photo was taken a few hours before he was assassinated.
Trained as both a sociologist and a photographer, Lewis Hine used his skills to fight for the rights of others. His hard work helped to put an end to abusive child labor practices and eventually led to the law in the USA being changed to increase the children’s protection.
Hine used his photography to educate the public about the conditions of others in their society, taking emotive and detailed documentary pictures he brought the plight of others into the light of public scrutiny.
In 1908 he worked for the National Child Labor Committee as their official photographer, a job that was extremely dangerous as he faced constant death threats from factory foremen, police and others who were profiting from the cruel child labor they employed.
During World War I Hine worked with the International Red Cross taking portraits of the soldiers, and following the war he was commissioned to document the construction of the Empire State Building, capturing the iconic picture of the workers sat high above the city on a cross beam. During his work photographing the construction he sat in a purpose built basket 1000 ft above the city!
Dorothea Lange was a passionate documentary photographer who sought to capture the true conditions in America. She became prominent for her hard hitting photography during the difficult times of the Great Depression of the 1930’s. She was a major inspiration for future generations of documentary photographers and did a lot to humanize the widespread suffering of people all over the USA. She was an adventurous, courageous and strong heart woman who did great work pioneering the new field of documentary photography, as can be seen in this photograph or her, sitting perched on a Ford motorcar.
One of her most famous photographs that still resonates with viewers today is entitled ‘Migrant Mother’ and shows a woman with children during the Depression-era. Her face is worn with worry and her children are hiding their faces over her shoulder. The picture speaks to the very real daily struggles that people were facing, especially in rural areas, as they were forced to migrate across the country in search of paid work.
As an early pioneer of the environmentalist movement and a passionate landscape photographer, Ansel Adams was extremely skilled at achieving what he called ‘pure’ photography, which meant capturing the full tonal range of an image. This was very difficult to manage with the equipment of the day but he was highly adept at it.
Ansel Adams photographed the beautiful wilderness of America, working for the National Parks Service, the Sierra Club and later going on to become one of the main advisors who helped to set up the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He was instrumental in founding the photography magazine, Aperture, and co-founded the famous Center for Creative Photography situated at the prestigious University of Arizona.
Near the end of his life, in 1980, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his lifelong services to the fields of environmentalism, photography and the arts.
American Photographers have helped to Shape the Modern World.
The pioneering individuals who helped to shape the modern world and inspired new generations of photographers have been very varied and worked in all kinds of fields, however all of them were dedicated to their art and were always ready to push the boundaries and conventions of their times. Studying past masters is a great way for contemporary photographers to learn about photography and find interesting new sources of inspiration.
Who is your favorite American photographer?