You Gotta Know These Photography Pioneers
The Technical Pioneers
- Louis Daguerre and Joseph Nicéphore Niépce functionally invented photography as we know it. Niépce created the process of heliography, which he used to create View from the Window at Le Gras, the oldest surviving photograph of a real-world scene. Daguerre, another pioneer, partnered with Niépce and the two developed the physautotype method, which used lavender oil. After Niépce’s death, Daguerre developed an even faster process, in which an iodized silver plate was exposed to light, treated with mercury fumes, and “fixed” with a solution of sodium thiosulfate; that process, daguerreotypy, bears his name.
- Eadweard Muybridge initially gained fame in the 1860s for his photographs of Yosemite Valley, published under the alias “Helios,” but is now likely more famous for helping Leland Stanford—the governor of California—settle an argument regarding whether a racehorse ever has all four feet off the ground during a gallop. Muybridge eventually did this to the satisfaction of the public with a series of tripwire-triggered cameras; the series of photos thus created was later exhibited in the form of a zoopraxiscope, an early motion-picture device Muybridge also invented. Muybridge also shot and killed his wife’s lover, Major Harry Larkyns. He was acquitted on the basis of justifiable homicide, and the trial was later dramatized in Philip Glass’s opera The Photographer.
- Auguste and Louis Lumière were brothers who invented an improved cinematograph, which made them very early pioneers in the film industry. However, they were also important in the history of still photography, as their autochrome process was the first widely used technique that produced color photographs.
- George Eastman’s invention of a dry-plate process improved the robustness of photographs, which he then built further on by developing a gelatin emulsion that was applied to paper, then removed and varnished with collodion after exposure. This film, which was carried in rolls, was easier to transport than plates and allowed for multiple exposures without fully reloading a camera. Eastman’s crowning achievement was the compact, handheld Kodak camera.
- Edwin Land initially made his name developing filters for polarizing light. He then developed the instant, self-developing film, which worked by squeezing the negative film against a positive sheet, then using a reagent to transfer and quickly develop the image. The first commercially viable instant camera was produced and sold in 1948 by Land’s Polaroid Corporation.
- Harold “Doc” Edgerton, a longtime member of the MIT faculty, gained the nickname “Papa Flash” for developing techniques to capture fast-moving events using synchronized multiflash photography, with the help of a previously-obscure piece of lab equipment called the stroboscope.
The Artistic Pioneers
- Matthew Brady studied under Samuel Morse, who popularized the daguerreotype in America, and became a portrait photographer in New York. When the Civil War broke out, Brady saw it as a potential source of memorabilia, and took photos at Bull Run in a mobile darkroom. His work expanded to hiring out crews of photographers to cover the entire war, essentially creating the practice of photojournalism. Brady himself took portrait photos of prominent figures of both sides.
- Margaret Bourke-White was hired by Henry Luce to work for Fortune magazine, but became known for her work for Life, including the magazine’s first cover. a picture of Fort Peck Dam. She and her future husband, the author Erskine Caldwell, produced the book You Have Seen Their Faces, a survey of sharecroppers in the South. Bourke-White was later a World War II correspondent, and her pictures of the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Erla broadcast the tragedy back to the U.S. She also interviewed and photographed Mohandas Gandhi before his assassination.
- The Farm Security Administration photographers during the Great Depression documented the plight of poor farmers. Dorothea Lange may have produced the single most enduring image among them, a portrait of Florence Owens Thompson staring worriedly into the middle distance as two of her children bury their faces in her neck, called Migrant Mother. Walker Evans, another FSA photographer, collaborated with writer James Agee on a study of three sharecropping families in Alabama, called Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Gordon Parks, whose photo of an FSA cleaning woman was both posed and titled in ironic homage to Grant Wood’s American Gothic, was a pioneering African-American photographer who later directed the film Shaft.
- Ansel Adams, like Muybridge, gained significant fame for his photographs of Yosemite National Park, including Moon and Half Dome. With Willard Van Dyke and Edward Weston, he founded Group f/64, named after the smallest common aperture setting of cameras at the time. He also developed a method to determine the optimum exposure for a negative, known as the Zone System, enabling him to create tremendous detail within small gradation of shade in black-and-white photography.
- Alfred Stieglitz pioneered the artistic style of photography and founded the journal Camera Work. After a fight over the importance of pictorialism with the National Arts Club, he founded the Photo-Secession movement. The husband of painter Georgia O’Keefe, Stieglitz also founded the Little Galleries of the Photo Secession at 291 Fifth Avenue, New York City, which became known as simply “291.”
- Edward Steichen, a member of the Photo-Secession movement, Steichen was heavily featured in Camera Work and helped Stieglitz found 291. Steichen later abandoned pictorial photography and worked for Vogue and Vanity Fair, where he produced some of the first fashion photographs. He later served as the director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, where he organized the exhibition The Family of Man.
- Man Ray worked with Marcel Duchamp on a series of readymades before taking up photography. His earliest works were darkroom experiments in exposure called “rayographs.” His later photographic work tended toward surrealism; perhaps the most prominent example is his Violon d’Ingres, a photograph of the model Kiki de Montparnasse with the f-holes from a violin superimposed on her back. With his assistant Lee Miller, Man Ray also rediscovered the technique of solarization.
- Henri Cartier-Bresson, who with Robert Capa and several others founded the cooperative Magnum Photos, was a master of candid photography who conceived of the goal of photography as the capture of the “decisive moment.” His most famous photograph, an encapsulation of his philosophy, shows a man leaping from a ladder over a puddle behind the Gare Saint-Lazare train station in Paris.
- Robert Mapplethorpe came to prominence thanks to his portraits of his longtime friend, the musician Patti Smith. He produced many celebrity portraits and still-life images of flowers, but is likely most famous for his homoerotic work depicting the BDSM subculture of 1970s New York. Shortly after his 1989 death from AIDS complications, his exhibition “The Perfect Moment” culminated in a 1990 obscenity trial in Cincinnati.
- Cindy Sherman made a series of Untitled Film Stills, consisting largely of self-portraits posed in the style a B-movie actress, which began a series of photos in which she modified popular photographic forms to respond to the stereotyping of women in the media. Her later series Fairy Tales and Disasters began including mannequins and prosthetic limbs, which she also used as the subject of her “Sex Pictures.”
- Andreas Gursky, whose work tends to feature high vantage points and scenes that produce horizontal bands of color, has taken some of the most expensive photographs ever sold. Among those are his 99 Cent II Diptychon, a shot of the shelves of a 99-cent store, and Rhein II, a photograph of the Rhine River with humans and buildings digitally edited out.
This article was contributed by NAQT member Dwight Kidder, author of The 99 Critical Shots in Quiz Bowl.