Explore the works of ten ground-breaking photographers who documented—and influenced—the course of history around the world.
In recent years, we’ve seen photography change the world in real-time. Pictures of refugees in Europe, children separated from their parents at the US border, and protesters around the world have spread their struggles with the click of a button. In turn, those images have changed hearts and minds, inspiring concrete action, from donations to nonprofits to record voter turnouts.
Today, it’s easy to take the power of images for granted, but photographers have been pioneers since the invention of the camera. They’ve been scientists, artists, activists, and reformers. Before the days of the internet, many of them fought to get their pictures in the pages of leading magazines. They launched exhibitions, wrote essays, and published books. Here’s a look at just ten photographers who not only documented history, but helped shape it as well.
1. Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833)
In 1826, this French inventor set up a camera obscura to capture the view outside his window. Today, the resulting image, “Window at Le Gras,” is known as the first recorded photograph.
Initially, Niépce had trouble convincing his contemporaries at the Royal Society of London of the importance of his discovery. But he had a breakthrough in 1829 when he agreed to partner with Louis Daguerre, whose knowledge, skill, and ingenuity made photography easier and more accessible to the masses. Niépce passed away in 1833, without having the chance to witness the true magnitude of his invention.
For decades, the whereabouts of “Window at Le Gras” were unknown, until, in 1952, the historian and collector Helmut Gernsheim discovered it in storage. He later donated it to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, where it remains today.
2. Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952)
When Johnston opened the doors to her Washington, D.C. studio in 1894, she was the only female photographer in the city. It was the same year the writer Sarah Grand coined the term “new woman,” and in many ways, the photographer came to embody this idea of an ambitious, independent, and career-minded woman.
Three years later, she penned ”What a Woman Can Do With a Camera,” an influential article that appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal. Here, she advocated for the role of women in the industry and stressed the importance of earning a living as a modern woman. “Good work should command good prices,” she advised. “The wise woman will place a paying value upon her best efforts.”
In addition to her portraits of presidents, diplomats, and social reformers (including Susan B. Anthony), Johnston left behind a vast body of documentary and architectural work. She’s now remembered as a pioneer in the field, and beyond that, a champion for women in business.
3. Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)
From 1935-1939, this photographer worked for the Resettlement Administration, later called the Farm Security Administration. She and her colleagues traveled the country, bringing to light the traumas of poverty in rural America during the Great Depression. During her time in Nipomo, California, she created “Migrant Mother,” a portrait of a woman named Florence Owens Thompson.
The image prompted authorities to send 20,000 pounds of food to the encampment where Lange had photographed the 32-year-old mother and her children. Beyond that, it gave the public an intimate look at the realities of life for sharecroppers, migrant workers, and displaced people throughout the United States. Today, it is one of the most recognizable of the 160,000 historic FSA photographs.
In the 1940s, Lange went on to document the internment of Japanese American families during the Second World War. The government restricted her coverage, and the Army initially impounded hundreds of her photographs; however, they resurfaced decades later, serving as an enduring reminder of an injustice some would like to forget.
4. Ansel Adams (1902-1984)
This landscape photographer felt most at home in the rugged terrain of the Sierra Nevada, and his images proved instrumental in conserving the wilderness of the American West. Although he often worked eighteen-hour days, Adams devoted much of his energy to the protection of national parks, including his beloved Yosemite, where he’d first tested an old Kodak Brownie at the age of fourteen. He also campaigned for and contributed to the formation of new parks, like Kings Canyon National Park.
As part of the Sierra Club, Adams spoke out on behalf of endangered animals and threatened land, while his photographs captured the beauty and spiritual significance of nature in a way that could never be expressed in words alone. In 1980, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his role in defending the country’s wilderness areas. Today, the photographs he left behind serve as a powerful reminder of the importance of preserving this heritage.
5. Walker Evans (1903–1975)
Like Lange, this photographer played an invaluable role in covering the Great Depression for the RA/FSA. In 1936, the same year Lange photographed Thompson, Evans took a break from the Administration to join the writer James Agee in chronicling the lives of three tenant families in Alabama. Together, they published the seminal book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1941.
During a time of upheaval and loss, Evans shared the stories of people who had been largely overlooked and forgotten. Walker Evans: American Photographs, published as a monograph and exhibited at MoMA in 1938, proved to be one of the most influential works of the century.
At around the same time, Evans turned his attention to the New York subway system, using a Contax camera discreetly tucked beneath his winter coat to capture poetic vignettes of ordinary Americans as they went about their days. His legacy would later influence countless American documentary photographers, including Robert Frank and Diane Arbus.
6. Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971)
In 1936, this photographer documented construction on the Fort Peck Dam in Montana for the debut issue of Life magazine. In the following years, she’d ring in several other “firsts” in the industry: she was the first female war correspondent to be accredited by the U.S. armed forces and the first foreign photographer allowed unlimited access to the Soviet Union.
Bourke-White captured the horrors of war and conflict throughout Europe, starting with the invasion of Moscow in 1941 and ending with the liberation of concentration camps in 1945. She famously photographed Mohandas Gandhi at his spinning wheel, capturing his fortitude without speaking a word to him, as he was observing a day of silence.
Even after she developed Parkinson’s Disease, Bourke-White persisted with her work, documenting the Korean War, and later, publishing her autobiography Portrait of Myself. Perhaps she’s best described by the nickname she developed in her time at Life: “Maggie the Indestructible.”
7. Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002)
This Armenian-Candian photographer helped shape our memory of the Second World War through his timeless portraits of world leaders. Among Karsh’s most famous works is a 1941 portrait of Winston Churchill.
According to legend, he was permitted to take just one picture, and he got the shot after boldly plucking a cigar from the Prime Minister’s mouth. The move resulted in an unforgettable expression on Churchill’s face, and after all was said and done, the Prime Minister smiled, shook the photographer’s hand and said, “You can even make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed.” At that pivotal moment, the portrait became a symbol of Britain’s willpower in the fight against Hitler.
In addition, Karsh also photographed artists, scientists, and writers whose work defined the 20th century, including Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein, and Georgia O’Keefe. In all, he photographed twenty covers of Life. His final portrait was of then-President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary. When asked in 1982 why he photographed so many prominent leaders and thinkers, Karsh laughed: “I do it for my own immortality.”
8. Gordon Parks (1912-2006)
This prolific photojournalist’s career intersects with a few others on this list, as he too worked for both the FSA and Life (he was the magazine’s first African American staff photographer). He also created some of the most powerful photographs from the Civil Rights Movement.
In addition to creating intimate and powerful portraits of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, he ventured into the Jim Crow South in the 1950s, where he exposed the violent and painful realities of segregation. In American Gothic, he famously photographed an African American woman named Ella Watson, who worked at the FSA building in 1942.
Parks’s legacy is defined in part by his steadfast commitment to the truth. In 1961, for example, his editors at Life threatened cut portions of his photo essay about a family living in the Catacumba favela in Rio de Janeiro, fearing it was “too depressing” for the public. In response, Parks drafted up a resignation letter, pressuring the magazine to publish the story as he intended. His photographs changed the lives of that Brazilian family—just one month later, readers of the magazine had donated $30,000 to help.
Parks believed in the power of the camera to inspire empathy and bring about a future without hatred. “There is something about both of us that goes deeper than blood or black and white,” he wrote for Life in 1967. “It is our common search for a better life, a better world.”
9. Robert Capa (1913-1954)
In total, this Hungarian-born photojournalist documented five wars. In 1936, as Evans and Lange were covering the US, Capa was on the battlefield of the Spanish Civil War. It was here that he created The Falling Soldier; he would later recall the experience of being the trenches as he lifted his camera over his head and pressed the button.
With that single gesture, Capa captured the exact moment a loyalist soldier was hit by a bullet and killed. This was the same war in which the photographer Gerda Taro, Capa’s partner, companion, and lover, died—an event that marked him forever.
In 1937, Capa met the journalist and writer Ernest Hemingway, and the pair became friends.
Capa was embedded with US troops during the Second World War, and in June of 1944, he landed on Omaha Beach during the Allied invasion. He spent ninety minutes on the ground, as “bullets tore into the water around [him].” Eleven of his photographs from that day survived.
The photographer became an American citizen in 1946, and he won the Medal of Freedom in 1947. Seven years later, he was killed by a landmine while covering the Indochina War. At the age of forty, he was the first American correspondent to lose his life to the conflict. Today, his memory, and his photographs, stand as a testament to the true cost of war.
10. Sam Nzima (1934-2018)
This South African photojournalist got his start working for The World, a daily newspaper based out of Johannesburg, in 1968. Nine years later, his coverage of the Soweto uprising would be seen around the world.
On the morning of June 16th, 1976, some 20,000 black students took part in a protest against mandatory Afrikaans-language instruction in their schools. Clashes with police took a deadly turn as officers began shooting.
It was then that Nzima saw high school student Mbuyisa Makhubu running in terror. In his arms was the body of 13-year-old Hector Pieterson, who had been shot and killed. By his side was Hector’s older sister Antoinette Sithole. “It was a very high risk because this picture was taken under a shower of bullets,” Nzima would remember decades later. It was also against the law to photograph what the police were doing, so he hid the film in his sock so it wouldn’t be found.
Nzima’s photograph, titled Soweto Uprising, laid bare the devastating consequences of apartheid. The photographer received death threats in the wake of its publication, and the picture was banned in South Africa.
The regime placed Nzima on house arrest, but in the end, he prevailed. Because of his courage, the world no longer turned a blind eye to racial injustice in South Africa, and a sea change was set in motion. The photographer passed away last year at the age of 83.
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