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The Most Influential Photographers of the 20th Century

With the advent of digital cameras and smartphones, photography has become far more accessible to the average person. So it’s easy to forget that really good photography is truly an art, a form that requires serious skill and knowledge. It takes decades to develop this expertise and build a body of work that speaks to a photographer’s abilities. But a handful of artists around the world have done exactly that, leaving an everlasting impact on the world of photography through their enduring images and contributions to the field. Here are just a few of the most influential photographers of our time that everyone should know about. 

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henry Cartier-Bresson, The Var Department, Paris, 1932 Black & White Photograph, Magnum PhotosHenri Cartier-Bresson, The Var Department', Paris (1932), Magnum Photos

A master of street photography and the “father of photojournalism,” Henri Cartier-Bresson is arguably the most important name in modern photography. A French humanist photographer that excelled in capturing powerful, candid moments, Cartier-Bresson defined the “decisive moment” where people’s “physical and psychological elements” create a brief, perfect moment. He literally wrote the “Decisive Moment” book that is still considered a bible for today’s aspiring photographers.


Annie Leibovitz

Annie Leibrovitz, John Lennon & Yoko Ono, (1980), New York
Annie Leivovitz, 'John Lennon & Yoko Ono' (1980), New York City

We’d argue that it’s impossible to talk about late 20th and 21st-century photography without mentioning Annie Leibovitz. Considered the greatest American photographer of her generation, Leibovitz is famous for her insightful portraits for “Rolling Stone” magazine, where she photographed celebrities in bold colors and unusual poses that truly captured their essence. As well as numerous album and magazine covers to her name, Leibovitz was the first woman to exhibit at Washington DC’s National Portrait Gallery, and took the last official images of John Lennon the day he was assassinated.


Ren Hang

Ren Hang, Photograph 'Untitled' (2012), Taschen PublishingRen Hang, Untitled (2012), China

Despite his tragically short-lived career, Chinese photographer Ren Hang made an indelible mark on the world of photography. Uncomfortable in front of strangers, he instead chose to create nude portraits of his friends that offer insight and representation into Chinese sexuality. Despite his success—championed by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, Ren exhibited in Paris in 2014—Hang was arrested several times due to the erotic nature of his work and eventually died by suicide at age 29.


Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams Photograph 'The Tetons and the Snake River' (1942), Ansel Adams TrustAnsel Adams, Tetons and The Snake River (1942), Grand Teton National Park

Most famous for his captivating black-and-white images of California’s Yosemite National Park—you’ve probably seen his many images of El Capitan— Ansel Adams was one part photographer and one part passionate environmental activist. With his focus on rugged, rural landscapes, Adams is a pioneer of contemporary natural photography. Along with fellow photographer Fred Archer, he also developed the Zone System for determining optimal film exposure and development.


Helmut Newton

Helmut Newton, Photograph 'Thierry Mugler' (1998), Monaco, Helmut Newton EstateHelmut Newton, 'Thierry Mugler' (1998), Monaco, Helmut Newton Estate

German by birth and Australian by immigration, Helmut Newton was the darling of mainstream magazines in his heyday. The iconic photographer was known for his racy images inspired by boundary-pushing movements like Expressionism, Surrealism, and Film Noir. His critics might have derided his “unnecessarily risqué” images, but they were a staple of Vogue, Playboy, and many other publications.


Steve McCurry

Steve McCurry, Photograph 'Maimana', Afghanistan, 2012-2021 Steve McCurry
 Steve McCurry, 'Maimana, Afghanistan' (2012-2021)

World-renowned documentary photographer Steve McCurry is perhaps most famous for his green-eyed “Afghan Girl,” which was taken in a refugee camp in Pakistan and covered National Geographic in June 1985. Far fewer people realize, though, that McCurry tracked down Sharbat Gula 17 years later. McCurry’s ability to capture extraordinary moments of everyday people is what turned him into an award-winning journalist who’s received accolades like Magazine Photography of the Year and the Royal Photographic Society’s Centenary Medal.


Margaret Bourke-White

Margaret Bourke-White, Photograph 'DC-4 Flying over Manhattan' (1939), New YorkMargaret Bourke-White, 'DC-4 Flying over Manhattan' (1939)

A pioneering female photojournalist—she worked for LIFE magazine—Margaret Bourke-White was the first foreign photographer to capture Soviet industry in 1930. She went on to photograph the turmoil of World War Two, the German invasion of Moscow in 2041, and later, the Korean War. While covering the fight for Indian independence, Bourke-White also made the last portrait of Gandhi, mere hours before he was assassinated. Her fearlessness in capturing the reality of seismic world events created remarkable images that still have the power to shock and awe, decades after her death.


Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus, Susan Sontag & Son on a Bench' (1965) New York CityDiane Arbus, Susan Sontag & Her Son on a Bench' (1965), New York City, The Estate of Diane Arbus

A champion of marginalized groups, Diane Arbus ensured her photography focused on representation. Her work had a rare psychological intensity that made it impossible to ignore her images. During her lifetime, Arbus achieved some fame, publishing in Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar, winning a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, and exhibiting at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). After Arbus’ death in 1972, her oeuvre went through a renaissance as she became the first photographer to be included at the Venice Biennale, and the most successful exhibition to date at MOMA.


Yousuf Karsh

Yousuf Karsh, Photograph 'Winston Churchill' (1941), The Estate of Yousuf KarshYousuf Karsh, 'Winston Churchill', 1941, The estate of Yousuf Karsh

A skilled portrait photographer, Yousuf Karsh brought an unmatched humanity to his subjects, allowing a rare glimpse at the more vulnerable side of world leaders, royalty, celebrities, and artists. Born in 1908 under the Ottoman Empire, Karsh survived the Armenian genocide and began his photography career in Ottowa, Canada. His most enduring image, “The Roaring Lion” depicts Winston Churchill moments after he delivered a speech about World War Two to the Canadian Parliament and captures Churchill’s churlishness at having his cigar removed for the portrait. It was this larger-than-life image that catapulted Karsh to fame.


Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange Photograph 'Family leave their home in search of a better like due to a serious long-term drought int he region' (1938), Pittsburg Oklahoma, Getty Images
Dorothea Lange, 'Family Leaving their home in search of a better life due to a serious long-term drought in the region' (1938), Oklahoma USA, Getty Images

An American documentary photographer, Dorothea Lange’s photographs depict the hardship, pain, and resilience of Americans during the Great Depression. She got her start photographing America’s social elite before working with the Farm Security Administration to represent the rural poor and migrant workers. Lange later captured the mass deportation of Japanese-Americans to detention camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and went on to document developing countries in South Asia, the Middle East, and South America.


David LaChapelle

David Lachapelle, Luxury Photoshoot, The Washington PostDavid LaChapelle, Luxury Photoshoot, Washington Post

A prolific contemporary American commercial photographer, David LaChapelle is known for his bombastic, highly stylized images of the biggest celebrities of the last few decades. He shot to fame while working with Andy Warhol at Interview Magazine, where he refined his high-gloss style of pop surrealism with references to art history and religion.

At Bamboo Scenes, we’re thrilled to work with a tightly curated collective of eight of Hong Kong’s most influential photographers. Their unique style and abilities showcase the city in truly special ways in images that are a testament to what living here in the early 21st century is like. Whether you choose one of our carefully crafted photography art prints for your home or as a gift, there’s no doubt that they will be an enduring reminder of your connection to Hong Kong.


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