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Humanities LibreTexts

13.4: Photography

  • Page ID
  • Photographer

    Focus Subject Matter

    General Format

    Ansel Adams

    Nature, Landscape


    Gordon Parks

    Fashion, Poverty, Sports, Portraits

    Magazine photos, Documentary

    Dorothea Lange

    Social Issues


    Margaret Bourke-White

    Social issues, World War 2 correspondent

    Magazine photos

    Alfred Stieglitz

    Figures, Original paintings

    Prints, Exhibition

    When gazing at an Ansel Adams photograph in the visitor’s center at Grand Teton National Park and viewing the iconic Tetons and the Snake River (13.48) from 1942, one tries to think about hiking through the magical peaks of the Tetons, walking in the footsteps of Adams, and trying to visualize the images he skillfully captured. Ansel Adams (1902-1984) was one of America’s most famous photographers and a dedicated environmentalist. Using black and white film to capture the landscapes of America’s treasured national parks, he assisted in the preservation of thousands of acres of land. Born in San Francisco, California, and following his father’s devotion to the ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson, he understood the beauty of the natural landscape in his neighborhood and developed an appreciation for the environment that would become his lifelong focus.

    “To live a modest, moral life guided by a social responsibility to man and to nature” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

    Tetons and the Snake River
    13.48 Tetons and the Snake River

    During the 1920s, Adams began his career in photography following the photo-secession movement of the famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz. In the days before Photoshop, what was captured on film was the photograph. The skill of photography was in the hands and eyes of the artist, and Adams had a gift of patience. A photographer cannot merely walk up to Half Dome in Yosemite Park and snap a beautiful photo, and it takes hours or days to capture the desired image based on the perfect light in the right season. In the 1930s, Adams traveled extensively to take photographs, his work demonstrating an experience level of a master. He produced books of his photographs; the book Taos Pueblo (13.49) was a pictorial of the western United States and one of his most inspiring books. The paper inside the book was created so Adams could print directly on the paper producing an extraordinary tonal range on a matte surface.

    13.49 Taos Pueblo
    13.49 Taos Pueblo
    13.50 Evening on McDonald Lake
    13.50 Evening on McDonald Lake
    Leaves at Glacier National Park
    13.51 Leaves at Glacier National Park

    In the early 1940s, Adams contracted with the Department of the Interior to take photographs of America's national parks. Evening on McDonald Lake (13.50) is an image he captured of the lake in Glacier National Park during a momentary break in the clouds. Leaves at Glacier National Park (13.51) is a detailed close-up of the leave structure from one of the trees in the park. Adams recorded nature in photographs for almost sixty years and earned many awards for his spectacular images and his contribution to conservation.

    Gordon Parks (1912-2006) was another American photographer and film director best known for his photographic essays for Life Magazine. Parks grew up on a farm in Kansas and attended a segregated school. His parents died when he was a teenager, and he was on the streets to fend for himself. Buying his first camera from a pawn shop at age 25, Parker began to capture photographs of everyday life in Chicago. American Gothic (13.52) is a portrait of Ella Watson, who worked on the janitorial staff at the FSA building. The original American Gothic (13.53) by Grant Wood is clearly represented in Parks photograph, a parody to demonstrate the inequality in America. The photograph by Parks shows a single black mother holding both a mop and broom, which she used daily to clean offices. The civil rights movement in America was underway to give rights to all Americans. The final picture is one of Ella Watson and her family (13.54) at home after cleaning all night, sitting in the cramped quarters of her space.

    13.52 American Gothic
    13.52 American Gothic
    American Gothic
    13.52 American Gothic
    Ella Watson and her family
    13.54 Ella Watson and her family

    Migrant Mother, an icon of the American depression, is one of the most recognized photographs from Dorothea Lange (1895-1965). Born in New Jersey, she contracted polio at a young age, which damaged her right leg, causing her to limp the rest of her life. Lange’s health contributed to her dramatic photographs because she was able to sit motionless for hours in one place. She never hurried and coupled with her courage, and she captured some of America's finest photographs.

    13.55 Migrant Mother
    13.55 Migrant Mother
    13.56 Manzanar

    Migrant Mother (13.55) was a series of photographs taken while on assignment for the Resettlement Administration of the Farm Security Administration Office. Lange was in Nipomo, California, when she noticed a mother with several children in a tent. She took five photos, each time closer than the last one until she produced the final photograph and the eyewitness to history.

    Manzanar (13.56) was one of the Japanese Internment Camps based on Executive Order 9066 President Roosevelt authorized to remove and imprison Americans of Japanese descent forcibly. Lange was hired to photograph the massive relocation project and portray it as a necessity of American war requirements. Lange did not share the same opinion as to the government and struggled to justify her work, inspiring her to capture the suffering and misery of American citizens in the camps. Lange's work was refused and not published until 40 years later in a book after her death. Lange did not walk away from the injustice and photographed the real stories.

    Another great American female photographer was Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971). She is best known for her pictures in the Soviet Union and as the first foreign war photographer. Born in New York, her interest in photography started at an early age, and she worked in a commercial photography studio after college. Bourke-White was the first woman to fly with the US Air Force on a combat mission, and with the outbreak of World War II, she was already an established war correspondent. She took some of the critical images of the war (13.57) during her assignments, bringing the war into focus. She also went to India and Pakistan during their conflict and recorded events from each country, including the image of Gandhi sitting at a spinning wheel a few hours before he was assassinated.

    13.57 Flyers

    One of the most significant influences on modern photography was Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946). Stieglitz was an American photographer, owned the famous Stieglitz Gallery in New York City, and was married to Georgia O'Keefe. By the turn of the 20th century, Stieglitz was an accomplished artist and began to photograph everyday scenes in New York City. Terminal (13.58) is a city street scene with a horse and trolley passing through the mountains of snow on the ground, steam seen rising off the horses and from their nostrils.

    The Venetian Canal (13.59) and a portrait of Katherine Stieglitz (13.60) are two more examples of Stieglitz's artistic ability with the camera. The portrait of his daughter is black and white; however, the movement at the time was to colorize photographs by hand, giving them a colored photograph appearance. The photographs of Venice were taken during a nine-year trip to Europe and appeared in many magazines. The photo was taken using a straightforward printing method, without retouching. The soft focus of the photo comes from the early morning light, and the close-up is almost guaranteed with the small, tight Venetian canals.

    A group of people standing on top of a horse drawn carriage
    13.58 Terminal
    Katherine Stieglitz
    13.59 Katherine Stieglitz
    Venetian Canal
    13.60 Venetian Canal

    When Stieglitz was near the end of his life, he was asked what he thought was the perfect photograph and he answered:

    “I will be sitting with the plate of a picture I have just taken in my hands. It will be the picture I have always known that some day I would be able to take. It will be the perfect photograph, embodying all that I ever have wished to say. I will just have developed it; just have looked at it; just have seen that it was exactly what I wanted. The room will be empty, quiet. The walls will be bare – clean. I will sit looking at the picture. It will slip from my hands, and break as it falls to the ground. I will be dead. They will come. No one will ever have seen the picture nor know what it was.” [2]