Underrated Masters of Photography | Popular Photography

Underrated Masters of Photography

Why it's important to remember a generation of intensely creative photographers from the 70s and 80s.

Underrated-Masters-of-Photography

Underrated-Masters-of-Photography

The baffling calculus of fame is hard enough to get your head around, even without factoring in the strange metaphysics of photography.

Andy Warhol's theorem that everyone would have it for 15 minutes certainly factored in the power of images to transfix the culture's attention, as well as the growth curve of the mass media and its resulting tendency to shorten our collective attention span. The broad implication of this insight was that modern culture would treat the untalented and unworthy with unquestioning fascination. On the other hand, Warhol knew that everyone -- even the truly talented -- would be disposable, because the search for the next big thing was always on.

In this special section, we examine the fleeting nature of fame as it applies to photographers over the past 30 or so years. Continue to our essay on the underrated masters, or browse the individual profiles and photo galleries below.

Alon Reininger****Ara Gallant****Bill King
Charles Harbutt
Chris von Wangenheim****Denis Piel****Duane Michals
James Baes****Jill Freedman****Mike Reinhardt
Philip Jones Griffiths
Stan Malinowski****Stephen Shames****Steve Hiett
Alex Chatelain****Bill Silano
Leslie Krims****Philip Dixon
Barry McKinley
Matthew Rolston
Bill Cunningham

Why the last 30 years? Well, because it coincides with the history of this magazine, which was launched in 1978. More important, it was during this period that the visual language of photography became the predominant voice of our culture; it was also a time when photographers exercised an extraordinary liberty to create and to stretch the bound-aries of the art. Today we live in a world saturated with images that define who we are and what we are thinking about. The irony is that many of the creative minds that transformed the art over this period are at best overlooked, and in some cases nearly forgotten, by new generations of photography enthusiasts. On the following pages, we hope to take a step toward remedying this situation.

A year ago, American Photo's editor at large, Jean-Jacques Naudet, began working on a list of photographers from the past three decades whose talent and lasting influence had not been given their due. Naudet (now living in New York) is the former editor of the French edition of Photo magazine and a longtime champion of photography and photographers. As an editor and writer, he has chronicled the rise of several generations of photographers, going back to the 1970s. Moreover, he has personally known most of the great photographers of our time, giving him a unique perspective on the recent history of photography in Europe and America. "It was never enough for me to just look at someone's pictures," he says. "I always have to meet the photographers and get to know them on a human level to understand their work."

Over the years, Naudet noted how evanescent the career of a photographer could be. A particular style of fashion photography could make someone a star one day, then old news the next. Other photographers achieved great renown and then, because of personal demons, threw it away. Still others created long-lasting bodies of work, constantly reenergizing their creativity, but were overshadowed by other names. "The one thing about them all," says Naudet, "is that they were and are important talents that moved the art of photography in new directions. Their pictures influenced later generations of photographers, even though their names might have been forgotten."
Over the years, Naudet noted how evanescent the career of a photographer could be. A particular style of fashion photography could make someone a star one day, then old news the next. Other photographers achieved great renown and then, because of personal demons, threw it away. Still others created long-lasting bodies of work, constantly reenergizing their creativity, but were overshadowed by other names. "The one thing about them all," says Naudet, "is that they were and are important talents that moved the art of photography in new directions. Their pictures influenced later generations of photographers, even though their names might have been forgotten."

When Naudet began making his list of these underrated photographers, the project was simply a kind of parlor game -- an amusing discussion to have over lunch with friends. Later, it became ap- parent that his list needed to be published, if for no other reason than to remind young photographers of their artistic lineage. But there are other lessons implicit in the list -- lessons about how careers begin and end, especially those that implode from the creative stress that comes with sudden success. "It is the individualism, the strong sense that they need to do things their own way, that makes them significant as photographers," says Naudet. But those very same qualities can cause them to self-destruct. "I am always reminded about what the legendary Harper's Bazaar art director Alexi Brodovitch said about photographers," muses Naudet. "He said even the greatest, most creative ones only have ten years on top."

VIEW GALLERIES Main Portfolio gallery Second Portfolio gallery READ PROFILES Alon Reininger Ara Gallant Bill King Charles Harbutt Chris von Wangenheim Denis Piel Duane Michals James Baes Jill Freedman Mike Reinhardt Philip Jones Griffiths Stan Malinowski Stephen Shames Steve Hiett Alex Chatelain Bill Silano Leslie Krims Philip Dixon Barry McKinley Matthew Rolston Bill Cunningham

Some of the names on his list have certainly been around longer than ten years, and many are well known in photography circles. Yet, Naudet feels, their contributions as photographers still haven't been fully recognized. "Photographers like Matthew Rolston and Duane Michals have achieved great success and a great deal of respect over long careers," he says. "But I believe that we still don't see them for the innovators they are. Each in his own way has changed photography profoundly."

Naudet is not alone in that assessment. Takouhy Wise, co-director of New York's Staley-Wise Gallery, which sells the work of many of the great fashion and celebrity photographers of the 20th century, agrees that while photographers like Michals are highly esteemed in photographic circles, the art market, by and large, ignores them. "Matthew Rolston is still an important editorial photographer, after all these years, and that is a remarkable achievement," she says. "Yet the art market has never responded to him the way it did to, say, Herb Ritts."

Early during the researching of this special feature, Naudet teamed up with another person who knows a little about photography over the past 30 years: Philippe Garner, the international director of photography and 20th-century arts at Christie's. Garner has a particular interest in fashion, beauty, and celebrity photography and has written monographs on Cecil Beaton, John Cowan, Guy Bourdin, and Helmut Newton.

He and Naudet first met, in fact, in 1975, when Garner was putting together an art auction to benefit an early photo gallery in London. "I remember that during the auction one man kept bidding and bidding on every photograph that came up for sale," says Naudet. "Everyone was booing him and laughing at this foolish man who was paying the exorbitant price of $400 for an Irving Penn print." The man, it turned out, was Sam Wagstaff, one of the earliest and shrewdest private collectors of photography. The three men-Wagstaff, Garner, and Naudet-became close friends, and together they witnessed the rise of photography as a collectable art. (Wagstaff died of AIDS in 1989.)

It was a remarkable time in the history of the medium. Looking back at the magazines from that era, it becomes apparent very quickly just how different it was culturally and aesthetically from the one we now live in. Whether the differences are for the better or worse depends on who's doing the looking.

The '70s and '80s, prior to the AIDS epidemic, were periods of unprecedented personal liberty, and the surge of social freedom was reflected in the photos being published. The sexual revolution of the 1960s, enabled in no small way by the advent of the birth control pill, spilled over into the fashion pages of magazines. In Vietnam, photojournalists, allowed unprecedented freedom by the military to go where they liked and to shoot what they wanted, covered war in a new way. After the war, this taste of freedom led news and documentary photographers to delve more deeply into social and political issues. At the same time, international photo agencies like Sygma and Sipa provided freelance photojournalists with economic security and editorial backing, allowing them to pursue stories they found personally moving.

"In all types of photography, one thing was the same during this period," says Naudet. "This was when photographers became stars, when magazines would hire someone for his or her particular point of view." Photographers were no longer merely staff functionaries sent out to illustrate stories; they became auteurs who often flaunted their eccentricities, because those were exactly the qualities that editorial and advertising clients were interested in purchasing.

"This led to an incredible kind of creativity during that period," says Naudet. "You had photographers stretching the limits, inventing new things, because they were allowed to and encouraged to."

The empowerment of photographers to create was especially apparent in fashion, and Naudet admits that his "underrated" list is weighted heavily toward that genre. "Partly it is because I love fashion, I love women, and I once wrote for fashion magazines, so I was very aware of this world," he says.

VIEW GALLERIES Main Portfolio gallery Second Portfolio gallery READ PROFILES Alon Reininger Ara Gallant Bill King Charles Harbutt Chris von Wangenheim Denis Piel Duane Michals James Baes Jill Freedman Mike Reinhardt Philip Jones Griffiths Stan Malinowski Stephen Shames Steve Hiett Alex Chatelain Bill Silano Leslie Krims Philip Dixon Barry McKinley Matthew Rolston Bill Cunningham

Fashion was also where art and commerce came together to reflect and ultimately to define the culture of the time. Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin tapped into personal fantasies and took fashion photography to new places. But if those two photographers are well known today, others, like Chris von Wangenheim (who, says Naudet, was the artistic heir of Newton), have largely been overlooked. Bill Silano, who shot extensively for Harper's Bazaar, was a master of composition and design. Alex Chatelain brought a simplicity and freshness to fashion. New Zealand-born Barry McKinley brought a lushness and elegance to women's and men's fashion. Bill King turned women into icons, especially in a long series of ads for Blackglama. Philip Dixon also brought a singular sensuality to fashion and to celebrity portraiture. Leslie Krims captivated collectors and curators with fine-art photography that turned his private impulses into a visual theater of the absurd.

Bill Cunningham is another case entirely. His photos can still be seen each Sunday in the New York Times. For decades, he has been chasing the celebrated (such as a reclusive Greta Garbo) and the anonymously stylish through the streets of New York, documenting the history of our culture on a weekly basis. Yet, because he is almost fanatical about not promoting himself beyond the realm of the newspaper, his efforts have been largely overlooked.

The portrait of the '70s and '80s that emerges from our portfolio shows just how provocative photographers could be, once upon a time. The culture has changed since then, in interesting ways. Fashion magazines now would probably not publish an image of a supermodel fondling her own undergarments, as French Vogue Homme did with Denis Piel's memorable image of Andie MacDowell; nor would they be likely to run Ara Gallant's fashion photo of two men snorting cocaine, as Interview did in 1977. Today we live in a more conservative era, at least as it relates to advertising-driven media. In researching this portfolio, we were, in fact, obliged to set aside many images-images once thrillingly published by mainstream magazines-because of their "controversial" sexual or cultural nature. The creative imperative now often comes not from individualistic photographers but from marketing departments whose goal it is to avoid offending cultural pressure groups.

Does that mean photographers today are less innovative than those who preceded them? Perhaps, says Naudet. "The key is for photographers now to look to the past for inspiration-not to imitate, but to see the creative dimensions and all the possibilities of another time."

"He was my first revelation as an editor at French Photo," says Jean-Jacques Naudet. "The magazine published him three times in three years, in 1970, 1971, and 1972. At this time, the great American colorists included Ernst Haas, Art Kane, Jay Maisel, Pete Turner, and Hiro, but for me Bill was the best." Silano's pictures ran in Harper's Bazaar primarily, but also in Town & Country and other magazines. From the mid-1960s on, he emerged as one of the top five fashion photographers of the period, but his time at the top was relatively short. "We didn't see much from him after 1975," says Naudet. "He was a perfectionist. He could be somewhat difficult. Today he lives in the Hamptons, on Long Island."

RETURN HOME Most Underrated Photographers VIEW GALLERIES Main Portfolio gallery Second Portfolio gallery

In 1974, the Foundation of Photography in Paris exhibited the work of Leslie Krims, in a show that also included the work of Duane Michals and Ralph Gibson.

By that time, Krims was already being heralded as a photographic innovator who used his images to plumb the depth of his own psyche. By 1977 he had become such a big name that he was in- vited as the guest of honor at the photography festival in Arles, France. "He held a workshop in which he simply handed out pictures of himself," recalls Naudet. "The students asked for their money back." Krims's time in the spotlight came to an end in the early 1980s. He now teaches photography at Buffalo State University in New York.

RETURN HOME Most Underrated Photographers VIEW GALLERIES Main Portfolio gallery Second Portfolio gallery

Born in Pasadena, California, Dixon's first contact with photography came when he got a job at a color lab. He began taking pictures and was published in fashion magazines. His big break came when he signed a contract with Playboy. Dixon has always brought a sleek sensuality to his images and has shot for major magazines (French Elle, Harper's Bazaar) and ad clients (Ray-Ban, Paramount Pictures).

But his attitude toward success is laid back. Still based in his Moroccan-style palazzo in Venice, California, he says he's driven not by artistic ambition but by his dreams of retiring to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

RETURN HOME Most Underrated Photographers VIEW GALLERIES Main Portfolio gallery Second Portfolio gallery

In 1981, at the G. Ray Hawkins Gallery in Los Angeles, a young curator named David Fahey put together an exhibition of three young photographers who were reshaping Hollywood glamour: Herb Ritts, Greg Gorman, and Matthew Rolston. Of the three, Rolston, who got his start shooting for Interview, was both the most successful and the least visible. "I prefer to stay anonymous," he says. "My job is to capture the myth of my subject-their myth, not mine." Rolston went on to direct music videos, and he remains at the top of the photo world, shooting covers for editors like Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone, with whom Rolston has had a 20-year relationship.

RETURN HOME Most Underrated Photographers VIEW GALLERIES Main Portfolio gallery Second Portfolio gallery

Born in Paris in 1941, Chatelain assisted Avedon and Hiro in the mid-1960s. By decade's end he was a top shooter in his own right, who, along with Patrick Demarchelier, Mike Reinhardt, and others, pioneered a new, youthful style of fashion photography.

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McKinley is perhaps the most forgotten among all the forgotten photographers of the past 30 years. Born in New Zealand, raised in Australia, he launched his photographic career in Europe at the end of the 1960s. His agent, Frances Grill, brought him to New York, where McKinley began working for Interview, Esquire, and, later, GQ magazines. He brought a happy, vivid sense of realism to fashion, especially men's fashion. He died in 1992 of complications from AIDS. His archive of images went to the late Howard Gilman, a famed photo collector.

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For decades, Cunningham has been the informal, almost invisible but all-seeing eye of the fashion world, catching images of its traveling troupe of characters-models, designers, stylists, celebrities, and acolytes. Shooting at the corner of New York's 57th Street and Fifth Avenue, he has captured fashion's real life. His images, seen in the New York Times, suggest an awareness of the connections between the artifice of the self-conscious world of fashion and the everyday expressions of personal style.

RETURN HOME Most Underrated Photographers VIEW GALLERIES Main Portfolio gallery Second Portfolio gallery
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