Jay Sousa: Three talented and signfiicant photographers

May 16, 2013 

In 1827 a French scientist named Joseph Nicephore Niepce made the first permanent photograph with a camera obscura.

Niepce's heliographs — or sun prints, as they were called — were the prototype for the modern photograph. Since that summer day 186 years ago, photography has come a long way. Thousands of great photographers have made millions of incredible images.

My list of my six favorite photographers was difficult to come up with, as there are so many past and current photographers I admire.

In my previous column, I profiled Dorthea Lange, Jay Maisel and Galen Rowell.

This week we will look at Edward S. Curtis, Yousuf Karsh and, of course, Ansel Adams.

When I was considering my list, I took into account the longevity of each artist.

It is one thing to make a great image here and there, but another to consistently make awe- inspiring photographs day in and day out for years at a time.

It takes hard work, commitment and dedication to craft such images. But above all else it takes a deep love of photography. These six had those qualities and more.

Edward S. Curtis

Curtis made a name in photography photographing American Indians in the early 20th century.

He was born in Wisconsin in 1868 and by the time he was 17 years old he was working as an apprentice photographer in a studio in St. Paul, Minn.

Shortly after his family moved to Seattle in 1895, he had the chance to photograph Princess Angeline, a k a Kickisomlo, the daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle.

This was to be his first portrait of an American Indian.

In 1906, Financier J.P. Morgan provided Curtis with $75,000 to produce a series of images of American Indians.

Curtis took more than 40,000 images from more than 80 tribes during the 20-year project.

Two years ago, I had the great fortune of seeing some of Curtis' work in a small museum in Independence in the eastern Sierra while in the area on vacation. These sepia-toned, original prints were of Alaskan tribes taken between 1912 and 1917.

The detail and clarity of these beautiful prints gave a rare glimpse into the lives of American Indian culture.

Yousuf Karsh

Karsh is one of the most respected portrait photographers of all time. He was born in 1908 in what is now Turkey, but moved to Canada at the age of 16.

Karsh began his career in the early 1930s. His beautiful black and white portraits told great stories of the subjects that he photographed, including kings, queens, movie stars and politicians.

His 1941 portrait of a glaring, defiant looking Winston Churchill is still considered one of the most reproduced photographic portraits in history.

Karsh's work included using hands in a way that tells a story. He also was a master at using studio lighting. Karsh pioneered the technique of lighting the hands separately from the face.

My two most favorite Karsh portraits are of George Bernard Shaw and Albert Einstein. Karsh said it best about his work: "My chief joy is to photograph the great in heart, in mind and in spirit, whether they be famous or humble." Karsh died in Boston in 2002.

Ansel Adams

What list of great photographers would be complete without Adams?

He is most famous for black-and-white landscape images of Yosemite and the American West. He was born in San Francisco in 1902 and was groomed at an early age to be a concert pianist.

Photography won out, but Adams continued to play piano late into life. During a family vacation to Yosemite in 1916, a young Adams fell in love with the high Sierra. And soon after, photography, thanks to a gift from his parents — a Kodak No. 1 Box Brownie camera.

In 1919, Adams joined the fledgling Sierra Club, and it was during this time that he made many backcountry trips into the high country on club outings, honing his skills as a photographer. The Sierra Club was important to Adams' early success as a photographer. His first published photographs appeared in the club's 1922 newsletter.

To best understand the beauty of Adams' photography, take a day trip to Yosemite and visit the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Village. There is also a great Ken Burns documentary on Adams available on YouTube.

Editor's note: The second in a two-part series.

Jay Sousa, a former Sun-Star photographer, has his own photography business in Merced, conducts private classes and teaches photography at Merced College.

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