Great Black and White Film Photographers
Black and White film photography has a rich history. How better to learn than study the masters? In this chapter we take a look at some of the great black and white photographers. There are too many to list, and it would take volumes to identify them all. The photographers and photographs listed below are the ones that I really admire and have learned a great deal from.
There’s a short description of each of the photographers, what they shot with and what I believe make them stand out. To learn more about them and to see their work, use Google, since most of the images are copyrighted and cannot be reproduced here. At the very least, you may see some photographers listed that you haven’t heard of and can check out their work. No particular order was chosen, so don’t confuse order for preference. What better way is there to learn than to study from the masters?
W Eugene Smith
W Eugene Smith, born in 1918, started his professional life with Newsweek, Colliers, LIFE, The New York Times and other publications.
He really made his mark as a photojournalist in World War II, and was badly wounded on Okinawa. He later worked for Magnum and produced stunning images and photoessays. Smith died in 1978. W Eugene Smith was a supremely humanistic photographer.
Regarding cameras, from the research I did, Smith pretty much used what was available to him. When he had a difficult time with bills, he would pawn his cameras. When fresh money came it, he would buy whatever caught his eye. There are photos of Smith with lots of different cameras, primarily 35mm rangefinders, which are still popular for street photography today.
Why I Like W Eugene Smith
I like W Eugene Smith above all for the humanity expressed in his striking photographs. Much more than a photojournalist, his images range from maimed soldiers to innocent children and convey human joy and dignity to human suffering. Smith seemed to be a fearless photographer, as evidenced by the severe wounds he suffered in World War II.
Images such as The Walk to Paradise Garden and Country Doctor are sheer classics. The more I study Smith’s work, the more in awe I am.
Spanish Village (photo essay)
A Man of Mercy (photo essay)
Welsh Coal Miners
The Walk to Paradise Garden
Paul Strand, born in New York City in 1890, was one of the early Modernist photographers. Strand used an 8×10 view camera for the bulk of his work. Around 1920 he began using the camera politically with a progressive undertone. Eventually he gained interest in making films and worked for a considerable amount of time in cinematography. Married three times, Strand eventually settled in France, where he died in 1976.
Why I Like Paul Strand
I like Strand’s abstract work, and Wall Street is one of my all time favorite photographs. To me, it typifies a sense of cold, indifferent institutional power. Yes, Strand was a humanistic photographer with a progressive bent, but his images lack a little of the warmth and passion of W Eugene Smith, in my opinion. To me, his groundbreaking work was more in the abstract, taking simple structures such as stairways and fences, observing the leading lines, shadows and contrast, and producing incredible images.
Abstraction, Porch Shadows, Connecticut
Young Boy, Gondeville, Charente, France
Alfred Stieglitz was born wealthy in 1864 in Hoboken, New Jersey. Stieglitz was a self-taught photographer and owned a small business named the Photochrome Engraving Company, bought for him by his father. It’s well acknowledged that Stieglitz’s largest contribution is legitimizing photography as an art form. Stieglitz was a perfectionist in his work, and later married the artist Georgia O’Keefe.
An interesting fact is that Stieglitz was the first photographer to have his work displayed in a museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, in 1924. Stieglitz used 4×5 and 8×10 view cameras, common for their time. Alfred Stieglitz died in New York City in 1946.
Why I Like Alfred Stieglitz
I like Stieglitz because he was a pathfinder. Driven by a passion for photography, he helped move it from a practical backwater to a legitimate art form.
Winter, Fifth Avenue
The Last Joke, Bellagio
Edward Weston, born in Illinois 1886, was a groundbreaking photographer when it came to abstract shape and form of natural objects. Peppers, flowers, bananas, sea shells, nudes, Weston images are rich, contrasty and full ranged. Weston was incredibly prolific and spent that last years of his life supervising printing of his work.
Weston used a variety of cameras, including a 11 x 14 Graf Variable which is massive, an 8×10 view camera and a 4×5 Auto-Graflix. You can get a decent 4×5 Graflix for around three to four hundred dollars.
Weston was a prolific notebook keeper, called Daybooks. These have been published and Edward Weston, the Flame of Recognition is available at most libraries. Edward Weston died in 1958 in California.
Why I Like Edward Weston
Although Strand pioneered abstract work, Weston made it much more organic. Whenever I see a contemporary close up of a vegetable, fruit or abstract nude, I think of Weston. I also like Weston because he was a prolific writer.
Cabbage Leaf, 1931
Church Door, Hornitos, 1940
Diego Rivera, 1924
If there is ever an enigmatic photographer, it’s Vivian Maier, born in 1926. Working as a nanny the bulk of her life, Maier shot in the streets with a Rolliflex TLR on her days off, capturing people and places. Maier was unknown until 1978 when a man named John Maloof bought 30,000 of her photographs for four hundred dollars. Once published, Maier has become a street photography sensation, and for good reason. Her work was incredible.
As far as I know, Maier used a Rolliflex TLR, which is similar to the Yashica Mat 124G. Maier shot mainly on the streets of New York City and Chicago. Impoverished, Maier died in 2009 in relative obscurity.
Why I Like Vivian Maier
Vivian Maier was driven, shooting a hundred thousand rolls of medium format film. She shot constantly on her days off as a nanny. This to me is the hallmark of a true artist. I believe Vivian Maier shot in the streets not because she wanted to, but was compelled to by some inner force.
Since Vivian Maier was virtually unknown as a photographer, her photographs aren’t named as far as I can tell. The best data there is are dates for her photographs, and those can be sparse. On http://www.vivianmaier.com, there are several galleries to look through, all filled with great street photography.
Diane Arbus, born in 1923 in New York City, had a gift for capturing people on the fringe of society. You see an underlying sleaziness but vulnerability in her photographs of transvestites, aging glamor queens, strange children and circus freaks. Born into a wealthy family, Arbus took up photography when she and her husband started a photography business and were successful in the fashion world. Arbus later went her own way, shooting street photography.
Arbus used a Nikon 35mm then moved on to a Rolliflex TLR and a Mamiya TLR. Arbus was a prolific and received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1963. She continued taking assignments from Esquire and other magazines. Arbus committed suicide in 1971 and was 48 years old.
Why I Like Diane Arbus
There’s a deep sense of compelling prurience in Arbus’s work, but also a deep sense of humanity. Arbus is not making fun of her subjects, she’s acknowledging them as human beings. It’s hard to look away from an Arbus image. Remember the twins in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining? If you’ve seen Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey you can see where Kubrick got the idea from.
Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey. (This is commonly know as the “Arbus Twins”)
Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park
Lady on a Bus
Henri Cartier-Bresson was born in France in 1908, and like Stieglitz and Arbus, born into a wealthy family. Cartier-Bresson started out as a painter then was drawn to a photographic surrealist movement emerging in France. He was one of the founders of Magnum Photos, of which W Eugene Smith was associated with much later.
Cartier-Bresson shot with a Leica 35mm rangefinder with a 50mm lens, and not much more.
Why I Like Henri Cartier-Bresson
The first time I saw a Cartier-Bresson was at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The photograph was Hyeres, France, 1932. I stared at it for about fifteen minutes, wandered around the museum, then came back to it twice. It’s one of my all time favorite photographs, how the stairs spiral down to the man speeding on the bicycle. Cartier-Bresson is a master of instantaneous composition, and we as photographers can learn a great deal from him. Armed with a simple 35mm rangefinder and a 50mm lens, not much more is needed to produce great art. Translated to medium format, this is a TLR or SLR with an 80m lens. Henri Cartier-Bresson died in 2004 in France.
Hyères, France, 1932
Nehru Announces Gandhi’s Death
Sumatra, Indonesia, 1952
To Tell the Truth, New York, 1959
Robert Frank, best known for the book The Americans, was born in in Switzerland in 1924. He emigrated to the United States in 1947 where he shot fashion for Harpers Bazaar. During the many road trips Frank took he shot around 28,000 exposures. Frank used a Leica III rangefinder along with 35, 50, and 90mm lenses. From pre-teen Lolitas with dangling cigarettes from their lips to starlets at Hollywood movie premiers to working class lunch counters in Detroit, Robert Frank captured America and its diverse, arid everyday life.
Why I Like Robert Frank
There’s a rawness about Frank’s work, and an uncanny ability to capture cultural and economic diversity in a single image. Frank lacks the prurience of Diane Arbus and is more objective, which I believe give his images a wider appeal. Each Robert Frank image sends a message, and it’s not always good.
Butte, Montana, 1955
Parade, Hoboken, New Jersey 1955
Sagamore Cafeteria, NYC, 1954
Man Ray, born in South Philadelphia in 1890. He was driving photographic force behind the Dada and Surrealist movements in the early Twentieth Century. Ray started out as a commercial artist and a technical illustrator. Deeply involved in the emerging Data movement, Ray relocated to Paris where his real focus on photography began. Ray flip-flopped between painting and photography, as illustrated in this quote, “I paint what cannot be photographed, that which comes from the imagination or from dreams, or from an unconscious drive. I photograph the things that I do not wish to paint, the things which already have an existence.” Man Ray was also the inventor of the photographic technique “solarization”, which nowadays is a standard filter, although a bit dated. I’m not sure what Ray used, but I read somewhere he had a 4×5 rangefinder. Ray died in Paris in 1976.
Why I Like Man Ray
There’s a underlying sensualism and eroticism in Man Ray’s work that shines through in almost every one of his portraits. I admire the toggling between painting and photography which I believe are joined at the hip. Man Ray was always on the edge of art, and never really played it safe.
Selma Browner, 1940
Ev La Tour, 1930
Terrain vague 1929
The polar opposite of a street or abstract photographer, Ansel Adams, the premier American landscape photographer, was born in 1902. He is most well known for his landscapes of Yosemite National Park. An talented piano player since his youth, he broke away from music and turned to photography. For us as photographers, he greatest gift is the Zone System, which we briefly covered. Adams did not singularly develop the Zone System. Photographer Fred Archer, a contemporary and associate of Adams, co-invented the Zone System, which Adams went to pains to acknowledge. Adams died in California in 1984.
Ansel Adams also wrote for definitive references regarding his style of photography:
– Book 1 Camera & Lens
– Book 2 The Negative
– Book 3 The Print
– Book 4 Natural-light Photography
– Book 5 Artificial-light Photography
These books, packed with technical detail, are well worth studying.
Why I Like Ansel Adams
Aside from his stunning and master crafted black and white images of Yosemite, Adams helped photographers to truly visualize in image an black and white. Utilizing the Zone System, even partially, is a gift to black and white photographers world-wide. Photographers can learn volumes just by looking at one Adams print.
Aspens, Northern New Mexico
Rock Creek Canyon
Ice on Ellerly Lake
Mormon Temple, Manti, Utah
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
As medium format black and white photographers, we gratefully stand on the shoulders of these giants. Again, this is a microscopic list of great black and white photographers. Yes, some of them shot with 35mm and large format view cameras, but great is great and it’s more about the final image than equipment. I study the great black and white photographers all the time and intend to do so for the rest of my days.