Studying Masters

In Books, Images, Influences, The Craft by David47 Comments

In my Created Image video, one of the things I strongly advocate is studying the masters. I think finding those masters, the ones with whom you truly resonate, and finding them yourself, is part of the fun. I’m always hesitant to tell people to study this person or this person, because the list of photographers I myself don’t know, photographers we’d learn so much from studying, is so much longer than the one I’ve got in my mind. But if your question is who are the photographers whose work is on my own shelves, from whom I’ve learned so much, and to whom – dead or alive – I still return to learn from, that’s a question I feel good about answering.

Here, right now, are the photographers who grace my shelves, whose work is still readily available, for the most part on I learn more, at this stage of my journey, from the work in these books than I do from any how-to manual I might find. But even younger photographers, photographers who still need the how-to books, should be studying these or others like them.

In no particular order, here’s what’s on my shelf right now:

Sebastiao Salgado – Genesis, Workers, and AfricaVivian Maier – Street Photographer
Elliott Erwitt – Personal Best (also look up Paris, and New York)
Andreas Feininger – That’s Photography
Yousuf Karsh, Portraits
Gregory Heisler – 50 Portraits
Michael Kenna – Images of the Seventh Day, and A Twenty Year Retrospective.
Steve McCurry – The Unguarded Moment, Looking East, and In the Shadow of Mountains
Galen Rowell – A Retrospective (but you should also look at The Inner Game of Outdoor Photography if you’re into landscapes)
Arnold Newman, Arnold Newman, A Masterclass, and anything else with his name on it.
Robert Frank – The Americans
Fred Herzog, PhotographsAndrew Zuckerman, Wisdom, Bird, Creature.

Others you should know – Robert Capa, Robert Doisneau, Walker Evans, Lewis Hine, Gordon Parks, Irving Penn, W. Eugene Smith, Edward Weston, Garry Winogrand, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eliot Porter, Philip Hyde. Oh, and Saul Leiter.

Also look at Magnum Contact Sheets – it’s amazing.

Start with a Google search, find the ones you resonate with, and go from there. But remember that this list is so partial and incomplete that it’s embarassing. It misses so many, and it favours the ones I love while neglecting others I still have much to learn from, including entire genres. But this list should give you a start if you’re looking for one.

Got one that should be on this list? Leave it in the comments below.





  1. Pingback: Around Photo Web – Photography eduction – Korwel Photography

  2. In no particular order:
    Man Ray
    Aaron Siskind
    Richard Avedon
    Guy Bourdin
    Gregory Crewdson
    Rodney Lough Jr.
    Guy Tal
    Edward Burtynsky

  3. A list like this can never be complete without a reference to Jay Maisel. Unfortunately all his books are out of print. Someone who knows Jay should get him to do a retrospective. Buy books, not gear

  4. Yes, thanks David for starting this extremely helpful and very interesting list!!! I will have to get a library card.
    I am inspired by this listing by everyone and your CREATED IMAGE VIDEO SERIES where you discuss the importance of studying photos of the masters, and not just the how-to photography books.

  5. Thanks David for starting this list.
    When I first started in photography I found some books in the library on the work of Eugene Atget. They are quite old now but well worth a look.

    Thanks again


  6. He’s no Galen Rowell, but Tom Till makes the state of Utah look pretty spectacular! He’s on my bookshelves.

  7. David,
    I got the chills when you mentioned the three titles you own by Salgado. These exact three are next to enter my library. I love his work. I love and have

    The Life of A Photograph bySam Abell,
    Vanishing Breed and Portraits of America by Wm Albert Allard
    Ansel Adams at 100
    On This Earth and A Shadow Falls by Nick Brandt
    Anything at all by Nancy Rotenburg
    One Thousand Moons by Eddie Soloway
    Anything at all by William Neill
    Life by Frans Lanting
    Numerous titles by Eliot Porter (love his work)
    Echoes of the Spirit and Feeling the Spirit by Chester Higgins Jr
    and there are some books on O’Keefe (painter), Weston and Minor White hanging around for good measure.

    great post!

  8. I think one should be cautious studying others. It leads to restrictive thinking and possibly even not willing to be yourself. The idea is good in it’s fundamental approach but today’s way of doing things differs so much from how the so called “masters” approached their work that most are not willing to actually “do the work” they just want the results.

    As long as a person does not compare themselves to someone else things can be fine but the second comparisons are made most will quickly “follow the crowd” and there goes creativity.

    1. I understand what you are saying, &not comparing our work to someone else. That makes good sense! David emphasizes in his video The Creative Image making photos that are “you,” not trying to be original. He speaks about how much more we can improve out photography from studying the masters than by reading how-to books, though both have their place. By studying photos of the masters I would see different elements of composition and lighting that I could not see & learn from books about photography. It is more the “real thing” for me. Also, having a listing of photographers like this is wonderful! We have many to get ideas from to develop our own creativity.

  9. Avedon, definitely. In addition I would suggest that, particularly with lifestyle and fashion photographers, that it’s great to get your hands on classic issues of Vogue, Bazaar, etc., to get a sense of the artist in his/her own time frame. It’s sometimes hard to appreciate today how new and fresh Avedon felt, for example, without having a sense of the way fashion was shot prior to him.

  10. Mr. duChemin,

    I closed the biography Robert Capa, by Richard Whelan and took a short walk around my home to rest my eyes before returning to the square cushioned chair and rectangular window. During my walk, I gave into the habit of checking my bookmarked blogs. Thank you for this appropriate post on looking to the masters.

    I took up reading the biographies of influential and interesting photographers after a similar suggestion from you written in another place (perhaps one of your printed books). This summer I read Dorthea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, by Linda Gordon. Photographs I simply recognized as attached to her name before take on a new level of meaning. Reading Lange’s biography, I could not help but receive the history lesson the author provides, which gives context and grounding to the story of her life and work. This allows me to view a Lange photograph in closer approximation to how I would have seen it had I lived in the era of its making along with the retrospective look from 2013. Shortly after closing the last pages of her biography, I visited family in a neighboring state. For entertainment at night, we watched The Dust Bowl, a documentary by Ken Burns. In Burns documentary style, he shows photographs made in the time of the event. I recognized many belonging to Lange and was able to enjoy comparing Burns commentary to the notes in my head.

    On the shelf above the monitor where I write this note, Bourke-White, by Vicki Goldberg, waits for me as my next good read. All three books I mention are property of the public library, two of which are on loan from distant libraries. When a book I want to read is not available on the 700 aisle, the library happily makes a search to partner libraries and in some cases will purchase a book at my request. I have even found books available at the library out of print and not available through the mighty Amazon.

  11. What I would recommend is:

    David DuChemin – Photographically Speaking. I bought this book in Ottawa a couple year’s ago while there for Canada Day. it changed the way I look at composition by explaining the why. It was sort of an Aha moment for me. I read the whole book before I left Ottawa. I just lent it to my sister-in-law.

    Art Wolfe – The New Art of Photographing Nature. I bought this book in Las Vegas in September after finding an Art Wolfe exhibit at the Venetian. I couldn’t afford one of the spectactular $1,000 wall sized prints so I bought this book. It is somewhat basic but gave a different perspective and filled in some blanks.

    Freeman Patterson – Photographing the World Around You. I bought this book prior to a workshop with Freeman this July. The workshop and the book were excellent resources for improving my compositional thinking. I ordered it directly from Freeman from his website so he signed it before he sent it for an extra bonus.

    Other books I read this summer include Ten and Ten More by David DuChemin, and Timelapse by Dave Delnea. They were good primers on the plane to Vegas. I have plans to read several more of the books on the Craft and Vision Website over the holidays.

    Great list from everyone.

    1. Thanks, good suggestions! I have been wanting to purchase one of David’s book, & will check out this one. I loved his video, The Created Image, well worth the money!!
      This has been a very helpful listing from everyone!

  12. Allow me to suggest three Portuguese photographers:
    Jorge Molder
    Eduardo Gageiro
    Paulo Nozolino… and I really love the italian photographer Franco Fontana, He is an artist

    David Duchemin, thank for your work and inspiration.
    Best wishes

  13. Franco Fontana
    Angelo Lomeo
    Sonja Bullaty
    Shinzo Maeda
    Pete Turner
    Ernest Haas
    Steve McCurry
    Paul Strand
    James Nachtwey
    John Sexton
    James Balog

  14. Author

    Thanks to all of you for the contributions. We’re all moved by different artists and every time I do something like this I discover someone new. I’m grateful especially for the inclusion of some females – I just don’t have the work of many female photographers on my shelves, though I don’t think it’s got anything to do with gender. I do have Dorothea Lange, Annie L, and Vivian Maier, but there are some significant gaps in there that I’ll correct as I stumble across new books in my travels. Thanks again!

    1. A big thanks to you David, for opening the discussion, what a great list of photographers has been created because of it.

      Thanks everybody for sharing your favorites, it’s really wonderful to have a list like this.

  15. Must add Art Wolfe’s landscape photography books, specifically the admittedly out-of-print Light on the Land. An excellent study of landscape photography of many varied regions around our world, this book is available on the used market.

    Also, anything by David Muench, but Nature’s America is one of my favorites.

  16. Hello all!

    Here are my suggestions:

    Hans Strand
    Andreas Weidner
    Rolf Walther
    Thorsten Andreas Hoffmann
    René Groebli
    Chris Orwig
    Klavdij Sluban
    Tom Ang
    Freeman Patterson
    Max Scheler
    Charlie Waite
    Sally Mann
    and my Top Favorite in Black and White Photography, which dies in August 2013:
    Robert Häusser.


  17. One book on my shelf is the work of Marjorie Content. She was a contemporary of Georgia O’Keeffe and actually travelled with and worked alongside her in New Mexico. We could all benefit from studying the work of O’Keeffe and Stieglitz too. I didn’t see Ruth Bernhard mentioned either. So many wonderful artists have preceded us. Study and adopt where it will benefit your own vision.

  18. I enjoy and appreciate everyone’s comments on what they find useful. THANKS TO EVERYONE FOR THEIR SUGGESTIONS!

    I have listened to your video The Created Image multiple times, & every time I learn and see something differently! It resonates with me, inspires me! I absolutely love it!! The idea of studying photos seems obvious, but sometimes we (or I) forget the obvious. I ordered several books from Craft & Vision & have learned many new ideas!
    Sharana Mueller

  20. Good list David…in addition some of the books on my shelf which I find inspiring:
    David Alan Harvey
    Richard Avedon- Avedon Fashion 1944-2000
    William Klein- Life is Good and Good for you in New York
    Annie Leibovitz
    Shahid-ul-Alam- My Journey as a Witness
    Raghu Rai- Tibet in Exile, My Land and It’s People
    Raghubir Singh- A Way into India, the Ganges
    Mark Abrahams- Portraits
    Jack Robinson- Portraits
    TS Satyan- In Love with Life (Wonderful book by an unsung Indian photographer, got me started on photography!)

    1. Irene, I too noticed a dearth of female photographers. David mentions Vivian Maier, and other reader mentions Sally Mann. I would add a few for your consideration, depending on your interests:
      Margaret Bourke-White – photojournalist
      Dorothea Lange- Depression-era portraits
      Ilse Bing – street & portraits
      Annie Leibovitz – stylized portraits
      Diane Arbus – unusual subjects / perspectives on subjects
      Cindy Sherman – female portraits
      Helen Levitt – street
      Mary Ellen Mark – portraits
      Berenice Abbott – street

      1. Brenda Tharp, Nevada Weir, and Nancy Rotenburg–landscape, travel and macro respectively

  21. That is really funny that you posted this! I was tweeting about the same thing this morning! I’ve always found that I learn so much just by studying what makes a photograph so great!

  22. I went to see Sebastiao Salgado’s latest work Genesis here in Sao Paulo two weekends ago and it was absolutely inspiring. The thing that stood out for me most was that in looking at all the pictures of landscapes, animals and people in black and white I never once felt that I was missing colour. He is the master at capturing light. Part of the exhibition is outdoors and even in that setting his work has enormous impact on you. Still on until 1 December. If it comes to your part in the world, don’t miss it. Magnificent.

  23. Couldn’t agree with you more on the importance of looking at the images made by the masters. Two more to add to the list are: Freeman Paterson and Steve Simon. Two great Canadian photographers.

  24. Thanks… I love sourcing out the bibliography of my favourite authors… it has lead me many great reads in the past…

    some nice additions above… and also Freeman Patterson’s co-presenter, Andre Gallant ~ Inspiration and others

    Joe McNally ~ The Moment it Clicks and others

  25. It’s delighting that you mention Andreas Feininger and his book “That’s Photography”. His book “The Complete Photographer” (1965! – I have the revised version from 1978) was one of my first educational photography books. And it never really gets out of date.

    It is almost entirely text with only a small image section in the middle, written in a gloves-off style that doesn’t try to be nice to those who don’t try. Yet it is an invaluable source of information and inspiration to anyone who wants to learn from a man who truly mastered the art.

    Besides the complete DuChemin collection another must-have!

  26. Hmmm….you left out Ansel and I’m here to tell one and all,
    “HE WAS NOT A HACK.” his national park images are breathtaking.

    Also, don’t forget “Seven” by David DuChemin. Wonderful, expressive, sensitive images, full of vision and soul. 😉

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