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Photography Origins: From Yosef Karsh to Vivien Maier

What makes a photograph so iconic that it sticks to memory for years to come? What do famous photographers do differently that makes their work so special? What can you learn from these famous photographers to create artistic work that generates a ripple worldwide?

What does it take to create inspiring photography and art? Learn from these world’s famous photographers as we study their most renowned projects, philosophies, and techniques.

The study of the most famous photographers throughout history reveals that each had their own unique techniques and inspirations for creating revolutionary work. From their artistic expression to their interaction with their subjects and their perceptive application of light, we can borrow these concepts and infuse them in elevating our own artistic works.

Many high-profile photographers have made a name for themselves in various genres for their strikingly outstanding works. Being able to instantly identify the work of each of these creatives simply from their execution and artistic expression is a true testament to their pioneering individuality.

Yosef Karsh, Richard Avedon, Steve McCurry, Vivien Maier and Henri Cartier-Bresson are just a few of the world’s greatest photographers who have mastered the art of capturing truth and escapism, fantasy and reality, all within a single frame. Let us study some of their most famous works and the philosophy behind their inspirations.

Yousuf Karsh: Dramatic Lighting, Grandiose Poses and Strong Contrasts

A prominent portrait photographer of his time, Yousuf Karsh received great recognition for his influence on portrait. His exceptional lighting techniques, his appreciation for strong poses, and use of strong contrasts saw him work with renowned celebrities and politicians.

Bogart Black and White Portrait by Yousuf Karsh
Humphrey Bogart – by Yousuf Karsh

An Armenian Refugee, Yousuf moved to Quebec, Canada in 1923 to live with his uncle, George Nakash, who was a portrait photographer. Yousuf worked at his uncle’s studio as an assistant for several years before he sent him to Boston to apprentice with established Portrait Photographer, John H. Garo.

In Boston, he took art classes, taking a keen interest in the works of Rembrandt and Velasquez. These, perhaps, were the greatest inspirations behind his strong use of contrast, grandiose poses, and the application of dramatic lighting in creating deep shadows, bright highlights, and mysterious mid-tones.

Yousuf Karsh Photographic Portrait of Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill – by Yousuf Karsh

The legendary portrait of Winston Churchill is a perfect display of Yousuf’s skill. He brings out powerful authority in one composition, creating deep contrast by properly lighting the subject’s face, and hiding the peripherals behind blurring greys and dark shadows. Coupled with the contrasting white of Winston’s shirt, the focus is instantly drawn to his face, making for a remarkable portrait.

When it comes to posing, Karsh stages the subject to a pose that inspires confidence and authority in such a leader. With the subject turned slightly to the side, spotting a grandiose stance, and conveying character in the positioning of his hands, every detail in the photo is calculated and premeditated.

The works of Yousuf Karsh and his unmatched skill have since inspired a great number of present-day portrait photographers.

Browse and Buy Photobooks by Yousuf Karsh

Ansel Adams: Attention to Technical Skills, Minimalism, and Majesty 

Ansel Adams has left a mark in the photography industry for his reputable technical skills in landscape photography. Well known as an extraordinary nature photographer and environmentalist, Adams made great contributions as an ardent advocate for environmental conservation and pure photography.

Tetons by Ansel Adams, 1942 (National Parks Service/NARA)
Tetons by Ansel Adams, 1942 (National Parks Service/NARA)

Born in 1902 in California, Ansel developed a passion for photography at a young age, acquiring his first camera at the age of 12 while visiting the Yosemite National Park. This inspired his pursuit of this genre, even being hired by the United States Department of the Interior as a photographer for the national parks.

Ansel advocated for environmental conservation by creating inspiring nature photography that is a true depiction of reality. With the use of sharp focus and by exploring the full tonal range in photography, he was able to realize a new level of depth and clarity in his images. As such, he developed the Zone System, an exacting system for developing tonal range during exposure and printing, creating the perfect realistic render for a scene.

Ansel_Adams_Wilderness Black and White Landscape Photograph
California – by Ansel Adams

Adam’s most prominent photography pieces were minimalistic, massively printed in black and white on high-quality paper, and exhibited under excellent gallery lighting. The Zone System allowed him to generate high contrast black and white images with eleven tones of whites, blacks, and greys.

His technical skills were unsurpassed, evident in his precision, dramatic use of natural light, and attention to detail in creating perfect work.

Browse and Buy Photobooks by Ansel Adams

Tip: Decided to invest in photo prints? Display them with a picture light and show them off in all their glory.

Henri Cartier-Bresson: Composition and Timing

Henri Cartier-Bresson is the famous documentary photographer behind the philosophy of “The Decisive Moment”. This entails the ingenious composition of images at peak action when the content, light, line, and form all align immaculately to tell a complete story.


His impressive work came to define what we now think of as street photographing, and have greatly inspired a broad range of fields from wedding photography to photojournalism, capturing the action, emotion, and perfect composition in a single fleeting moment.

Paying no keen attention to sharp focus, his primary aim was to capture the authenticity and realness of a moment in time. This required exceptional timing and composition.

1933 Siviglia, Henri Cartier-Bresson Black and White Street Photo

Henri Cartier-Bresson was born in Paris in 1902, where he grew to support communism and adopted a Bohemian lifestyle despite his upper-class upbringing. He learned the value of composition and art forms as a student of fine art and painting. He later sought to capture life through the lens, developing a great passion for creating art on the move.

Robert Capa, a renowned photojournalist, had a major influence on the work of Henri earlier in his career. Robert inspired Henri to take up news photography over surrealism, marking his switch to documentary photography. He skilfully combined all the knowledge he had amassed on surrealism, art, and photojournalism to carve a place for himself as one of the best documentary journalists that ever existed.

Browse and Buy Photobooks by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Steve McCurry: Visual Storytelling

Steve McCurry has been telling stories through faces, capturing some of the world’s most memorable portraits in the wake of war, and sharing stories of undiscovered places. He gives importance to the individual picture, making sure that they can each stand out independently in their portrayal of the human spirit amidst natural disaster and chaos.

Steve McCurry India Street Photography

Born in 1950, Steve McCurry has carved a name for himself as a multi-award-winning photographer for his incredible contributions in the field of photojournalism. He studied Film and Cinematography at Pennsylvania State University, only later venturing into photography when working as a press photographer for the Penn State newspaper.

McCurry worked in India as a freelance photographer, and thereafter explored Northern Pakistan, crossing the border under disguise to capture the bombings that had taken place. This subsequently won him an award for Best Photographic Reporting from Abroad. He has since covered some of the world’s biggest wars and conflicts, putting his life at risk to capture images that have been featured in international newspapers and magazines.

One of his greatest works is the powerful image of the Afghan Girl, captured in Nasir Bagh refugee camp in 1984, which was cited by the National Geographic magazine as the ‘most recognised photograph’.

Steve McCurry focuses on showing the effects of war on people. As such, he seeks to capture the experience of conflict on a person’s expression, conveying the true reality of that unguarded moment and the human connection all in a single frame.

Steve McCurry Afghan Girl Photo

His portrait photography style uniquely features up-close images with the direct eye contact of his subjects, reinforcing their dignity and strength despite the surrounding conditions. The images have bold vibrant colours, with dark shadows and subtle skin tones.
The backgrounds of the images are slightly out of focus, drawing all the attention to the subject.

He positions the subject at the centre of the frame, using leading lines and the rule of thirds to create engaging compositions. McCurry also maximises the use of natural lighting in most of his shots. Consequently, he sets up his outdoor shoots in the morning and evenings to work with the most flattering light. He attributes his captivating photography to his commitment to understanding both the culture of the people and the situation at hand, creating compositions that traverse all borders and human differences.

Browse and Buy Photobooks by Steve McCurry

Vivian Maier: Urban Viewfinder

Vivian Maier has developed an unmatched reputation for her skills in street photography. Unknown until her death, Maier worked as a nanny but developed a passion for capturing ordinary people in the streets during her free time. Her works range from monochromatic shots and self-portraits in her earlier years, to colour images in her later years.

Vivian Maier, Self-Portrait, New York, 1954

Her interactions with her subjects are prominent in her works, with an empathetic bond in her subjects’ faces. Her compassionate interactions with children are evident, capturing the world at their eye level. Maier’s urban photography skilfully displays an understanding of the relationship between her subjects and the surrounding architecture.

She explored compositions with different points of view and clever use of light and shadow. Additionally, her unique compositions included surface reflections from mirrors, water, and windows. She certainly was not afraid to come closer to her subjects to get the perfect shot.

Vivian Maier Colour Photographs

Born in 1926 in New York, Maier spent her youth in France and only returned to America in 1951 to work as a nanny. Vivian Maier’s interest in photography sparked at a young age, having spent part of her early life in the United States living with Jeanne Bertrand, who was a sculptor and a professional portrait photographer. Her work was also inspired by famous photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Brassaï, whose exhibitions she often frequented.

Over 150,000 of Maier’s unprinted works were discovered during a public auction after her death in 2009.

Browse and Buy Photobooks by Vivan Maier

In Conclusion

Drawing inspiration from the various techniques and philosophies of these famous photographers, you can be inspired to develop, not just a recreation, but an original and unique concept that will inspire the world. Aim to achieve the same level of distinctiveness in your niche, exploring photography and art with an entirely new perspective.

Author’s Profile: Winny Okoth is a practicing Construction Project Manager and Interior Designer. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in Construction Project Management. Winny Okoth has a great passion for every form of design, as well as 3D visualisation skills for architectural and interior design.

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