If you want to learn about famous contemporary photographers, you’ve come to the right place. Because in this article, I will feature 15 most notable contemporary photographers who have captured moments that will be remembered for generations.
My desire is to preserve the sense of people’s lives, to endow them with the strength and beauty I see in them. I want the people in my pictures to stare back.
Over the past decades, the photographic medium has been redefined and shaped by new emerging technologies and new and innovative formats. Perhaps the most important change in relation to this was the appearance of Color Photography, which has a closer equivalent to reality itself. Nowadays, we have undergone another crucial change in creative photography with digital manipulation and digital development.
Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere.
Anton Ego, Ratatouille
Contemporary photographers often use these developments to present new perspectives on traditional subjects and compositions.
The word contemporary refers to everything that has occurred since the 1970s.
Therefore, Contemporary Photography is not a genre but a pinpoint in the history of Photography. Almost any photographer considered important in the last fifty years or so is usually titled a “Contemporary Photographer.” But there is a little bit more to it. Contemporary Photographers are usually related to the Fine Art world, and as the School of Düsseldorf and the Helsinki School suggested, having a solid statement as an artist has been key in the work of many Contemporary Photographers.
The following list gives you some examples that are considered important when speaking of a specific chapter in the History of Humanity, which results to be a broad one in the History of photography.
Beyond being known for rocketing sales and hitting some records in the world of Fine Art Photography, Gursky is a photographer that captures the modern world in an intriguing form. His pictures depict common places that don’t really exist.
Through digital manipulation, of course. He cleans common places to achieve a personal aesthetic or view of these places. He has stated that he does this because he thinks certain elements inside these common places simply bother him.
Not all of his pictures have the same humongous format and high point of view, but they are considered as part of his iconic style.
To be honest, at first, I didn’t get much of his work, but I have revisited his work from time to time, and I ended up developing a great fascination for him. I dare to say that when I watch his work. I feel like watching Pollock’s paintings but really understanding them. Maybe some people do understand Pollock, but personally, I don’t have the abstract sensitivity needed to understand it. I really like watching his paintings, but I don’t get them so much. On the other hand, Gursky’s work is something I have managed to understand pretty well.
You can look at his latest work called Amazon here. It is Brilliant.
This is the third time we have covered Leibovitz on the site; for a good reason, she is an important element in photography. Her portraits have become a true and valuable asset to the contemporary photography scene. From commercial work to her most intimate images, the richness that she has given to this period of time is a treasure.
If it wasn’t for her, Rolling Stone magazine would not be what it is. She started as a regular staff photographer for the magazine in 1970, at the very beginning of this amazing chapter titled “Contemporary” in the history of Photography. Just 3 years later, she was named the magazine’s Chief Photographer.
While working for Rolling Stone (a job that lasted for about 13 years), Leibovitz became more aware of the other magazines and learned that she could work for magazines and still create personal work. From the high commercial and massively elaborated work created for big clients like Disney, or her most intimate images, Annie Leibovitz is a reference in all her splendor.
Chris McCaw is an American photographer doing a very different type of photography. He ends up printing the final results with the platinum palladium process. Like many photographers, he started doing something quite different from what he is known for nowadays. He has a very unique technique for capturing long exposures of landscapes and skyscapes.
His work titled Sunburn is both an elegant and raw statement inside Contemporary Photography. With Sunburn, he’s been pushing the limits of analog photography. He uses homemade massive large format cameras for his photographs, and some of the long exposures have lasted even 24 hours.
McCaw also shoots directly into expired photography paper that solarizes during the exposure and eventually catches fire during the long exposure due to optics’ effect when magnifying sunlight. The result shows evidence of the sun trail when the exposure was set.
One thing that has bothered photography about its acceptance in the Fine Art world is that photographs can be reproduced n times with the negative or the digital file. That criticism is not an issue with Chris’s images because every image is completely unique.
Cindy Sherman is an American photographer best known for her conceptual portraits.
Her most iconic work, titled simply Untitled Film Stills, credited her as an important contemporary photographer in the world of art. The work consists of 69 images that portray herself in an enigmatic scene that appears to be a still from a movie. Her role as viewer and subject is evidence of her conscious postmodern artistic practice.
Her ability to personify different subjects from non-existent movies invites the viewer to build the context around the still they are watching.
TIME Magazine considered her Untitled Film Still # 21 as one of the 100 most influential images of all time because with her stills, she managed to manipulate viewers by recasting her own identity and showed that photography had room for people to be something they’re not, just like some selfies you can easily find abroad social media. A great example of pop art if you like.
Didier Massard produces very few images per year due to the magnificent optical manipulations he put in them. His work has been considered more “magical realism” painting than photography, thanks to their ethereal lighting and romantic sense of illusion.
Working like this gives his work a meticulous and slow-paced rhythm. He draws his subject in a previously shot picture just as he sees it in his mind and calls each image to be a “completion of an inner imaginary journey.”
You can watch his work here.
From her first self-portrait at the age of 13 to her death at the early age of 22, she produced over 800 images in which she unveiled her identity. Her photographs have been recognized for their unique vision and the vast range of innovative techniques. They have also been the subject of extensive critical study by several academic entities.
Her parents, George Woodman and Betty Woodman, both plastic artists, now manage her file. Of her more than 800 images, 120 have been exhibited or published. She obtained from them her first influences on art, which conceptualized her way of life and her way of thinking.
You can delight yourselves with her unique work here and here.
If you ever thought that certain images required the logistic of a movie scene, then the work of Gregory Crewdson will ring a bell to you. The work he’s been getting known for seems to be something plucked out from a science-fiction film. The common factor in his images’ subjects is their longing nature on their faces. They have even been defined as mere pawns in a larger theatre game constructed in his photographs.
Each of his photographs is an elaborated stage with complex theatrical lighting that seduces the viewers into a narrative that, for real it may look, it probably may not even exist.
Gregory Crewdson plans his photographs as if they were cinematographic productions in terms of staff and logistics. He is the creator of fiction that transcends daily life. In his own words, he likes to “create worlds in stillness and in suspension.” Click here to watch some amazing images of his.
We can’t deny the strong relationship between photography and painting; we also know that many photographers base their style and aesthetic on certain painters. Let’s say that some photographers get inspired by the way the light was treated by the great masters, especially the Dutch masters.
Hendrik Kerstens has been recognized for his absolutely beautiful portraits of her daughter Paula emulating a style that remembers pretty much the paintings of Vermeer and Rembrandt thanks to similar lighting and composition of those famous paintings.
Kersten gives a contemporary touch that seems valid in our modern times by adding certain props to Paula’s outfits. My favorite picture of Hendrik is one called Bag, which reminds me a lot of Het meisje met de parel from Vermeer, but frankly, I rather stick to Kersten’s piece, I just love it.
You can watch more of Kersten here.
Hiroshi Sugimoto has defined his own work as an “expression of time exposed” because his photographs serve as time capsules for a series of events in time. His works focus on the transience of life and other common topics in the art, like the conflicts around life and death.
His work can be easily marked as chapters since he works in series in an extremely disciplined way. Perhaps the earliest traceable series in his career could be Dioramas, In Praise of Shadows and Portraits, Conceptual Forms, and Mathematical Models. More recently, he started working in Theatres and Seascapes.
I think these last two are the ones I enjoyed the most, and the work goes around something like this. For Theaters, the expression of time redefines itself. He shoots an exposure that lasts the entire film duration, and at the end, the result depicts an empty white luminous screen standing in the middle of these spaces that were designed for people’s entertainment. From highly architectonic theaters to humble drive-in theaters, every space gets dimly lit by the film itself.
Seascapes is another series that fascinates me. It is curious that when I first saw U2’s album cover, No Line in the Horizon, I felt really moved by it, and I had never heard of Sugimoto until five years later.
He works with large format cameras, giving his works a quality that speaks the truth about time.
The work of Jeff Wall has helped define the so-called photo-conceptualism. His photographs are often carefully planned as a scene in a movie, with full control of all the details. The compositions from his pictures are always well thought out or borrowed from classic painters such as Édouard Manet.
Many of his images are pretty large transparencies placed in boxes of light. He has said that the idea of displaying images like this came to him during a bus trip between Spain and London after seeing a large commercial mounted on a lightbox at a bus stop.
The main subjects discussed in his images are social and political, such as urban violence, racism, poverty, and gender and class conflicts. His images tend to show scenes that are common and everyday oriented but are, in fact, staged. This is one great example of this.
There is another side of Jeff Wall, and the work that gladdens from digital manipulation, like A Sudden Gust of Wind, reminds of the famous painting from Hokusai.
Wolf began his career in 1994 as a photojournalist, spending eight years working in Hong Kong for the German magazine Stern. His images serve as realistic documents of architecture and the vernacular culture of megacities. As a foreigner, he found delight in the things local people weren’t interested in capturing.
When I stumble into consistency, I get this feeling of enjoyment that is hard for me to explain. I want to pinpoint some series from Michael Wolf here. The first is Transparent City and Architecture of Density, which centers on large buildings with repetitive and symmetric looks inside the cities of Asia. And the other one and a personal favorite since I’m a Social Photographer is Tokyo Compression, which shows people canned in the crowded subway systems of Tokyo.
The work of Michael Wolf is deeply important because of his realistic approach to society. Get yourself a complete day to browse inside his website for great images to think about.
From the so-called School of Boston, the work of Nan Goldin is something that couldn’t be outside this humble list. She is an American Artist that has been credited for renovating documentary photography through her visual narratives of the New York countercultural scene of the 70s and 80s. She involves deeply specific social circles and photographs them with a unique and intimate approach. She is specifically known for her work, which usually features LGBT-related themes and public figures.
Deeply and Personal, Candid and Raw, her images are a visual autobiography if you like of herself and her relation to those that have opened their trust to her. Influenced by the fashion photography of Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin, she saw in photography magazines an instructor introduced her to the work of art photographers such as Diane Arbus, Larry Clark, and August Sander.
She currently lives and works between New York, Paris, and London.
The importance of photography as a tool for denouncing violence was yet again revalidated with her self-portrait Nan One Month After Being Battered.
He went off from the standard that was cooking inside the School of Boston. His work became valuable for books of any kind. He studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and nowadays, he is based in New York City and teaches at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
His work has often been defined as a straddle between truth and fiction. He combines real people and real places, but not in a logical juxtaposition of correspondence. His images are often seen as theatrical and carefully constructed due to the careful arrangement of objects in each scene. Also, his work is cinematic, and like Cindy Sherman, his images suggest a broader context that is left to the viewer’s discretion.
According to MoMA:
When John Szarkowski, former director of MoMA’s Department of Photography, included the artist in the second iteration of the Museum’s New Photography exhibition series in 1986, he wrote, “Philip-Lorca diCorcia involves us in the issues of story and plot by constructing tableaus that withhold information that we expect to be given.” DiCorcia’s photographs succeed because of his will to show more and tell less.
His cinematic approach is so evident that his methodology has been compared sometimes to the massive productions of Gregory Crewdson. You can watch some of the great pieces of Philip-Lorca diCorcia here.
Known for being the youngest artist to ever have a complete solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Ryan McGinley has been making images that have honored him with the declaration of being “the most important photographer in America.”
His style has been transformed over time. He began documenting his close friends in real-life situations, which I find completely amazing since I recently began looking for more intimate photographs that matter to me and nobody else. Shooting towards oneself is sometimes skipped by many photographers seeking experiences far from home and friends.
Lately, Ryan McGinley has been creating previously envisioned situations that can be photographed with the same nature. He casts his subjects at rock ‘n’ roll festivals, art schools, and street castings in cities.
Related: Do you know the most expensive photograph in history?
My personal favorite, and has also been used as the cover for a book titled Photography After Frank is this one. Magnificent indeed. The image depicts a young girl in a gesture that makes me think immediately about Kerouac and all the beatniks of the time. You can watch more images from him here and here.
Living in exile from her homeland, Shirin Neshat is an important artist doing work that deals with issues of gender, identity, and politics in Muslim-ruled countries, as well as her relationship between her personal life and politics. She is also a filmmaker, and her movie Women without Men is a piece that must be watched.
You can watch some of her work in the hands of the Gladstone Gallery.
Hearing the artist’s statements is the best way to understand the purpose behind her photographs. Shirin Neshat explores the paradox of being an artist in exile.
All the work created since 1970 fits into the historical characterization of Contemporary, but of course, not all are considered relevant or meaningful in the art world. If you are pursuing Artistic Expressionism through photography, don’t forget about the meaning and the concept your work will have. Writing an Artist Statement is a great action to justify your work. And here you have some great examples; just click on the names and then go to Statement.
The following list of famous contemporary photographers gives you some examples that are considered important in the History of Photography.