The Online Photographer

Check out our new site at!

Monday, November 27, 2006

T.O.P.'s Ten Best Living Photographers List

Herewith, in celebration of our first birthday, is T.O.P.'s highly subjective, unapologetically U.S.-centric (I can't help it, I live here), bound-to-be-controversial, and not-quite-totally-pointless-but-almost Ten Best Living Photographers list. Why? Because lists are fun, and it's our party.

Counting down from number ten:

10. Jill Freedman. Why? Because Jill Freedman gets it. She knows what photography is for. She understands that it's not an intermediary, a way of distancing: it's a way of getting closer, of showing what's worth seeing, of telling what needs to be told. Because there's nothing in between Jill Freedman's pictures and what's important—and nothing in between her and her art, and that's the way it's supposed to be. She's not rich or famous. Just good.

9. Duane Michals. Why? Because he's Duane Michals—there's only one (see left). Because he's an artist, using the tools of approximately Photo 101 circa 1965 to contruct conceptual scenarios only he could dream up. Because he makes simple snaps into art with leaps of meaning and twists and riddles.

8. Kim Kirkpatrick. Why? A forgotten photographer of the forgotten, the American master of bokeh-aji has amassed the largest body of undiscovered major work this side of Abbott's rescue of Atget. Averse to publicity, resistant to showing, taciturn to a fault, Kirkpatrick has managed to hide in plain site of the haute-art NY galleries like a panther staring from the woods. His (yes, he's a he) work is difficult, austere, elusive, and almost metaphysically lonely, and formal and emotional at the same time, as if vectoring in on each of those opposites exlusively. Also a subtle colorist. Long overdue for a major monograph, but don't hold your breath, or you may turn an exquisite shade of blue and expire.

7. Nicholas Nixon. Why? "Nicholas Nixon speaks of honor. 'I'm honored to be using the same methods as Atget, as Walker Evans. I want to honor what is possible. I'd like to go deeper, get closer, know more, be more intense and more intimate. I'll fail, but I'm honored to be in the ring trying. I'd like to go deeper than Stieglitz did about his marriage. It's arrogant, but I'd like to try.' Nicholas Nixon speaks of trust. 'I trust photography. I trust my ability to challenge it and it to challenge me.' And he speaks of obligation. 'I have the good fortune to be married to someone for twenty-seven years. I have an obligation to try to tell a story about it. I want to show more about her; about us.' " (Arthur Ollman)

6. Sally Mann. Why? You could make the case that she's been searching for a subject since her children grew up, but the big body of work she did of her kids in a dark rural fantasyland of the mind is the best Southern fiction America's had since Welty, O'Connor, and Faulkner.

5. Roy DeCarava. Why? A quirky talent, America's version of Bill Brandt in the sense that he owns his own rather odd technical signature and remains opaque to many, a man who sometimes seems to have his arms wide open but his back to the world, DeCarava's revolutionary fervor still smoulders from within his impossibly murky, dark prints. But his work resounds with love, jazz, and life. Perennially underappreciated, but not in these precincts. If I calculate correctly, he turns 86 this December 9th, a few days from now: Happy birthday, Sir.

4. Ray McSavaney. Why? The man has got no rap at all, and seems almost allergic to self-promotion or, indeed, promotion of almost any sort (which could be good things), but he's our modern-day heir to Ansel Adams: a classic West-Coast B&W Zone-System photographer whose work is gorgeous but nuanced, distanced, wide-ranging, probing, rapt, technically perfect and tonally ravishing—and did we mention gorgeous?

3. Edward Burtynsky. Why? The Germans are cooler, in several senses, but Burtynsky is the landscapist of the 21st century, the visual chronicler of humanity overrunning Earth. His pictures are monumental and appalling, delicate and dizzying, so deep they're flat, brooding and, yes, pretty (sometimes).

2. James Nachtwey. Why? Start with enough visual talent to make about three average art photographers, and combine it with hard-as-rock commitment, a work ethic that would burn most of us out in less than a decade, and awe-inspiring courage in the face of things like flying bullets and explosions in one's personal space, and you've got a journalist-photographer who is half a head above and one-and-a-half steps ahead of best of the rest—even though photojournalism is a field currently loaded with talent and accomplishment.

1. Elliott Erwitt. Why? Because, since M. Henri passed, Erwitt is the largest, most protean and outsized talent there is when it comes to framing life in little 2x3 aspect-ratio rectangles. Sardonic, self-deprecating, and (although it's hard to believe) actually kinda old, he ain't hot, particularly, but he's hip, and gawd knows we need his sense of humor and humanness. He's done it all, and he keeps doing it, and nobody does it better. Go, dog, go.

Disagree enough to want to nominate an alternate? Leave your comment below, and please don't forget the "why?" part.



Blogger MJFerron said...

Once again I've been snubbed off yet another top ten list. Sigh. Anyway there's about 7 of those photoraphers that I have to Google. Happy 1st birthday and thanks for the great blog.

7:49 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Sorry MJ. Just work hard this year and maybe you'll make the list next year.


7:54 AM  
Blogger Romeo Alpha Sierra said...

Happy Birthday! I guess the photographer I missed most is Steve McCurry. He photographed the famous afghan girl with piercing eyes for NG. Why? His skill for portraits of lesser known cultures is astounding in my opinion. Keep up the good job!!

8:16 AM  
Blogger Jason D. Moore said...

Could you add links to their websites or to some of their work?

Happy Birthday!

8:18 AM  
Blogger dingbat said...

I'd like to nominate Judith Joy Ross (for her great 8x10 portrait work) and Philip Lorca DiCorcia and Daido Moriyama. But I'm glad to see Nixon and Kirkpatrick on the list.

Oh, and did Lee Friedlander die recently?

8:32 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"Oh, and did Lee Friedlander die recently?"

God, I hope not.


8:46 AM  
Blogger kevin said...

William Eggleston is missing from the list.

i picked up his recent book Spirit of Dunkerque and liked it a lot. he is still creative and producing some great images.

happy bday T.O.P.!


8:50 AM  
Blogger David Adam Edelstein said...

Yay! I confess I was reading down the list looking for Mr. DeCarava, who is everything you say. I understood my own photography better after I saw his work, especially the relationship between jazz and street photography.

I also wanted to put in a plug for War Photographer, the documentary about James Nachtwey. The sequences with the mini video camera mounted on his camera are practically a seminar in choosing and framing a subject.

9:06 AM  
Blogger wild bill said...

I was forwarded your blog and completely agree with you. I know both Kim Kirkpatrick and Ray McSavaney and admire both of their works. I have worked under Ray and have a print of his which I treasure. Likewise I have worked under Kim Kirpatrick and respect him as a friend and mentor. I own several of his color prints as well. Thanks for the blog. bill woolam

9:54 AM  
Blogger Joe Holmes said...

I nominate Tom Roma (, who only remains so unknown because he has very, very little presence on the Web. (I can't even link to individual pages on his site, because it's in frames. Click on Books, then click on individual books for some sample images.)

His prints are astonishing and his books are simply phenomenal: in order of my preference: Sunset Park, Higher Ground, Enduring Justice, Come Sunday, Prison Air.

The guy builds his own cameras in a shop behind his house, starting with surplus aerial photography lenses. And his work on prints and the books is really meticulous.

I wish there was more online to show, but you'll just have to start with one of the books...

9:57 AM  
Blogger Ken Tanaka said...

I could not agree more with Elliott Erwitt's #1 position on your list. His ability to frame irony and humor with a camera is truly jaw-dropping and hilarious.

If you want to get a wonderful gift for Christmas, put Mr. Erwitt's Snaps, or his newest book, Personal Best on your list to Santa. Nothing gives a dreary day a stronger lift than browsing through Mr. Erwitt's images.

Regarding the list, may I nominate Bruce Davidson for at least an honorable mention?

10:08 AM  
Blogger aizan said...

sure you can't make room for gilles peress, chris killip, or josef koudelka in there?

10:25 AM  
Blogger Will said...

I know it seems impossible, but Ruth Bernhard is still alive, yet obviously not working any longer. Perhaps you could alter your list to be "active" living photographers? And what about Eggleston? Robert Frank?

10:45 AM  
Blogger rdr said...

Don McCullin has to be on this list, unless he died today, which would make for a very sad TOP birthday.

10:52 AM  
Blogger Mike Allen said...

Happy Birthday, your blog makes my hobby and passion even more rewarding. I was looking for Ralph Gibson (you know he has a vision, and it doesn't poke through and tap you on the shoulder, it reaches out and clutches at your lapels - mine, anyway) and Gregory Crewdson (perhaps not as deep a body of work, but haunting, and it makes me think a lot about light, never a bad thing). And finally, I hate to say it, but PLEASE keep the politics coming somehow, I'm a northern neighbour who was fast losing faith and patience with the gorilla to the south - at least until I listened to the sanity seeping out from your anguished political rants. Mike Allen, Vancouver BC

11:52 AM  
Blogger Dr Hiding Pup said...

Freedman and Erwitt are fantastic and, amongst other things, they both photograph dogs. No cat photographers on this list though...

1:02 PM  
Blogger okram said...

Boris Cvjetanovic. Not all has to be American. Trust me and see it on goole search (no site)

1:14 PM  
Blogger david vatovec said...

Loretta Lux. Why? Because she makes some terrifying creatures out of normal little sweet kids, and because in this mass of pictures we`re bombarded every day, she makes about a dozen a year!

Oh, and Happy Bday TOP!!!!!

1:23 PM  
Blogger Brambor said...

Josef Koudelka and Viktor Kolar should be in there but the list of 10 is narrow and you have to take a boat to visit their home country. That's too far ;-)

1:35 PM  
Blogger Viz said...

A few other possibilities: Irving Penn (still alive AFAIK), Neil Leifer (the Ali - Liston shot alone almost merits inclusion), and Paul Caponigro.

1:52 PM  
Blogger clive said...

Elliott has to be everyone's number one [well has been mine for some years]
Recently had the opportunity to meet him and view a live interview with French TV at Visa pour l'image. Guess what, they tried to take him seriously as an artist and he just wouldn't let them.
Great fun!
As to the rest of the list, well as a European , there are some Americans that I've never heard of and some that seem to have been left out................
There seem to be a lot of Europeans left out!
Oh yes, Edward Burtynsky [who? I haer some ask]is in there, no others though.
Koudelka,Salgado, Perres,Burri, just a few of many names that immediately spring to mind weh creating a list to make a list.
Just my 2 Euro Cs worth

3:07 PM  
Blogger Stan B. said...

C'mon, ya gotta have Bruce Davidson!!! And in no particular order: Carl DeKeyzer, Bruce Gilden, John Davies, Josef Koudelka, Eugene Richards,
Gilles Peress, & Mary Ellen Mark... And oh yeah, Happy Birthday!

6:39 PM  
Blogger Carl Dahlke said...

Richard Misrach - Why - because he has created a extended mediation on the relationship of man and landscape in the West that opens up a totally different way to see the land than is given by the classic f64 photographers (The Desert Cantos). He is also willing to take big risks with his projects which for me is a model of building a protean body of work. Sometimes he leaves me cold (Pictures of Paintings), but I always want to see what he has done next.


Joel Meyerorwitz - Why - because he almost defined beauty in color photography. He reveals the sublime that is always around us hidden in the quotidian world. Before Joel a clothsline was just a clothsline. After Joel it could be music notation against the sky.

7:18 PM  
Blogger Dierk Haasis said...

Do I disagree with the list? Only on personal taste - but that's what it's all about, isn't it?

Two of my favourites are actually missing, although I hope you did consider them:

Frans Lanting and David Doubilet

Or do you not like nature photography?

1:21 AM  
Blogger J.Harper said...

A late addition: Wendy Ewald. Why? Because she has created remarkable body of collaborative work with children around the globe enabling a host of voices to speak through these images; many are collected in Secret Games: Collaborative Work with Children 1969-1999 and American Alphabets. And Wendy is also a generous, gifted teacher. She has melded her art with her teaching, making it clear that those who can, do, and also do teach.

6:20 AM  
Blogger fizzy said...

I'd like to add Emmet Gowin. Like Sallly Mann, his early work with his family is his most well-known, but his newer landscape work is subtle and powerful. He tells one story about photographing from an airplane, and seeing a ripple in the land that he could only see from that height, at that angle, at that time of day, and thinking as he took the photograph that he was probably the only person ever to have seen that. I think that's as good a description of what we all try to do as photographers as anything I've ever heard, show what we think only we are seeing. Don't discount Mann's newer work, it's incredibly complex and beautiful.

1:23 PM  
Blogger Roy said...

It's a good list, but I guess anyone outside the US will just have to prepare their own if they want to see some of the best of the rest of the world in there.
However, we do know about US photographers over here in Europe so maybe we'll include one or two of 'yours'...

It doesn't seem like a year - TOP has been a great source of information during those 12 months, always thought-provoking - and with just a smattering of arrogance and contention to keep us on our toes - congratulations!

2:43 PM  
Blogger under focus said...

I agree Erwitt are one of the # 1´s. I would like to place Martin Parr at this position also. He is, may be, not so well known the US, but he can show of the funny, and serious, side of modern life.

3:28 PM  
Blogger beulmann said...

Who's missing?
- William Eggleston
- Joel Sternfeld
- Nobuyoshi Araki

Why? Take a look at their photos!

Happy birthday and best wishes for my favorite photo-blog :-)

9:02 PM  
Blogger dingbat said...

... and finally, not to extend this list too long: Bernd and Hilla Becher. They'd be my #1. Gursky, Struth and Ruff may be the darlings of the art world, but that entire school started with the Bechers.

3:53 AM  
Blogger Jan Faul said...

Oh, I feel rejected too -- not on another top ten list. A few years ago I stopped entering contests for various reasons, one of which was that they are either setups or too easy to win. So I'm not worried about this list either. Too many great living photographers are completely unaccounted for.
I figure there must be at least 250 folks making seriously good images hard at work in their anonymity in the US alone. I personally only know of a couple of dozen, but I'm sure there are hundreds more. Daid Scharf at Am Photo keeps making his lists and they always seem to include people who were good a decade ago because it takes so long to look through thousands of images. How long is this list going to last?

3:47 PM  
Blogger Om-Shanti Photography said...

Salgado's is missing!
McCullin is Missing!
McCurry is Missing!
Nice to see Nachtway though!

10:47 AM  
Blogger This list is so wrong... said...

erm someone got it wrong. Please rename it Top Ten living American photographers.

1:39 PM  
Blogger mark fawcett said...

Seems to me Ed Burtynski is Canadian not German -- anyway he lives in Toronto. Here's an article from today's Toronto Star.

mark fawcett

5:03 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Yes, EB is Canadian. The text refers to the German photogoraphers whose work Burtynsky's somewhat resembles--Struth, Ruff, and especially Gursky.


5:42 PM  
Blogger ARB said...

I've known #8 on your list for three years now. During that time Kim has been my teacher, my mentor, and my friend. Thanks for pointing him out to people.

7:13 PM  
Blogger jain said...

Thanks for stepping up and putting your list together. But I have to add my favorite, DAVID ALLEN HARVEY, who hopefully will make your list next year.

4:32 PM  
Blogger Stuart Haden said...

Robert Frank, Sebastiao Salgado, Don McCullin, Robert Adams, Joseph Koudelka, Irving Penn, Cindy Sherman, Graciela Iturbide, William Eggleston and Lee Friedlander are most definitely in my top ten. Why are they not in yours?

1:56 AM  
Blogger Michael Denholm said...

What about Annie Leibovitz?

10:35 AM  
Blogger Jazmin said...

I'm kinda bummed that Dorothea Lange or Annie Leibovitz wasn't p there. No doubt this "TOP 1o" list was written WAY before I visited the site but still, they are good photographers.. Btw, I'm a upcoming photogropher, and a sophmore in high school. Any advice?

9:59 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi everyone. my dad is a famous photographer... Not as well known as he used to be in the 60s and 70s. His name is Peter Rand. There are two peter rands who are both photographer so don't get em mixed up! One is crap and does pics on scenery and is digital where as my dad does people and uses analog which he is still sticking by today in the modern world! His website is: (or please check it out! He ain't cheap doh! He used to be a fashion photographer in voguemagazine and took pics of people such as Dusty Springfield, The Kinks, Bob Dylan and many other peeps! Check out the site... I think he deserves a place on this list!

4:30 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

darcy aimee,
What is your Dad's email address? If you could leave it in a comment for me, I won't publish it. I tried to contact him at the address at his website, but it bounced.

Mike J.

5:41 PM  
Blogger Ajay Gupta said...

How do we contact these photographers? I need a headshot for a radio show I'm launching in March.

5:11 AM  
Blogger Dihelson Mendonça said...

It´s missing probably the greatest living photographer, SEBASTIÃO SALGADO. If you knew pictures from him, and his many Books, you knew what I´m talking about.

Dihelson Mendonça

7:51 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Nick Brandt !!

8:57 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home