America is a country with a lot of myths and pathos that tend to mask the reality of most people trying to get by in this diverse and dynamic place. An enormous country of over 300 million people living in varying geographic and socio-economic realities, there is a lot to capture about this complex place. Here are 10 photographers who captured the real America.
Walker Evans is most famous for his work in capturing life during the Great Depression on behalf of the Farm Security Administration. Because of his subject matter, much of Evans’ best work is quite startling. His subjects include abject children and their despairing patents, youths hardened prematurely by the realities of destitution, and tattered individuals waiting in endless lines to receive social benefits or food. Yet, these images were representative of the realities many faced during this period of struggle in American history. Evans’ photographs weren’t staged or gilded to make life appear more flattering than it was. He had the profound ability to present images in a historical manner, even though he was capturing his images in the present.
From today’s perspective it might sound strange, but there was a time when color photography was not viewed as a legitimate form of art within the medium. William Eggleston stands as a photographer that was instrumental in changing this perception. He captured life in the American South after WWII and beyond. Some of his iconic pieces include imagery of a freezer filled with instant meals, home interiors, supermarkets, diners, roads, pastel colored cars, and portraits of regular people. A man of few words, he liked to let his photos speak for themselves. His work is simple, yet strangely intimate and even breathtaking. Eggleston asserts that his work isn’t meant to be political, nor is he intending to seek out a particular subject matter. Instead, his images depict the hint of magic that exists in each passing moment of ordinary life.
Lee Friedlander captured life in America during the 60s and 70s. Most of his photographs were shot amidst urban landscapes like New York City, and this setting had a major impact on his work. In particular, he liked to depict the way that human society is reflected in its urban surroundings. Some of his most iconic photos feature faces on television screens or reflections in the glass windows of storefronts. Such images cause us to step back and see the concrete, technology-driven world we’ve created for ourselves in a new light. He also took famed black-and-white photographs of cultural icon, Madonna posing nude for Playboy. Friedlander also worked in film and other artistic mediums.
Diane Arbus was known for capturing the unseen, marginalized members of American society. Arbus began her career in fashion and marketing photography, but gradually turned to street photography in New York City. She photographed those who were considered ugly and unfit for the public eye. Some of her subjects included transgendered people, circus performers, nudists, and those with deformities and disabilities. Her work challenged our notions of the normal and surreal in such a way that causes us to question the accuracy of how we perceive ourselves. Arbus gained worldwide notoriety after her death in 1971. She was the first American photographer to have her works featured in the Venice Biennale.
Joel Sternfeld is another photographer that helped legitimize color photography as an artistic medium. One of his most famous photo collections, titled American Prospects, was released in 1987. Its aim was to contemplate the ideologies of freedom that Americans hold so dearly in comparison to their actual material realities. His work depicted people that were actually confined to certain values and visions for themselves, set against rural and suburban landscapes of the 70s and 80s. In this way, Sternfeld’s work offers a detached perspective of the daily goings-on of American life, which calls us to question its direction and purpose.
Stephen Shore is a self-taught photographer born in 1947. A pioneer in popularizing color photography, Shore centered his work around the mundaneness of American life. Shore’s photography even influenced the work of important photographers like Joel Sternfeld. One of his most famous series is called American Surfaces. It is an eclectic series that features portraits of people, food, homes and buildings of the 1970s. He also took many photos of American landscapes during trips he took across the country. His work calls us to reflect and think deeply about elements of daily life we might otherwise take for granted. Many even describe his work as meditative.
Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Alec Soth’s subject matter focuses on the Midwestern United States in more recent times. He cites Diane Arbus as one of his influences. Soth has also photographed the Niagara Falls and chronicled images of his 2,000-mile trip along the Mississippi River. Famous for his cinematic landscapes, his work is intimate, thought-provoking, and often carries a slight touch of something mystical. His photos highlight the diverse and often contradictory aspects of American life. In one of his more recent exhibitions, Broken Manual, Soth photographed a series of hermits depicted with an air of etherealness. Soth is lauded as one of the greatest photographers of this generation.
Born in 1902, Ansel Adams is one of the most well known American photographers. He is best known for his landscape images of the American west. In particular, his images of Yosemite National Park have risen to iconic status. His work is largely tied to his environmentalist beliefs. In this way, his photography seeks to extend the magnificence of America’s pristine natural landscapes to his audiences. Adams put a lot of emphasis into mastering and manipulating the technical details of his craft, in relation to light and exposure in particular. His black-and-white images of the wilderness are still widely distributed today. He also photographed Japanese internment camps as an act of protest against the injustices of war.
Gordon Parks is a celebrated African American photojournalist. Born into rural poverty in 1912, Parks worked as a waiter in a railroad dining car, where he became exposed to photography through the magazines on the train. From this experience, he decided to become a photographer. He bought his first camera at a pawnshop and he was a natural right from the start. Starting out as a fashion photographer, Parks went on to have an immense impact in documenting lives of African Americans in the century following the abolition of slavery, images that were important to the civil rights movement and beyond. He also worked in film, where he created the genre known as Blaxploitation, directing iconic films like Shaft.
Known as a muckraker, Jacob Riis was a Danish immigrant and social reformer that used photography to spread awareness about his cause. Best known for his series, How the Other Half Lives, Riis documented the conditions of abject poverty in New York City that existed simultaneously with the idea that America was a country whose streets are paved with gold. Most of the series focused on the lives of those living in cramped, run-down tenement apartments. He was largely able to do this with the help of the recent invention of flash photography. His work had an enormous impact. Public response resulted in reforming schools, demolishing the most rundown tenements, improved public waste management, and the eradication of many sweatshops.
By Lily Cichanowicz.
Lily is a writer, editor, and blogger. You can find out more about her work at lilycichanowicz.com.