Number four in the top photographers of the twentieth century.

Downtown Clouds. 

This is so hard. There are so many great artists that came of age in the previous century. There are the obvious ones like Alfred Steiglitz whose "Equivalents" really made photography of abstracts and enhanced landscapes into a respected subject matter. He was a ferocious champion of photography as art and introduced Americans to a host of great, European painters as well as a generation of American photographers to the the gallery scene. As much as I admire his work and his drive to legitimize art photography there are few images of his that really intrigue and move me. Maybe his wonderful image of O'Keefe's hands or the Flat Iron Building in a Snow Storm in NYC.  If you are curious about Alfred Steiglitz (who was married to famous painter, Georgia O'Keefe) you can get a great sampling of his critical and photographic work in this book:  Alfred Steiglitz: Photographs and Writings.

A whole generation of photographers seems to be obsessed with the work of Walker Evans but to my mind he seemed to be the first photographer to embrace the idea of having an art historic manifesto to accompany his black and white images. While he worked for early iteration of Fortune Magazine, and his black and white images of walls and old houses and depression era (largely unpopulated) street scenes have much art historical merit on some levels it reminds me of the atonal  and experimental music produced by 20th century music composer,  Karlheinz Stockhausen.  Heady stuff, intellectually, but practically speaking: unlistenable. Would I call is 'aloof'?  There is no single work by Walker Evans that comes into my head and my imagination even though I've seen his work over and over again. His most important work, in my estimation, is the work he did for the FSA during the depression. His portraits of tenant farmers and the unemployed from that era are iconic and powerful; it's his more cerebral, personal work that leaves me cold. He's an important fixture in the pantheon of 20th century photographers but you'll have to decide for yourself. This book is widely considered to be one of the best looks at Evans. :  Walker Evans: American Photographs: 75th Anniversary.

People who read the Visual Science Lab have been guessing all week that one of my five top photographers of the 20th century would be Elliott Erwitt. Not so. While I've enjoyed his work and collected his books over the years I really like the work the way I like the old Seinfeld show on TV. Every week you'd get some sort of wry insight into modern, urban culture. It's the same with Elliott Erwitt. There's tons and tons of wonderful, gracious, poignant and comedic work. Clever and well seen juxtapositions. But my sense is that it's all very good but not earth shattering. Elliott Erwitt is an ultimate practitioner with a depth of intelligence that, because of its relative paucity in general culture, is elevated in our estimation into a pantheon in which he just doesn't fit.  He is, without a doubt, a photographer's photographer but my sense is that his real genius is being able to spend the greater part of life having fun with his Leica, walking the streets and sharing his visual sense of humor. A wonderful contribution to our collective enjoyment of well done photography but not epochally breathtaking. Here are some of my favorite Erwitt books: Elliott Erwitt SnapsElliott Erwitt Paris, Elliott Erwitt Personal Exposures,  and Elliott Erwitt: On the BeachYou should at least own his thick but inexpensive book of Dog photos....Dog Dogs. It's a whopping ten bucks...and there's more good work in there than most photographers will get to in a lifetime.

One of my readers presumed that we had similar tastes and suggested that William Eggleston would be on my list. Nothing could be further from the truth. While a favorite of museum curators and gallery owners I can think of no 20th century work (other than Stephen Shore's) that leaves me with the feeling that I just saw ten episodes, back to back, of Masterpiece Theater's rendition of George Elliott's novel, Middlemarch. But not even the good episodes...  Our modern equivalent is probably Andreas Gursky....  OMG, COLOR !!!!!! And suburbia writ large....  Yawwwwwwn.
If you find you usually disagree with me vis-a-vis aesthetics you might want to embrace Eggleston.  William Eggleston's Guide might is as good a place as any...

So, who do I think is another one of the five important photographers that strode like a colossus over the world of 20th century photography?  Well, I think it would have to Josef Koudelka.  Don't know Koudelka? You should. His work has echoes of the images of HCB but with a hell of a lot more edge. His black and white book of Gypsies is the most powerful single book I have ever experienced. He shot close, intimate and powerful. While not as prolific (by a factor of thousands...) as People like Elliott Erwitt he is like the ultimate reduction.  The work is distilled down and made concentrated. And his backstory is an important one for a generation of soft and hazily committed photographers. Why? Because he lived this.  If you own five books of photographs by masters this should be one of them:  Gypsies (the collector's edition) This one is pricey.  Here's a version for the rest of us: Gypsies.  Here's a good sampler of his work from all over the world: Joseph Koudelka.  And here's one I'm just about to order for myself: Chaos.  It's a departure from his earlier work. Landscapes with a panoramic camera but with a very different approach to landscapes.... challenging but brilliant.

Joseph Koudelka is one of my favorite photographers of all time. But putting together a list of the top five, while a fun exercise, is also a silly undertaking. There's so much good work out there to discover. I have a "B+" list with nearly 100 photographers on it. Every one of them has shaped my generation's visions as photography makers. Everyone of them is an important part of the mix.  You don't see the foundations of a house but all the material you don't see is as important as the material you do...


  1. Totally agree with you about Eggleston; totally disagree about Erwitt, who deserves a place in anyone's pantheon.

    Also disagree about Steiglitz. I hope you don't leave out Andre Kertesz. Steiglitz and Kertesz were the two seminal photographers of the 20th century. Everything flowed from them.

  2. What about Ernst Haas? His color work was really important.

  3. Koudelka became famous as an anonymous source for the photos of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. Great pictures they were, as were the Gypsy pictures. However, his influence on photography as a whole has been minor. Personally, I include him in my list of favorite photographers but not in my list of greatest photographers. I have a lot of favorites when it comes to photography. Hell, I like my own pictures a lot but I'm not on my "greatest" list either.

  4. I like these posts on the work of other photographers. It helps me expand my collection and learn much more about the subject than I every can be surfing gear sites. I can't help wondering what you think of Yusuf Karsh? (As a British Canadian, I am a bit baffled by your distaste for Middlemarch - so perhaps I should check out Eggleston ;) )

    1. Peter, how did you ever wade completely through MiddleMarch? I only did it because my grade depended upon it. As to Eggleston, absolutely! If you found Middlemarch likeable you may really go in for the ephemeral nuances of Eggleston. If you, in a moment of satori, absolutely "get" Eggleston will you come back and explain his appeal to the rest of us?

    2. "Middlemarch?" Never saw it. I never read the book either although I was required to read some of Eliot's work in college. I hated her writing and refused to finish reading the assigned works. However, I do enjoy Eggleston and sorta "get" him in my own way (thus my inclusion of him in my own personal list of "greatest" photographers). But explaining his appeal would just be a justification of my own preferences and it would bore to tears anyone who doesn't care for him anyway, so....

  5. Picking out the best photographers ever is a very subjective enterprise. At the top of my list, I have Eugène Atget followed by monsieur Henri. And then, Robert Capa, Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange.

    They photographed what was important in their era. Their work is immense and their photographs still recognized the world over. Their photography wasn't about rocks and fruits.

    There was a golden era of photography just like there was a golden era for big bands music. It will never be the same.

  6. It's interesting that you should bring up Koudelka. I just browsed through his book, "Gypsies" (printed by the venerable Steidl press!) and was totally bowled over by the quiet, poignant photos of the Roma. I have to say, based on the 109 photographs in the book, that Koudelka will perhaps be one of my favorite photographers out there!

  7. I am fond of all the classics and I include Eggleston in that number. He was a person that made me really think about what color was doing in a photograph whether I liked his work or not (didn't at first).


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