In the extremely diverse world of photography, photographers are often confronted with the challenge of finding and developing their artistic vision. Whether it is black and white or color, the challenge is ever there.
As a result, many look for other famous photographers of the past and present for inspiration. Black and white photography is where all photography started. Black and white photos tend to remove all complications of composition, leaving the viewer to enjoy simple images. All the while, the photographer trains their eye to see key elements in the art of photography, light, and shadows.
We will compile a list of all the black and white photographers of both today as well as the past. Hoping that these black and white photos reinstate the spark in order to capture beautiful images.
Best Black and White Photographers from the Past
Here are some of the most prominent photographers who mastered the art of black and white photography.
1. Ansel Adams
“A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed”.
Ansel is known for his unique black and white compositions of nature that are filled with raw emotion and feeling. His works of nature are world-renowned and are categorized to be as fine art for the quality of his black and white photos.
In the images he created, such as those seen in his book ‘National Parks: Photographs from America’s Wild Places‘, Ansel uses an interplay between light and shadows in order to paint the epic scenery in the photo. Therefore, giving the photos a true sense of scale, leaving the viewer to simply marvel at the sublime.
2. Henri Cartier Bresson
“Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera”.
A master street photographer, he’s known to have coined the term ‘the decisive moment’. Great photos tend to have moments that catapult them into the world of fine art. Once captured, alongside other important compositional elements such as the use of light and subject and their relationship to the background, together, make great black and white photos. Such as those seen in Henri Cartier Bresson’s book, ‘The Modern Century‘.
Henri Cartier Bresson has become larger than life through his prolific body of work that he left behind. Most notably, the ‘Place de l’Europe Gare Saint Lazare’ black and white photo, which is one of his most recognizable.
Henri Cartier Bresson teaches all photographers a lesson in taking pictures. He claims that one must immerse him/herself in their environment, and allow the image to simply happen, naturally and without force.
Bresson’s black and white photos are amongst the most respected works of fine art photography in the entire photography medium.
3. Robert Capa
“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”
Hungarian-born Robert Capa’s documentary photography of the invasion of D-Day remains to be single handedly some of the best images of our time. His photo, ‘Death of a Loyalist Soldier’, and the photo of a soldier during the famous assault on Omaha beach, stand to be one the most notable and most famous photographs of his.
Throughout his time, Capa worked entirely in black and white. Capturing photographs for not only the WWII Omaha beach invasion but also the Indochina war, the Spanish civil war, the second Sino-Japanese war, and the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
Capa succeeded in capturing black and white photos that are especially unique to him. Most notably, he tends to lean more on the essence of human expression to create impactful photography. Some of his photographs can be seen here in his book, ‘The Definitive Collection‘.
4. Dorothea Lange
“A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera”.
Dorothea Lange was an American photographer who began her career as a portrait photographer first but later transitioned into documentary photography. In her black and white photos, Dorothea focuses on the human element, using portraits to create meaningful documentary work and tell her story.
Women photographers were few and far between during the great depression era. It was around this time that Dorothea found her most influence and success due to the photos she captured in an attempt to document the misery of the middle class.
Dorothea has left a long lasting legacy, as she is known for the huge role she played in influencing the creation of documentary photography for many generations to come. Her book ‘A Life Beyond Limits‘, displays her incredible work.
One of her most notable black and white images was a portrait by the name of ‘Migrant Mother’. This photo has transcended cultural barriers, it speaks to all photographers for the sheer emotion that black and white photos possess.
5. Fan Ho
“What is the secret of the art of photography? It is experimenting, experimenting, and endless experimenting.”
A photographer, film director, and actor, Fan Ho was born in China in October 1931. In his early life, Fan Ho had been largely a self-taught photographer and would use a film camera to capture black and white photography that to this day, has not only transformed the world of photography but is also well regarded as incredible work of art. His book ‘Hong Kong Yesterday‘ shows such works of art.
His black and white photos focus on specific elements and themes of everyday life, using unique light and shadows to create such prolific candid photography.
In his photographs, he focused on certain subjects and certain locations, such as street vendors, children, slums, alleyways, and urban life in general. Fan Ho’s photo style is one of the most recognizable and emulated styles today.
6. Martine Franck
“What I like most about photography is precisely the moment that cannot be anticipated; one must be constantly on the alert, ready to acclaim the unexpected.”
A British-Belgian photographer, she was most known for her documentary and portrait photography. She often preferred black and white photography over color photography, focusing on key cultural subjects such as philosopher Michel Foucault and painter Marc Chagall, amongst many other photographers.
Her incredible work can be seen in the book, ‘Magna Brava: Magnum’s Women Photographers‘ which cements her eternal place in the world of photography.
7. Harold Feinstein
“I was drawn to street photography because there are pictures everywhere there, a woman holding a dog, a baby screaming to be put in a pram, kids playing punch ball, stores with huge barrels of pickled kosher pickles outside. I wanted to photograph life, and here it was.”
A New York City photographer, Harold Feinstein is widely respected for his masterful black and white photos of his birthplace, Coney Island, in New York.
For Harold, Coney Island became his favorite subject to photograph, describing it as a photographer’s paradise. It is there where he managed to compose his best black and white photos.
Starting photography at the age of 18, he instantly began to find success as a photographer. In his 30s, critics during the time regarded him as a master of his art and a pioneer in establishing the New York school of photography.
Black and White Photographers of Today
Over the years, technology has changed the world of photography. Black and white is no longer the only option due to new digital camera technology. We look at photographers of the past and analyze their work; instantly a burst of inspiration ensues.
In this day and age, black and white photography is just as prominent and just as important as ever.
8. Josef Koudelka
“What matters most to me is taking photographs; to continue taking them and not to repeat myself. To go further, to go as far as I can.”
A Czech-French photographer, Josef first became known for photographing the invasion of his home country in Prague in 1968. In his book ‘Exiles‘, the photograph of his outstretched hand on Wenceslas Square, signifying the beginning of the Prague invasion amongst many others, is his most famous black and white photo.
His prolific black and white photography garnered him immense attention, and he became a full-time member of Magnum photos in 1974. To this day, Josef continues to shoot in black and white while his photos have managed to capture the essence of the human spirit.
9. Matt Black
An American documentary photographer, Matt Black’s black and white photography focuses on issues relating to the environment, poverty, and migration.
His documentary work has garnered him numerous awards, such as the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism, the World Press Photo Award, etc.
Matt’s powerful book ‘American Geography‘, illustrates all his outstanding and very important works that will inevitably become a photography classic.
Matt’s use of black and white in his photos allows the viewer to direct their focus entirely on key elements of the composition, from important subjects to the way he uses light in capturing true emotion and feeling in his photographs.
10. Damon Baker
Having found such early success at the age of 18, Damon Baker embodies the modern art form through his unique approach to portraits and fashion photography.
Damon’s use of black and white photography allowed his images to become immensely recognizable, mainly for their unique and raw form in which he composes his subjects and the way he uses light to draw up unadulterated emotion.
His black and white portraits evoke a certain feeling that one can only feel when looking at images of the highest artistic form. As a result, he would go on to become a famous fashion photographer who worked and continues to work with a myriad of celebrities.
11. Sebastião Salgado
“I have a way to photograph. You work with space, you have a camera, you have a frame, and then a fraction of a second. It’s very instinctive. What you do is a fraction of a second, it is there and and it’s not there. But in this fraction of a second comes your past, comes your future, comes your relations with people, comes your ideology, comes your hate, comes your love – all together in this fraction of a second, it materializes here.”
Sebastião Salgado is a Brazilian social-documentary photographer who in his photos, predominantly focuses on two themes, workers in less developed nations and the environment.
He often photographs primarily in black and white, capturing various jaw-dropping images of multiple subjects and settings, from portraits of everyday workers to majestic landscapes of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest.
His photography has developed a human connection like no other, works such as his book called ‘GENESIS‘, which attempts to rediscover humanities connection with nature, have placed Sebastião at the top of the best black and white photographers of not just today but also of the past.
12. Elliott Erwitt
“Photography is an art of observation. It has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
Elliott Erwitt, a street photographer born in France, migrated to the US at the age of ten. His street photography style tended to focus on a combination of human and animal elements, mainly using the dog as the main subject in his photographs, as seen in his book, ‘Dogs‘.
All his black and white photos are very recognizable as they are very unique in composition and style. During his career, Elliott was invited to join the Magnum Photos team of photographers by the legendary founder Robert Capa.
In 2002, Elliott was awarded a Centenary Medal and an honorary fellowship from the Royal Photographic Society for his significant contributions to the art of photography.
Conclusion: What Can We Learn?
Black and white photography is the true essence of the entire craft. Everything began with black and white, it is where the greatest photographers of the past have put photography in the realm of fine arts.
Black and white photos teach us how to see differently and how to take a picture differently. It removes all distractions and noise and focuses on three things: the subject, light, and the background.
It changes our approach to photography of all types and genres. Simplicity seldom fails, and it is through it that one can achieve eternal works of art.
Whether we look at the annals of history or the books of today, black and white photography is just as prevalent now as it was then. It will not be dying anytime soon, it must stay, as our ever more complicated and advanced life needs to be photographed and documented in an original form.