Skip to main content
We no longer support Internet Explorer. Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience. Find out more.

16 famous photographers everyone should know

At one point or another, all photographers have been inspired by the work of someone who came before them. Learning about the history of photography, visiting a museum, getting lost in old photo books, and finding a role model are some of the most important things a photographer can do for their creative practice.

We asked a group of international photographers spanning all genres, from street to landscape, to tell us about some of the legends and icons who inspired them. Here are their responses.

James Van Der Zee (1886-1983)

Over more than half a century, James Van Der Zee photographed life in Harlem, New York, creating thousands of pictures of individuals from the community. He documented weddings, clubs, and funerals, and his portraits celebrated many of the artists, writers, and business people who helped shape the Harlem Renaissance.

“I was introduced to the photographs of James Van Der Zee during my undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,” the North Carolina-based artist, educator, and author Endia Beal recalls. “While taking an ‘Intro to Large Format Photography’ course (yes, I was shooting film then, and printing in a colour darkroom), my professor, Jeff Whetstone, showed us a slide of Van Der Zee’s photograph of Josephine Becton, titled At Home, 1934.

“I was mesmerized by the photograph. As one of the few Black students studying art at the university, it was the first time I saw a work of art that reflected my culture. Ms. Becton symbolised my grandmother, aunt, or cousin. At that moment, I knew the photographs I took could do the same.”

Portrait of Courtney by Endia Beal (@endiabeal on Instagram).

Walker Evans (1903-1975)

“The work of Walker Evans is a continued source of inspiration for me,” the Russian-American artist Anastasia Samoylova says. “When I got into photography, I learned so much about subject choice and composition by studying his images. He has been converted into this monolithic figure in the photography canon, but there is a multitude of discoveries about both him and his work waiting to be made. There are quite a few great books about Evans and his work, from a detailed and at times shocking biography by James Mellow to a wonderful recent study of his work by Svetlana Alpers, titled Walker Evans: Starting from Scratch.”

‘Movie Theater, Pahokee, Florida. 2018’ by Anastasia Samoylova (@anasamoylova on Instagram)

Gordon Parks (1912-2006)

Gordon Parks, the first Black staff photographer for Life magazine, created some of the most important pictures of the 20th century, spanning photojournalism, fashion, fine art, and beyond. Throughout the 1940s-60s, he laid bare the painful realities of segregation and racism in America, and he captured intimate portraits of the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.

“Four years ago, I picked up my camera for the first time,” the California-based photographer Amir Saadiq remembers. “As I watched microaggressions bloom into full flowers of hate, I knew I needed to do more, so I decided to document my community in Oakland to show the Black community’s beauty. I studied Gordon Parks’s work, and he provided me with the blueprint to show nuanced and often overlooked beauty while delivering a social critique of the conditions that subjugated marginalized communities.”

Throughout his career, Parks photographed celebrities and history-makers, and he also earned the trust of families and communities, including the family of Ella Watson, the woman working at the Farm Security Administration (FSA) who later served as his muse for the famous picture American Gothic. He reflected on inequality and injustice, and he also captured moments of joy, like those that took place within Watson’s home and church.

“One of many quotations from Parks that resonates with me today is, ‘You know, the camera is not meant just to show misery,’” Amir says. “Through Parks, I have learned to use my camera to combat false narratives often imparted upon the Black community. Gordon Parks was also an accomplished writer, composer, and director. He was a true renaissance man, often overlooked in the canon of photography.”

The American Dream, 2018 by Amir Saadiq (@oxymoron310 on Instagram)

Roy DeCarava (1919-2009)

“I came across the work of Roy DeCarava while in undergrad at Howard University and was immediately taken,” the photographer and multimedia artist Andrea Ellen Reed tells us. “The honesty with which he portrays his subjects, who were mainly people of colour, was what took me first. DeCarava shined a light on the everyday in a way that was unflinching and honest yet carefully composed and accessible. His subjects, when facing the camera, were often direct in their gaze, no matter their age.”

In the early 1950s, DeCarava made an indelible impression on the medium with his photographs of people and communities in Harlem, where he was born and raised. He photographed jazz stars like Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, and he collaborated with Langston Hughes on the book The Sweet Flypaper of Life. His printed photographs—if you get the chance to see them in person—are striking for their tonal range, running from deep shadows to soft and hazy greys.

“DeCarava’s use of form and space was poetic,” Andrea says. “In his book The Sound I Saw, you can feel the movement of the musicians dancing in the hall and the curve of a woman’s hips as her lover’s hands cup the sides of them—shown just slightly in the glimmer of a dark hallway. Seeing life shown the way that DeCarava photographed it is like magic to me because I often look at life that way. If we are paying attention, we can feel all the moments of life. Roy DeCarava’s work makes me pay attention.”

Juneteenth by Andrea Ellen Reed (@andreaellenreed on Instagram) for The New York Times

Diane Arbus (1923-1971)

During her lifetime and after her death, Diane Arbus became known for her willingness to tell stories on the margins and outskirts of society—without turning away or averting her eyes. Unlike many other street photographers of her time, she spent much of her time with the people she photographed, befriending them and learning about their lives.

“I am fascinated by photographers who challenge us and confront things we do not want to confront, so Diane Arbus is, of course, on my list,” the London-based photographer Manon Ouimet tells us. “She, like many of my favourite photographers, helped illuminate uncomfortable or unsavoury truths, bringing to light social issues within our communities.”

Manon looks up to Arbus, but she’s also created her own path, and in some ways, it’s one that diverges from Arbus’s. “My work was born from wanting to learn people’s stories and champion the beauty of every individual, but I also want to find new ways to use photography as a means to empower people and create social change,” she tells us. “I’m interested in the practice of the ‘therapeutic gaze,’ whereby the artistic process can take its participants on an emotional journey of self-discovery.”

Portrait from the series ‘Altered’ by Manon Ouimet (@manongraphy on Instagram)

Elliott Erwitt (1928-present)

“Even if you haven’t heard of Elliot Erwitt, I guarantee that you have seen his shots,” the street photographer Steve Reeves explains. “Over the last 70 years, he has captured some of the most iconic moments in history, including JFK’s funeral and Nixon confronting Khrushchev. He photographed Marilyn Monroe and Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazer.

“However, it’s his personal work that makes him one of my favourite photographers. For decades, he has wandered the streets with a small film camera and has managed to create a body of work that perfectly captures the human condition. His shots are invariably beautiful, but more than that, they are entertaining. You don’t have to like art or photography to appreciate the playfulness within his work.

“One of the things I love most about him is his unpretentiousness. He calls his shots ‘snaps’ and says some of his greatest shots were down to luck. If I were to recommend one book of Erwitt’s work, it would be Personal Exposures. I was very young when I first opened this book and, until then, had no idea what street photography was. The very first plate, Managua, Nicaragua, 1957, had me hooked.”

‘Builders and Dancers’ by Steve Reeves (@stevereevesdirector on Instagram)

Carleton Watkins (1829-1916)

“As a landscape artist, my work has been inspired by many historical photographers, but Carleton Watkins stands above all others,” the Idaho-based photographer Ansley West Rivers says. “Watkins grew up in New York and moved to California for the allure of the West in the mid-1800s.

“His photography took him all over Northern California and Oregon, but his focus and passion were for the landscape of Yosemite. Watkins’s rigorous practice for photographing landscapes required complete dedication. He would live in Yosemite for months working on the photographs, and he would spend all day making one photograph.”

For Ansley, Watkins’s legacy is a beautiful if complicated one. “Watkins loved the landscape of Northern California,” she tells us. “He used his photography to inspire others to fall in love as well, and his imagery inspired the conservation work needed to create Yosemite National Park. But the images also inspired Westward expansion and, sadly, the depletion of Western wilderness.

“As a mother and artist working in the landscape, I am aware of what a beautiful image is capable of destroying. Being a landscape photographer comes with the weight of the past and the dire needs of the future. I feel Carleton Watkins understood this, and that’s one reason his work still speaks so loudly for the natural world today. I highly recommend reading Carleton Watkins, Making the West American by Tyler Green if anyone is interested in learning more.”

Rio Grande River, Hot Springs Canyon, Big Bend National Park, Texas, 2018 by Ansley West Rivers (@ansleywestrivers on Instagram)

Bernd and Hilla Becher (1931–2007, 1934–2015)

“While I have many favourite photographers, I think Bernd and Hilla Becher have influenced my work the most,” the New York-based photographer Niv Rozenberg admits. “The Bechers spent over 40 years photographing disappearing industrial architecture in Europe and North America.

“Their unique ‘typology’ aesthetic of systematically studying and capturing a subject required dedication and patience, and they worked at a very different pace than most of today’s photographers. They photographed water towers, coal bunkers, gas tanks, factories, and more using highly technical aesthetics to examine the effect of industry on the environment and economy. The result of their massive body of work is breathtaking. I can spend hours looking at their prints, admiring all the little details as well as the groundbreaking style.

“Personally, I’m drawn to symmetrical and straight-on compositions like the ones I find in their work. Perhaps it’s a way for me to reorganise reality. By photographing similar architectural subjects, while looking at their slight differences, I find strength in the power of repetition and creating a new identity. I highly recommend looking at Bernd and Hilla Becher’s impressive body of work, whether online or in a book. Even better, see the original prints at a museum.”

Triptych from the series ‘Summit’ by Niv Rozenberg (@nivroz on Instagram)

Malick Sidibé (1935-2016)

Malick Sibide’s work has always been a point of reference for me in terms of photography in general and, more particularly, African photography,” the Montreal-based photographer Yannis Davy Guibinga, who was born and raised in Libreville, Gabon, explains. “He had an incredible ability to capture his community and the people around him in all of their authenticity and coolness. He also had a very keen eye for composition that I am endlessly inspired by.”

Sibide’s photographs captured young people in Mali in the 1960s-70s, shortly after the nation gained independence from French colonial rule, documenting the famous Saturday-night parties of the day and the unforgettable fashion and music that brought them to life. “Authenticity and coolness” is right; Sibide chased down moments of joy, freedom, and celebration. You’ve probably seen his 1963 photograph of a couple on the dance floor. It has a fitting name: Nuit de Noël, meaning Happy Club.

Photo by Yannis Davy Guibinga (@yannisdavy on Instagram). Model: @blackmoonshining. Styling: @margi_vandoren. Makeup: @makeupby_lyn.

Joel Meyerowitz (1938-present)

Joel Meyerowitz helped me to realise that you do not need to follow trends to tell your own story,” the California-based photographer Cooper Janusevskis tells us. “He noticed the importance and power of colour photography in the early ’60s, when most photographers were using black and white. His work is timeless and broad, yet each body of work feels as though it could be connected in the same storyline.

“My own interests in photography range from portraits, landscapes, street, and environmental documentation, all of which could be informed and inspired by Joel’s work. To learn more about his work, I would suggest following him on social media, and, if you can, seeing his work physically in a book or exhibition. Cape Light is a very famous book of his, but the book I always have on my table is Joel Meyerowitz: Where I Find Myself: A Lifetime Retrospective. This beautiful book includes legendary photographs made throughout his travels and combines various bodies of work in one.”

Photo by Cooper Janusevskis (@coopa_j on Instagram)

William Eggleston (1939-present)

William Eggleston, like a few of the artists in this roundup, was one of the first to embrace colour photography. “When I first saw his work, I was in awe,” the photographer Enda Burke remembers. “It transported me into an oversaturated, dreamlike world that was alien to my own daily life in the west of Ireland. It mesmerized me and marked me with a lasting love for colour photography.

“Eggleston began shooting colour in his home state of Tennessee in the ’60s. He meticulously captured the mundane with a poet’s eye. No subject matter, object, or prop was too ‘boring’ to capture. He treated everything equally, and he called his style of photography ‘shooting democratically.’ His philosophy inspired me to find beauty in the mundane.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, photographers who didn’t shoot in black and white were frowned upon and ostracized. To say Eggleston took a huge risk by shooting only in colour would be an understatement. However, he took colour photography, kicking and screaming, into the art world, and that’s the kind of bravery that every image-maker should strive for.

“Eggleston teaches us that we do not have to go on extravagant international trips to make compelling work, a lesson that took on new significance amid this pandemic. We are—all of us—stuck in our everyday lives, forced to embrace these quotidian moments.”

Dad Ironing Good by Enda Burke (@enda35mm on Instagram)

Luigi Ghirri (1943-1992)

“My favourite photographer is the Italian master Luigi Ghirri, whose book Kodachrome has been described as ‘an avant-garde manifesto for the medium of photography,’” Anna Malgina tells us. The book, first published by Ghirri in 1978, has drawn comparisons to the work of William Eggleston as well as the surrealist paintings of René Magritte, set in and around the artist’s home of Emilia-Romagna.

“For me, his photos are an example of a photographic miracle, and at the same time, they serve as proof that photography is Art,” Anna continues. “His book of lectures, The Complete Essays 1973–1991, also influenced my work. They inspired me to do in-depth research for my personal projects, and they encouraged me to activate my gaze in day-to-day life, allowing me to discover things that I had overlooked and never noticed.”

Self-Portrait by Anna Malgina (@annaamalgina on Instagram)

Ming Smith (1950s-present)

In 1972, Ming Smith became the first woman member of the Kamoinge Workshop, the influential Black photographs’ association once led by another photographer featured here, Roy DeCarava. She would remain a fixture of the photography world for four decades, and nearly half a century later, in 2020, she released her latest monograph, out now by Aperture.

“It is important to give the flowers to those who are still with us, and Ming Smith is one of those photographers,” the photographer and visual artist Laurent B. Chevalier tells us. “I am always tremendously inspired by the spirit that comes through her work, as well as the multifaceted approach she takes in creating her images.

“Crossing the spectrum of self-portraits, portraits, street, and landscape photography, she imbues her images with an element of herself across the board. She also manages, through her expert use of shadow, light, and texture, to present an interpretation of the intangible energy and beauty of the Black experience. Her images of the composer Sun Ra remain some of my favourites.”

A Nod To Ming (Brooklyn) by Laurent B. Chevalier (@chevaliercreative on Instagram)

Mmekutmfon “Mfon” Essien (1967-2001)

“Mfon Essien was global, a cosmopolitan Nigerian woman, a beloved resident of Baltimore and then New York City,” the documentary photographer Laylah Amatullah Barrayn says. “She was a photographer dedicated to the craft of making and printing photographs. Her generosity extended to acting as a muse for photographs made by her contemporaries in the 1990s in New York City. She understood both sides of the image as maker and sitter.

Essien passed away in 2001 at the age of 34, shortly before her latest body of work—a series of nude self-portraits, created following a radical mastectomy—was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. “We lost her too soon, but before she departed this plane, her last gift to us was the gift of self-love and self-acceptance through her self-portrait series, The Emperor’s New Clothes,” Laylah continues. “It was a powerful visual testimony of the power of the human spirit, a reminder that our beauty is divine and our strength is limitless.”

When Laylah founded a journal and book celebrating the work of African and Black diasporic women photographers, along with fellow photographer Adama Delphine Fawundu, she named the project MFON, in memory of Essien. She says, “Mfon embodied everything that we wanted to champion and preserve about our community of women photographers.”

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn (@laylahb on Instagram). Les Femmes Paying Respect to Mame Diarra Bousso, 2014, Prokhane, Senegal

Viviane Sassen (1972-present)

“When I started, I didn’t have a ‘favourite photographer,’” the photographer and conceptual artist Isaac West says. “I went through a few stages before finding my signature style, which is all about playing with colours, shapes, shadows, forms, and angles. But as I grew as an artist, people started to tell me that my work reminded them of the Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen.

“I didn’t know who she was at the time, so I took it upon myself to do some research on her. I read about her, studied her books, and watched documentaries on her. Finally, I saw the comparison, and it all made sense. She also plays with colours, shapes, shadows, forms, and angles. I fell in love with her as an artist, and she became my favourite photographer.” Viviane Sassen’s work often walks the line between fine art and fashion, much like Isaac’s.

“THE SEAT” by Isaac West (@isaacwest on Instagram). Model: YAS COUL

Andre D. Wagner (1986-present)

Andre D. Wagner is a very talented photographer—just amazing visuals,” the Houston-based photographer Chino Angles tells us. Based in New York, Wagner is known for capturing poetic scenes and chance encounters through the city’s bustling streets and neighbourhoods, painting an enduring yet modern portrait of American life. He also develops his own prints in his personal darkroom, transforming fleeting moments into timeless images. Plus, he created the key art for the 2019 film Queen & Slim, one of Chino’s favourite films.

“Wagner helped inspire my Invictus project, a collection of photos inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and its importance in America today,” Chino continues. “His style heavily influenced the route I went with capturing and editing those images, along with the American photographer Gordon Parks. I looked at work from both of these photographers and thought about how I could draw from them and use my style to showcase my perspective. Ultimately, Wagner’s work also inspired me to get into photojournalism and documentary work.”

Your brother’s keeper, from Invictus by Chino Angles (@chinoangles on Instagram)

About the contributor

Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.

Spotlight editor

As editor of Affinity Spotlight Melanie oversees the stories, interviews and tutorials published on the site. Outside of work she enjoys travelling, reading crime thrillers, Pilates and dabbling in a spot of oil painting. Get in touch with Melanie if you would like to contribute or be featured on Affinity Spotlight.