Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The most iconic photographers?

CNN's readers can vote for the most iconic photographer, with 20 great ones to choose from. The page is a bit bugged, which I realised when the caption belonging to Avedon appeared under Lawrence Beitler's photograph but apart from this grotesque trick by the web devil it's a great initiative.

Now... one thing I could never understand - or rather accept - is how much photographic history is centered around American photographers. OK, why being surprised when out of the 20 candidates 15 are American in a CNN feature (or 16 if we count cosmopolitan Capa too), but it's a bit like voting for the most iconic buildings of the world and 16 of 20 candidates were US landmarks. Where are the Japanese, Russian, British ? Typing all this I realise that the CNN audience is probably more acquainted with Weegee, Weston & Co and less so with Kertész or Saudek, just to mention two East Europeans... or so I guess.

Another interesting thing is that the featured German photographers - Gursky and the Bechers - are more on the abstract side while the others represent people photography, from PJ to fashion and documentary, making me think if the US audience had a problem understanding the visual language of non-American people photography. But they obviously can cope with Cartier-Bresson and Capa, so the explanation has probably more to do with the personal taste of the guys who compiled the list and there can't be any dispute over such subjective choices.

Anyway, it's clear that the US had the greatest magazines, the galleries with the best marketing and of course the most photographers, so it's not surprising that photographic history is often understood as the history of American photography.

Who would be my choice? I would be hard pressed to pick the 5 most iconic names, but in photojournalism it would be Weegee - he invented the genre after all and his photographs are as fresh now as they were in his time. HCB... well, some friends might kill me for such blasphemy but I believe his most iconic shots like this were staged. Joe Rosenthal and Capa ditto (sorry, I don't believe the loyalist's death was real - and even worse, I dare say it doesn't matter). I truly couldn't make a choice. It's after all the photographers one has to rank and not the photographs. If I valued cheerful Capa over aristocratic HCB or the compassionate Dorothea Lange over vulture-like Weegee, would that make any sense? How can you compare the Tienanmen shot (Stuart Franklin) with a fashion photograph (Man Ray) anyway?

Last but not least - how could any contest be taken seriously which doesn't feature Ken Rockwell?... :)

3 comments:

jophilippe said...

Can't make a choice too. I guess it depends on what you refer as "iconic". But even as far as personal preference are concerned it is hard to choose from, not to mentioned that one may know works from X much better than Y.

I agree on Weegee though, he did stunning PJs right from the start and was not really surpassed. Much less known Enrique Metinides did a great job too, in a similar vein.

About the comment on American I guess it is part of the game, coming from an US media. I am sure in France if you have such "contest" you will have to choose betwwen HCB, Doisneau, Ronis, Lartigue, Atget, well... Capa too, and then HCB, Doisneau ...

Again in a side note about HCB I am not sure many were fully staged, but surely planned in some way (the one you linked, obviously) and the idea that he got "decisive moment" in one single shot is probably an overrated myth. Garry Winogrand (to talk about a guy whose portfolio needed heavy editing) was much more honest about his own process.

jophilippe said...

... I am a little surprised Diane Arbus is not listed. She is (was) the typical "iconic" photographer IMO. Another American though...

Pataki Balázs said...

I couldn't agree more about Arbus. But then, this contest is just a game.