Top 10 Most Influential Nature Photographers of All Time
The history of landscape photography is only the newest passage in a long story of human obsession with the natural beauty around us. In the past century and a half, photographers of all kinds have sought to capture the world’s grand panoramas which speak to something more primal and emotional in each of us.
After the invention of and first experimentations with the photographic process, photographers began to branch out and focus on specific subjects and themes. Among these was the natural landscape itself—the forests and ranges of old Europe and the majesty of the American wilderness.
In entering this arena, however, these pioneers came into conflict with the traditional art world which looked down upon the speed and perceived technical simplicity of photography. The result was the rise of Pictorialism, where photographers used motion blur, darkroom techniques, and even paint itself to make photography imitate contemporary Impressionist art styles.
This uncertainty and imitation continued until the formation of Group f/64 by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Willard van Dyk in the early 1930s. Together, they used new composition and printing techniques to push the idea that photography could be an artform in and of itself, not merely hiding in the shadow of painting.
Once this was established, the medium experienced an explosion in styles and movements—most importantly, the introduction of color. With color, the true vibrance of the natural landscape could be captured, and with the advent of global air travel, the whole Earth began to come into focus.
Since then, each new photographer has sought to reveal a little more of the detail and wonder of the world’s wild places. Each has contributed to this grand canvas, but there are a few photographers who have managed to communicate with and capture this beauty in ways that firmly cement landscape photography as a form of high art.
William Henry Jackson: 1843-1942
Fittingly, given the complex relationship between early photography and painting, William Henry Jackson began his artistic career as a painter, depicting wagon trains, pueblos, and other western scenes.
As he began to shift towards photography, he was called upon to join the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871, the first American voyage into the Yellowstone country. There, he captured the first images of a more natural frontier of geysers, deep canyons, and endless forests. Jackson set many of the compositional standards for this kind of scenery and demonstrated the kind of impact landscape photography could have on the public.
Eliot Porter: 1901-1990
As Jackson introduced the world to the natural wonders of the West, Eliot Porter brought color into the great woodlands of the East. Using an early iteration of color film and some creative chemistry, he was able to extract vibrant hues out of the shadowy forests of New England.
Because of the density and closeness of his subject matter, Porter opted not to seek out grand panoramas and spaciousness, but instead delve into the rich textures and patterns of overlapping trunks and interwoven canopies. Though focusing on the hidden and secluded, he reminded other photographers that the real world was in fact one of color.
Ansel Adams: 1902-1984
Ansel Adams is one of the few names in photography known the world over. As already mentioned, he was responsible for changing how photographers and the public saw the craft—as a genre of fine art in its own right. He also helped develop the zone system, which brought a new level of precision and standardization to the way light was treated in the medium.
Adams is best known for his work in the Yosemite, creating clear and intensely detailed portraits of its glacial rock monoliths. He also spent a great deal of time in the Yellowstone region and the southwest, producing views of the Tetons and the tiny town of Hernandez we have all come to recognize. His ability to capture contrast and atmosphere have never been rivaled.
Brett Weston: 1911-1993
As opposed to the hyper-realism of Adams, Brett Weston, son of Adams’s colleague Edward Weston, introduced a level of abstraction which hadn’t been seen before in photography. His landscapes are composed of ordinary natural forms and phenomena, but arranged in such a way as to make the viewer doubt the scene could have existed on Earth.
Weston’s work is also notable for its mood. Skies are darkened unnaturally, producing an almost haunting atmosphere. His work in the deserts, coastal dunes, and forests of the western U.S. remind viewers that the natural world is a powerful and mysterious place that we all call our home, but which we may never truly understand.
Philip Hyde: 1921-2006
Philip Hyde was another pioneer of color photography who worked closely with the Sierra Club. While photography was already an established art form, his work proved that it could be a means of activism as well. His dozens of monographs on places from Denali to Puerto Rico helped spearhead conservation efforts of all sorts and get the public more involved in and passionate about saving its wild places.
Hyde’s style is as varied as the places he worked, creating images of panoramic vistas and more personal portraits of waterfalls, cliff faces, and autumn trees. In all of his work, a complete dedication to color is evident, the alpine greens and desert reds giving the land a light of its own.
Galen Rowell: 1940-2002
Galen Rowell also used his work to aid in conservation efforts. He worked with National Geographic to reveal a lesser-known side of the natural world, leaving roads and established trails behind to document rarely visited swaths of true wilderness.
Rowell’s work is marked by a love of alpinglow, the lighting effect created on mountaintops by the last rays of sunset. Many of his images feature high desolate peaks set aflame over placid lakes or dusky meadows. He even developed his own set of specialized filters to capture these high contrast scenes as they really appeared to adventurers daring enough to visit these secret places.
Charlie Waite: 1949-
Charlie Waite is noteworthy for breaking away from the classical rectangular format which defined landscape photography since its beginning. Using a Hasselblad, he bent the horizontal landscape into square 6x6 compositions which give a whole new perspective of the natural world.
His images often focus on single solitary objects—trees, houses, people—which are embedded in more uniform and patterned landscapes. This combination of the vertical and horizontal make the format choice work and provide a little of the same abstraction as Weston’s work.
Art Wolfe: 1951-
While many other influential landscape photographers were focused primarily on the geological and vegetal aspects of the natural world, Art Wolfe decided to focus on the inhabitants of these spaces. Bears, birds, and even local people figured heavily in his work, creating a more holistic view of nature which included its living denizens.
Wolfe’s portraits of nature are often overlaid with curious bears, galloping herds of elephants, and the faces of locals. This gives a more light-hearted feel to his work that reminds us that we all live together on this planet.
Andreas Gursky: 1955-
This inclusion of small bits of the human world in landscape photography was taken to the extreme by another photographer, Andreas Gursky. Gursky looked at the patterns of human life and habitation and saw the same order and repetition as in nature. Housing tenements, convenience stores, and even masses of people themselves were made to look like elements in a strange new landscape now emerging as humanity covered more and more of the Earth.
Gursky often presented his images as huge murals sometimes ten feet high. This forced perspective has the effect of making the viewer seem small, almost insignificant in the face of the regimented invasion of the natural world.
Peter Lik: 1959-
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum from Charlie Waite, Peter Lik is known for his superwide panoramas. These images are able to capture much of the size and space of the locations he photographs, usually only comprehensible in person.
To make the experience even more intense, Lik edits the color in his images to produce an almost neon palette. This visual impact and unique perspective seek to replicate the sensory experience of being in these places, bringing some of the natural world into the space of the gallery or museum.
Landscape photography seeks to capture forever much of what is already timeless, but much about the natural world is now changing, as well. The work of these and many other photographers is vital not only for its expression of beauty, but also for its ability to remind us of the importance of the natural world and our role as its custodians.
Aaron Reed Luxury Fine Art
While my name will never personally grace a list like this one, I am fortunate to share the same collector base with more than one artist noted above and have been inspired in one way or another by most of them. As an artist who also appreciates others work as well as my own, I can't help but be inspired by and to some degree influenced by those who came before you. I hope you have enjoyed this summary of the most influential nature photographers in history and that you continue to appreciate and seek out the worlds best nature and landscape photographers of today, yesterday and tomorrow.