Plugged In: Mastering photography from the masters

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Making visually appealing photographs is always a challenge, whether you’re taking family snapshots with a cellphone or using expensive, prograde cameras on a major fine-art project.

It’s not really the gear you use that makes the difference, but your ability to see images that capture the essence of a person, place or whatever else might attract your attention. That’s a skill that most of us must develop through experience.

However, learning solely from our personal successes and failures isn’t enough. That’s like each person trying to invent algebra on their own, without any help from textbooks and math teachers. Just as with high school students learning math, it’s a lot easier to develop good photo skills when guided by someone with more extensive knowledge.

With that in mind, here’s a partial list of some notable masters of photography who shaped modern photography and from whom we can all learn.

  • Ansel Adams: Although known primarily as the premier landscape photographer of the American West, Adams pioneered careful, scientific photographic technique as well the concept of mentally visualizing your desired final result before you make the exposure, then adjusting your camera to achieve that result in the final print.
  • Robert Adams: Another landscape photographer of the American West, Robert Adams tends to depict man’s doleful interaction with, and effect upon, the land, especially the urban landscapes of the West. A former English professor, he has written a number of highly regarded books that consider the philosophical aspects of photography.

  • Eugene Atget: A French photographer working between about 1890 and 1920, Atget’s photographs of Paris street scenes, taken with a bulky, tripod-mounted view camera, captured urban living at the end of the 19th century in a manner now considered to place him among the great masters of the medium, although he was overlooked and nearly forgotten for several decades.
  • Richard Avedon: Primarily known as a fashion photographer, Avedon imparted elegance to all of his photographs. He’s particularly known for “Dovima with Elephants,” a fabulous image.
  • Margaret Bourke-White: The classic, globe-trotting photojournalist who captured many historic images.
  • Matthew Brady: Noted U.S. Civil War photographer.
  • Bill Brandt: Prominent British photographer best known for his images of the gritty and difficult life of Britain’s lower classes around mid-20th century.
  • Wynn Bullock: A contemporary colleague of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston among the landscape photographers of the U.S. West, Bullock is best known for his delicate landscapes and nudes set among apparently innocent but foreboding forest scenes. I particularly like Bullock’s “Tide Pool.”
  • Harry Callahan: Callahan headed and inspired one of the most influential university photography programs in the U.S. during the mid-20th century. He is particularly known for photographs of his wife and of stark Chicago streets.
  • Robert Capa: Known as the quintessential combat photographer, Capa captured famous images of the D-Day landings at Normandy, in which he landed in the first wave at Omaha Beach, and of the earlier Spanish Civil War. He was one of the founders of the famous Magnum photojournalism cooperative. His luck ran out in 1954 in Vietnam.
  • Paul Caponigro: A prominent fine-art photographer of the late 20th century, Caponigro’s apparently realistic photographs are imbued with mystery.
  • Henri Cartier-Bresson: Another famous French photographer, Cartier-Bresson was among the first to use and popularize 35-mm cameras, which were then considered “miniature cameras” with negatives thought too small to be made into high-quality photo prints. He’s best known for images of “The Decisive Moment,” also the name of a classic book of his photographs taken in public places throughout the world.
  • Edward Curtis: Curtis is best known for his major life work project documenting North American Indians and their soon-to-vanish culture. His photography across the continent was accompanied by careful anthropological documentation.
  • David Douglas Duncan: A classic photojournalist, Duncan was famous for his graphic Korean War photographs of the U.S. 1st Marine Division fighting its way out of the massive encirclement at Chosen Reservoir. Duncan served as a Marine during World War II and understood the heroism and the horror of the front lines, as well as its fatigue, as only an accepted insider could do.
  • Harold Edgerton: Invented high-speed flash photography, initially as a scientific tool, and used that tool to produce startling and lovely photographs of everyday phenomena, such as splashing milk drops, that occur too quickly to be seen by the human eye.
  • William Eggleston: I candidly admit that I’m not particularly fond of Eggleston’s photos, which seem banal to me, but he’s widely considered to have pioneered the use of color photography as a fine-art medium, at a time when most sophisticates sneered at color.
  • Walker Evans: His photos of the Great Depression and the Deep South are considered to be among the greatest documentation of social upheaval. Evans’ photos are photojournalism and documentation that somehow became serious art along the way.
  • Andreas Feininger: Another widely known photojournalist whose urban photographs are now appreciated as art as well as documentaries.
  • Emmet Gowin: Among the first American photographers to focus on his own family, Gowin turned the small events and pleasures of domestic life into fine art.
  • Phillippe Halsman: A prominent portraitist and Life magazine photographer, Halsman made many images that were simultaneously serious and humorous.
  • Yousuf Karsh: You’ve probably seen a number of Karsh’s most famous portraits, including a glowering Winston Churchill taken while Churchill was prime minister of Britain while standing alone against Nazi Germany, as well as Karsh’s photograph of the elderly Einstein. Karsh, a Canadian, made many portraits considered to be among the best ever made.
  • Andre Kertesz: It’s difficult to describe Kertesz’s wide range of subjects and styles reflecting the intellectual ferment of the Bauhaus. It’s far better to enjoy his images.
  • Josef Koudelka: A highly regarded Czech photographer, Koudelka documented the cultural and economic breakdown of Eastern European societies under Communism before escaping to the West. Many of his photos feel almost haunted, perhaps reflecting life behind the Iron Curtain.

We haven’t even gotten to the “L’s.” Perhaps another day.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website,


1 Comment

Filed under photography, Plugged in

One response to “Plugged In: Mastering photography from the masters

  1. jack

    only one woman??? Imogene Cunningham.. when asked “which of your
    photographs is your favorite?” her reply……” the one I am going to take tomorrow”.

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