Photography has been closely associated with American history and American culture since its beginnings in the 19th century. From a cultural standpoint, it helps to become familiar with the work of a number of 19th and 20th century American photographers whose work is still valued in the 21st century.
Matthew Brady (1823-1896) is known for his many portraits of famous Americans of his day, including Abraham Lincoln and scores of other well-known people in government. During the American Civil War of 1861-1865, Brady and his team of assistants did portraits of many of the important officers and generals on the union (northern) side, including the iconic portrait of General William Tecumseh Sherman. The slow film of his era prevented Brady from capturing any battlefield action, but his photographs of dead soldiers after some of the battles are an important part of the war’s photographic record. Brady’s assistants Timothy O’Sullivan and Alexander Gardner also made reputations for themselves during the war and after, moving on to photograph the landscapes of the American west, as well as the indigenous Native American peoples. Around the turn of the 20th century, Jacob Riis (1849-1914) chronicled the dire poverty that existed in American cities and set the tone for much of the photojournalism that has flourished ever since.
Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) was influential in establishing photography as a true art form. An innovator, Stieglitz mastered techniques of flash and low light photography. Edward Steichen (1879-1973) and Paul Strand (1890-1976) were also active in fine art photography during the first half of the 20th century.
Two 20th century photographers in particular became so well-known that their photographs are still the subjects of posters, books and exhibitions. Edward Weston (1886-1958) and Ansel Adams (1902-1984) each photographed a wide range of subjects, yet today they are best known for their landscapes and portraits of nature.
American life and rural poverty became the subject for many American photographers during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Much of this photography was subsidized by the federal government’s Farm Security Administration. Probably the most famous of these photographs is Migrant Mother, done in 1936 by Dorothea Lange. Other photographers who were involved in these projects included Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Esther Bubley, Jack Delano, Gordon Parks, Marjory Collins, Mary Post Wolcott, Carl Mydans, Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, Charlotte Brooks, and John Vachon.
Since the energetic years of the 1930s and the war era of the 1940s, American photography has continued to be a vital cultural force in the United States. Fine art photography is alive and well as it makes a transition into the digital age.
Next Section:American Crafts
American Culture: Chapter Home
Life in the USA Home Page.