Plugged In: Focus on examples of the ma’S’ters

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Over the past several months we’ve focused on the technical skills that enable us to make technically good photos under less than ideal circumstances. It’s important, though, to recall that honing our knowledge and skills, while necessary, is simply the foundation that helps us capture those memorable photos.

One of the best ways to develop our “eye” for powerful, effective images is to study the work of prominent photographers who’ve made an impact on the art and craft of photography. Rather than simply copying someone else’s currently popular style, though, look at fairly large bodies of work by several people and select a few whose work strikes a chord in you.

Don’t try to copy whatever seems fashionable today. As with all fads, some other style or approach will be the next big thing in a year or two. Rather, select a few well-known photographers whose style, approach and craft directly appeal to you and familiarize yourself with their larger bodies of work. Then ask yourself what they’re trying to do. Did they largely accomplish their intent in a sustained body of work? Most crucially, is the final product worth the effort?

In early 2014 we began a discussion of individual photographers whose work is considered important to the development of the craft and art of photography, ending with people whose last name started with the letter “R.” That was a useful place to pause, because so many people crucial to the development of photography are found in the letters “S” and “W.”

I did not consciously emphasize American photographers, but they dominate the letter “S.” During the 1930s through the 1970s, the U.S. dominated world photography. Chicago hosted the New Bauhaus Institute of Design and its émigré faculty of great European photographers fleeing Hitler. New York City was the center of commercial photography, the Magnum photojournalism cooperative, Life Magazine and other world-spanning publications were a showcase for great photography, and of the Museum of Modern Art, one of the few major museums in the world to support an independent fine art photography department, was then headed by Edward Steichen.

Without further ado, here are my “S” favorites:

  • Sebastiao Selgado — Originally a labor economist, Selgado later became famous for his powerful images documenting the struggles of people eking out a bare existence on the lowest rungs of Third World economies. If you’re drawn to contemporary social documentary, Selgado’s an excellent starting point.
  • August Sander — Sander’s portraits of people at work in pre-Nazi Germany are riveting and ring true in a very fundamental way. It goes without saying that the Nazi propaganda machine did not appreciate unflinching honesty and compelled Sander to cease his project documenting German workers as they really were. Sadly, most of Sanders’s negatives were destroyed during the WWII bombings of Cologne and in a postwar house fire. I personally find Sander’s work very powerful and compelling.
  • David “Chim” Seymour — One of the founders of the famous Magnum photojournalism cooperative, Seymour was one of the most famous U.S. photographers of World War II, pioneering a quick, informal style that made best use of the compact 35-mm film cameras then coming into general use. Seymour was killed during the 1956 Suez conflict.
  • Ben Shahn was one of the more prominent photographers working for the U.S. government’s Farm Security Administration that documented the human suffering and tragedy during the depths of the Great Depression.
  • Art Sinsabaugh photographed the Midwest, particularly the urban landscapes of the Chicago area. A university photography teacher, Sinsabaugh is best known for his Chicago photos that show the urban landscape as it really is, warts and all.
  • Aaron Siskind pioneered a sort of documentary photography of New York and its inhabitants that combined straight documentation with a strong flavor of Abstract Expressionism, a distinctly American painting style dominant worldwide during the 1950s and 1960s. Siskind was a friend of many Abstract Expressionist painters, like Jackson Pollock and de Kooning. Their influence shows in Siskind’s work.
  • W. Eugene Smith — Smith was one of the most important photojournalists of the 20th Century. Initially hired out of high school by Newsweek and then by Life just before World War II, Smith documented the Marines in their drive across the Central Pacific, landing with the Marine assault waves at Saipan, Guam, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, where he was severely wounded. After the war, Smith pioneered the extended photojournalism essay. His famous photo essays include “Country Doctor,” humanitarian Albert Schweitzer on location in Africa and, most famously, an essay in 1972 of the terrible suffering and birth defects caused by massive mercury pollution at Minamata, Japan. While in Minamata, Smith was badly beaten by thugs hired by the Chisso Company. Smith never really recovered from the Minamata beating, dying in Tucson of a stroke several years later. Smith remains the master of the photojournalistic essay.
  • Edward Steichen — Steichen was a remarkable photographer who grew up in the Midwest. Brother-in-law to American poet and Lincoln biographer, Carl Sandburg, Steichen either invented or helped develop nearly every type of 20th Century photography, including fine art, advertising, portrait, Army WWI aerial reconnaissance, naval aviation photography in WWII, and, later, the blockbuster photography exhibit, the 1955 “The Family of Man,” orchestrated by him as head of the photo department at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The Redoubt Reporter’s Sept. 3, 2014, edition took an in-depth look at Steichen. You can find that earlier article online.
  • Alfred Stieglitz was Steichen’s mentor and later partner in pioneering photo magazines and in the famous photo secession and 291 galleries that introduced modern art to early 20th Century America. Modern American photography essentially began with Stieglitz, who taught a generation of photographers, including Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, to see clearly and strongly, without the pretense of “artiness.” In the process, Stieglitz produced some of the first photographs based on a modern artistic sense. Stieglitz was married for decades to famous American painter Georgia O’Keefe.
  • Paul Strand — By 1915, Strand was producing powerful “straight” images that depicted the world as it really was but that simultaneously stood out as artistically powerful. Strand made good use of stark lines and other abstract elements in his portraits and other documentary photos. Strand worked into the 1970s and remains one of the most important influences on serious fine art photographers who prefer “straight” photography rather than manipulated images.
  • Josef Sudek — Sudek was a Czech photographer sometimes called the “Poet of Prague.” Despite personal danger, Sudek documented the urban landscapes around Prague through great sweeps of history, including the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, World War I, the 1938 Nazi dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, World War II, Communism and the Iron Curtain, and finally the 1968 Prague Spring democratic uprising and the Soviet Union’s brutal suppression of that democratic movement. Sudek became known in the West only toward the end of his life, when John Banville smuggled Sudek’s negatives across the Cold War Iron Curtain.
  • Hiroshi Sugimoto — Sugimoto is currently Japan’s most prominent fine art photographer, best known for his seascapes and very lengthy time exposures in which people are not recorded as part of the image.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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