Through the Gadling Lens: 5 of the best travel photographers of all time

I’m in the middle of a crazy travel time: I’ve been to both New York and Chicago in the past two weeks, and there doesn’t seem to be much relief in sight in the upcoming 2 or 3 months: Portland, Atlanta, London and Paris are all distinct possibilities. And while being away from my family for all of these trips doesn’t please me in the least, I can’t help but be a little excited at the prospect of some great photo ops coming my way.

Like most, I often search Flickr and other sites for some inspiration. In addition, I’ve been known to pour through the work of some of my photography idols — Herb Ritts, Annie Leibovitz — the people who got me interested in photography in the first place, to get some ideas. But since I’m in the throes of traveling, I thought that this week, I thought I’d share the photographers who, in my opinion, are absolutely the tops when it comes to travel photography. Greater minds may differ, though, so I hope you’ll challenge me in the comments.

With that, on with the show:

Landscapes: Ansel Adams

I think it’s arguable that Ansel Adams is the most recognizable name in photography — I’d heard of Ansel Adams and his stunning images of Yosemite before I’d ever heard of an SLR camera. According to the official website, American photographer Ansel Adams was born in San Francisco, California, at the beginning of the last century. Originally, he was training to be a professional piano player, but eventually left music to pursue photography. In addition to being a photographer, he was also an avid environmentalist — and his passion for the environment is obvious in his images of Yosemite, and other areas of the Southwest United States.

Of course, the subject matter of Adams’ photographs is pretty breathtaking, but the reason I love his work is not because of his composition, so much as the way he processed the images. Again, from the official website: “Adams developed the famous and highly complex “zone system” of controlling and relating exposure and development, enabling photographers to creatively visualize an image and produce a photograph that matched and expressed that visualization. He produced ten volumes of technical manuals on photography, which are the most influential books ever written on the subject.”

In other words, Adams was one of the first photographers to codify the idea of visualizing the resulting image before you actually squeeze the shutter, and then using the developer chemicals (or, these days, Photoshop) to ensure that the resulting image accurately reflects what you visualized. He was one of the first photographers to think of the image as a form of expression, rather than documentation. And for this, in my mind, he will forever be a rock star.

(For more information about Ansel Adams, be sure to visit the official website.)

Portraits: Steve McCurry

You may not know his name, but chances are you’re familiar with his famous photograph of the young Afghan girl with the piercing green eyes, which graced the cover of National Geographic Magazine in the mid-1980′s. Steve McCurry is an American photographer born in Philadelphia, and graduated cum laude from my dad’s alma mater, Penn State University, from the College of Arts and Architecture. But my favourite part of his official bio describes how his career got its start:

“His career was launched when, disguised in native garb, he crossed the Pakistan border into rebel-controlled Afghanistan just before the Russian invasion. When he emerged, he had rolls of film sewn into his clothes of images that would be published around the world as among the first to show the conflict there. His coverage won the Robert Capa Gold Medal for Best Photographic Reporting from Abroad, an award dedicated to photographers exhibiting exceptional courage and enterprise.”

See what I mean? Rock. Star.

I seriously can’t get enough of McCurry’s work, and frankly, he’s my very favourite photographer of those I’m featuring here on this post. In particular, I love two aspects of his work:

a) He is masterful when it comes to understanding colour and light. When you look at his images, it’s clear that the colour palates of compositions are at least as important as the subject matter itself. The light of his images is always breathtaking, and the catchlights in his subjects eyes’ always draw you right into the image; and

b) He is prodigious when it comes to capturing a glimpse of the spirits and souls of his subjects. When you look at his portraits, you’re not just looking at a pretty face, or a weathered expression, you’re catching a glimpse of the thoughts and emotions of his subjects as well. I absolutely believe that this ability of capturing a quick flash of someone’s soul in a photograph is one that is truly a gift, and can’t be taught. But that’s not to say I don’t try to tap into my own ability to do this every single time I click my camera.

(For more information about Steve McCurry, visit his official website. Also? Be sure to check out the posters and fine art prints he has for sale. I purchase the portrait of the woman in Peshawar, Pakistan to hang in my studio for inspiration.)

Wildlife: Jim Brandenburg

American photographer Jim Brandenburg has been a photographer with National Geographic for more than 30 years. As I look through the gallery on Brandenburg’s website, it occurs to me that his portfolio entirely and decisively debunks the myth that all you need to take a good wildlife photograph is a long lens: his images of the animals in the prairies and other wild locations show emotion in these animals; whether it’s the sheer, frozen determination on the faces of the bison caught in the blizzard, or the apparent hysterical laughter on the face of rabbit on Brandenburg’s image, entitled appropriately, “Laughing Rabbit.” In addition, his panoramas of wide open spaces are wonderful studies in colour and pattern and repetition. Really inspirational work.

(For more information on Jim Brandenburg, be sure to visit his official website.)

Architecture: Julius Shulman

If you’ve ever been struck by the way many historic images of mid-century modern houses are shot, chances are you have photograp
her Julius Shulman to thank. Shulman was widely considered the most innovative architecture photographer of all time — and sadly, he died at the age of 98 this month. In the obituary announcing his death in the L.A. Times, the late Robert Sobieszek, former photography curator at the Los Angeles County Musum of Art, described Shulman’s work as follows: “He has a sense of visual bravura of composition, so that he can take a rather mundane house and make it look exciting, and take a spectacular house and make it look triply spectacular.”

His most famous image is the one you can see above, and I can tell you that it must have been a doozy to capture. The multiple light sources — the ones hanging on from the ceiling of the house, the lights of the city below, and the fact that the women seated appear to be lit from a source near the floor as well — makes this nearly an impossible image to expose properly, and yet Shulman does it flawlessly. The women add perfect scale to the image, without distracting. And he did all this without a digital camera. Amazing.

(For more information about Julius Shulman, see his Wikipedia entry, with links to external sites discussing his work.)


Underwater: Chris Newbert

I’m a scuba diver, but one type of photography I’ve just never been able to nail down is underwater photography. I’ve been diving in some of the clearest, stillest water possible, but still — the water never seems still enough to get a sharp image, it’s difficult to hold the camera steady while you’re floating, and the diffused light through the ocean totally distorts colours. I just can’t get it right, and unfortunately, I don’t get enough opportunity to dive in order to practice.

Which is why, I suppose, I’m absolutely blown away by the photography of Chris Newbert. Newbert is also a photographer for National Geographic Magazine, and his images of translucent underwater creatures is breathtaking. Are you looking at those? Incredible. According to his official bio, Newbert has been shooting underwater since the early 1970′s, and has received worldwide accolades for his work. It’s truly breathtaking.

(For more information on Chris Newbert, visit his official website.)

So, that’s my take on the top 5 travel photographers ever. If you have any other photographers you’d like to add to my list, be sure to leave them in the comments, below. As always, if you have any questions, you can always contact me directly at karenDOTwalrondATweblogsincDOTcom – and I’m happy to address them in upcoming Through the Gadling Lens posts.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
Through the Gadling Lens can be found every Thursday right here, at 11 a.m. To read more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.