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Photography like any art, should not be practiced in an echo chamber. In order to become better at your craft you need to see what other artists are doing. This is how people grow and hone their specific skill set. Trying to emulate famous photographers work is not stealing, its merely a practice of your skill. The act of creating something new and unique comes out of this practice. Here are 10 famous photographers that I hope you can get some creative inspiration from.
1. Annie Leibovitz
Annie Leibovitz is a very famous photographer. She began her career shooting for Rolling Stone magazine, working there for 10 years before moving on to other ventures. She shoots for many publications but does a majority of her work for Vanity Fair. If you were to pick up a current issue of Vanity Fair magazine she would probably have shot some of the images in the magazine. Leibovitz has photographed almost every celebrity imaginable and what really sets her apart from other photographers is her lighting style. She uses a very distinct lighting setup which delivers a muted almost painterly image. Her photographs are very recognizable if you have studies her work even for a short period of time. Consistency in your photographic style is a great skill to attain because it means people can easily recognize your work and you will get hired more.
If you want to emulate Annie Leibovitz, you must become a master in studio lighting. Although studio lighting can be a bit scary at first, when done well the reward is a beautifully crafted image. Using special lighting isn’t always expensive either. You can purchase amazing off brand speed lights from amazon for about a quarter of what you would pay for name brand ones. After that its just a matter of getting comfortable with your gear and practicing often.
A typical portrait by Annie Lebovitz has muted colors and lots of props.
2. Gregory Crewdson
This man’s work is literally huge. Think of the most extravagant photograph that could ever be constructed and Gregory Crewdson has done it. Gregory Crewdson has become a famous photographer for this exact reason. He spends thousands and even millions of dollars to create a single photograph. Imagine the set of a major motion picture being used for one single image. Gregory began experimenting with these large-scale sets in college and just keep making them more extravagant. He utilizes everything from busted fire hydrants to manually fogging up whole sets to achieve this look. He uses a large format camera to capture all the depth that is going on in each scene and then makes huge prints. I have been told that the only way to grasp the depth and detail of his photographs is to see them in person.
The idea of setting up scenes is very interesting and one that could be experimented with at great length. You don’t have to invest a lot of money or have many tools to create something amazing. I recommend starting off by recreating some of Gregory’s shots and then try some of your own ideas. This would be another great place to implement the use of speed lights.
Crewdson uses theatrics and cinematic tools to accomplish his complex photographs.
3. Richard Avedon
Richard Avedon was a portrait and fashion photographer from New York. He became a famous photographer by shooting for many publications and photographed an array of famous people. But the work that I want to point out is a body of photographs entitled In The American West. Richard traveled across the country photographing everyday people that he thought were interesting. He would put up a white sheet on the north side of a building for even lighting and a consistent background. His assistants would be constantly reloading his giant 8×10 camera while he interacted with the subjects. As he walked around he would snap a photo getting incredible expressions from the people standing in front of his camera. Similar to Crewdson’s work, Avedon printed these very large. The detail in each image is breathtaking.
While some regarded this work as poking fun at blue collar workers, I think that it sheds a beautiful light on the professions these people had. It offered viewers in galleries and insight into work that they were not accustomed to and put it right in front of their faces to experience. These images are also stunningly beautiful works of art. Avedon really took his time in choosing interesting and unique individuals to photograph. These pictures are very worth spending some time looking at.
By photographing people on the same background, Avedon puts his subjects on a level playing field.
4. Elliott Erwitt
Moving away from large format photography, Elliott Erwitt primarily shot on a 35mm camera. Erwitt was originally from France and immigrated to the United States to go to college. He worked as a photography assistant in the US army where he honed his skills. Elliott focused a lot of his attention on street photography and is one of the wittiest street photographers ever to grace the earth. His images are both deep and funny at the same time images. If you like street photography, Elliott Erwitt will blow you away!
This is a classic example of Erwitt’s comedic approach to photography.
5. Vivian Maier
Probably known as one of the most interesting photographers, Vivian Maier did not become a famous photographer until after her death. In 2007 John Maloof purchased a trunk of negatives and undeveloped film from an auction. Little did he know that the contents of this trunk would include thousands of images by a soon to be a well-known photographer named Vivian Maier. What we now know about Vivian is that she spent her life as a nanny. She mainly photographed on a twin lens 6×6 camera and brought it everywhere she went. The majority of her photographs were taken in Chicago and New York. She simply photographed everything that interested her when she walked down the streets.
Although she was known to be reclusive and weird, her photographs do not depict this side of her. Vivian’s images are bold showing strangers staring right into her camera. I can only imagine what people thought when they noticed a nanny pointing a camera at them on the streets of Chicago. But her constant photographing paid off and her images are very careful and beautiful. The most striking thing about her photographs is that they seem to be from another era. When you look at her work it looks like it could have been shot in the 30’s or 40’s, yet most of them were shot much later on. If you want to learn more about Vivian Maier I recommend watching a wonderful documentary made about her entitled Finding Vivian Maier.
Vivian Maier seemed to always be at the right place at the right time.
6. Daniel Kim
Daniel Kim is a wedding and portrait photographer. Although Daniel may not be known as a famous photographer yet, he is definitely a pro! He graduated with a fine art degree from Arizona State University and it shows in his commercial work. He is a mixed digital and film photographer and shoots medium format color film. Kim uses a style of photography that involves purposefully overexposing the film. Color film is more forgiving than a digital sensor. Therefore you can purposefully overexpose film within reason, and end up with beautiful results. Another interesting aspect of his work is that he develops and scans at home. By developing and scanning from his home studio it allows Daniel to control every aspect of this process. Over the years this has resulted in beautifully crafted images that are the exact tone and color that Kim is looking for.
If you shoot film I strongly recommend that you try this process out at least once. By changing your light meter to a different film speed than you are shooting you can trick your camera. So if you want to overexpose 400 ISO film set your camera to meter at 100 ISO. By doing this you will overexpose your film in the camera. You can also tell the lab who is developing for you that you want to push your film 1 or 2 stops. They will expose the film for a longer time and you will get similar results. If you get this right I promise the results are amazing.
By overexposing his film Kim creates a bright and airy look to his photographs.
7. Steve McCurry
Another famous photographer, Steve McCurry shot one of the most famous photographs in National Geographic history. McCurry’s career took off when he snuck into Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion. He managed to sneak rolls of film out of the country by sewing them into his clothes and the images were made famous by the New York Times and Time magazine. His most famous photograph is entitled “Afghan Girl,” is a simple portrait of a young girl. It is hard to describe how incredible the photograph is but there is just something so captivating about it. It captured the worlds attention and has been one of the most famous pictures to ever grace to cover of National Geographic. He tried to replicate the photo by photographing the same girl years later but it did not have the same effect. Steve McCurry is still working as a photographer and has spent a lot of his career overseas capturing stunning portraits of common people.
McCurry created a hauntingly beautiful image here.
8. Robert Frank
Robert Frank was a Swiss-American photographer best known for his book entitles The Americans. Frank traveled across America by car in 1955 capturing the everyday lives of Americans. When his book finally got published and printed in America, it was met with criticism. Luckily for Frank, he had Jack Kerouac wright the introduction which gave the book some traction. Over the years the book became a beloved classic in the art world and most of the critics vanished. If you ever get a chance to look through The Americans, you will see how refreshing the view is from Franks camera. He gives an outsiders perspective that may not have been as powerful from a patriots point of view.
Robert Frank was aware of the social aspects of America in the 50’s.
9. Gary Winogrand
Winogrand was a street photographer who operated out of the Bronx, New York. He worked as a freelance photojournalist and an advertising photographer but he loved the street. He had an ingenious way of shooting where he would focus without looking through the camera. By guessing how far his subject was he would look at his lens and guess the focal point. He was very good at this an got great images time and time again. Winogrand was also known for shooting with a wide angle lens and putting it right in strangers faces to create dynamic shots. His work will live forever as some of the best street photography images ever created.
Winogrand was always aware of how people fit in spaces as well as how comedy can be found in every aspect of life.
10. Dorothea Lange
Dorothea was a documentary photographer and is best known for her work in the depression era. She worked for the Farm Security Administration documenting the lives of people during the early 1930’s and at this time captured her most famous photograph. The photograph entitled Migrant Mother depicts a mother with two young children living in a lean-to tent. She told Lange that they had been living off of frozen vegetables and birds they had killed in the fields. This is an iconic image and a striking one at that. Lange photographed people from all walks of life including people in Japanese internment camps.
Lange was able, to sum up, the Great Depression in a single image.
I hope that these photographers can provide inspiration and a jumping off point for your work. A theme that I see in all of these photographers is the ability to show the world things that they would not have seen otherwise. Photography is so important because it has the ability to that. It is a very important medium that the world relies on and shapes peoples ideas and understanding. Remember that the next time you take a picture and know that what you are doing is important.