The idea that photography is just “taking a picture of what’s in front of you” is one of the most frustrating misconceptions in the field. Experienced landscape photographers know that creating a true-to-their-vision image requires just as much stylistic judgment and artistic acumen as any other medium, whether it be watercolor, clay, or the written word. If you’re struggling to get a handle on your personal aesthetic, try researching the work of these all-time greats. The innovation and inspiration their work has contributed to the landscape just may spark the shoot of a lifetime.
The undisputed father of landscape photography, Ansel Adams spent the majority of his 82 years crafting images that transcend time and genre. Adams’ spectacular, haunting portrayals of the American West (particularly Yosemite National Park) have attained iconic status. More importantly to the craft and practice, he pioneered the Zone System of evaluating optimal exposure for black & white outdoor images. The exceptional clarity and scope that resulted from his experimentation has been a boon to generations of photographers afterward — as well as the environmental conservation movement that helped create the Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks with the first of what is now known as the Landscape as propaganda images.
In contrast to Adams’ dramatic vistas, Harvard-trained physician Eliot Porter chose to focus on the quiet beauty of close-up natural details and was the first to develop what we now call The Intimate Landscape. Porter was much quicker to adopt color technique into his work than other contemporaries, producing thousands of richly-hued prints that brought the full palette of nature’s glory to contemporary viewers. Perhaps the most evocative example of his work is the book The Place No One Knew, a poignant visual essay on Utah’s Glen Canyon before it was filled by the Lake Powell reservoir.
Much as Ansel Adams became the defining icon of black-and-white landscape photography, David Muench established color film as a medium fully capable of capturing stunning natural beauty. He established the now-common technique of using a prominent foreground element to draw the eye into a distant background, imbuing his images with an extraordinary depth. David is the son of Josef, one of the first landscape photographers to put Arizona on the map with his extensive work for Arizona Highways magazine, and whose son, Marc still carries on the family tradition now in its third generation.
More contemporary than the other figures on this list, Ketchum is working today as possibly the most significant conservationist in today’s photography landscape. Many of his images have been used to support and promote American environmental legislation, particularly his stunning portfolio of aerial shots that depict the grandeur — and fragility — of Alaska’s imperiled ecosystem. Robert’s aesthetic and sense of design belie the depth that his work brings to today’s conservation movement.
Combining a keen aesthetic eye with exemplary journalistic writing, Galen Rowell and his wife Barbara created a legacy that has influenced countless photographic genres from adventure shots to natural landscapes. With his climbing images Galen was the first of what we today think of as “adventure photographers”. Of particular interest is his skillful and innovative use of graduated neutral-density filters, which have subsequently become an indispensable tool in camera bags across the world.
Improve your craft and have an outdoors adventure with a Steinberg Photography workshop or photo tour led by landscape photographers Jim and Lori Steinberg. Photographers of all experience and skill levels welcome! Learn more by visiting the Steinberg Photography homepage.
A Steinberg Photography workshop or private teaching session is the perfect gift experience for the photographer on your gift list this year.