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A Closer Look at Atget, Avedon and Meyerowitz

written by: Caroline Thompson•edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom•updated: 8/30/2011

Three famous photographers works show how the medium of photography has evolved and become an integral part of art in the twentieth century.

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    Photography As Art

    Photography started out at the very beginning with controversy over whether it was art or just mindless copying what was in front of the camera. Many failed painters took to photography to create portraits and landscapes that were too difficult to create using charcoals or paints. Some painters used pictures of their subjects to create paintings. As with all art forms, it is the artist (in this case the photographer) who defines and lays the groundwork for future photographers to create new styles through their work. Looking through the eyes of famous photographers through their works exposes the evolution of photography. Each of these famous photographers’ works builds upon the process of photography and the creative use of light and form.

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    Eugene Atget 1856-1927

    Eugene Atget was born in Paris France in 1856. He dabbled in the theater arts until the late 1880’s when he discovered photography and started photographing sets and models for artists to use for their work. Atget built a photography business in Paris and started roaming the city with his 8x10 camera taking stills of the different environments within the city. He liked to call these his “documents" of the city.

    Atget was not a formal artist and very modest about his work because of this. He shot from instinct and passion for his art. He created over 8,000 images that were praised by Surrealist artists of the time. His photo of Notre Damn and the images of the river use foreground elements to create a relationship and sense of space to the buildings. Atget photographed buildings using artistic elements of vantage point, flatness and ambiguous space. Though Atget was not formally trained in the arts, he had an intuitive sense of space and design. Surrealists of the time such as Man Ray marveled at his sense of juxtaposition and ambiguity in his pictures of store windows and street scenes. Future famous photographers works would emulate some of Atget’s surrealist elements.

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    Richard Avedon 1923-2004

    Richard Avedon’s style builds upon Edward Steichen’s earlier work in fashion photography. The formal and elegant images are beautiful in their tonality and contrasting elements. Avendon took fashion outside and added movement in contrast to the beautiful still images of Steichen’s elegant models. Avendon’s models leap in the air and across streets. The tension in the images between the still elements and the frozen time adds a sense of fantasy to the fashion images. Avedon worked for Vogue, Look and Harper’s Bazaar producing formal images that looked spontaneous.

    Avedon used contrast for emphasis along with various line elements in Figure 6. The psychic lines of the eyes looking at each other, the lines of the legs leading into the lines of the arms and the contrast between the light and dark clothing creates repeating elements in the image.

    Avedon’s other passion was for portraiture. Avendon photographed many celebrities along with non-celebrities. Each of his portraits captures something Avedon sees that strikes him as capturing some personal element of his subject. His portrait of Marilyn Monroe was taken in moment when she was not “on" or acting for the camera. Avedon seemed to find the place between the public image and the private person in his portraits. Avedon uses passive framing with a plain white background in many of his portraits. The subject is usually balanced in the center of the image facing the viewer. His minimalist portraits seem to allude to some character trait of the subject.

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    Joel Meyerowitz 1938-

    Joel Meyerowitz is a modern street photographer. Joel likes to use his 35mm camera to catch candid shots of people on the busy streets of New York City, but he also uses large format cameras to capture street scenes. Meyerowitz shoots from instinct, not from viewing the subject to create the image. He needs to feel an emotion for his subject to create his images. He is aware of everything around him and says that you have to be there to capture the picture. Photographer's need to be out photographing for that special "magical moment" to present itself.

    Meyerowitz looks for odd juxtapositions of elements in the frame. For example, he shot a street scene that shows a tiger caged in the storefront window, growling towards the crowd. A lady with short red hair draws our attention to the legs of a dog with a coat and shoes. The image uses active framing and reads from left to right with the man emerging from the dark, the tiger in the light to the strange set of legs of the dog. Meyerwitz uses geometric shapes in the dark shadow that is a triangle in the foreground, the rectangles of the building and the squares of the sidewalk.

    Meyerowitz was also commissioned by the City of New York to photograph the 9/11 disaster site at ground zero. He chose to use large format in color to emphasize all the elements in the image. These images are printed large so the viewer can see all the small details of the damage site. The painted red arrow in one image combined with the bits of yellow police tape add little bits of color signifying articles of someone’s life strewn about the area. All the minute detail of the images brings the viewer closer to the massive devastation with all the little remnants of what was once part of an office space. The use of color reminds us this is not some distant tragedy, but a modern day horror.

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    Photography is full of famous photographers works that span over a century of photography. Each new age produces new photographers with fresh ideas and eyes to see the world and comment on it through photographs. These three photographers represent three distinct styles in photography, but they are just a tiny inkling of the talent and creativity of photographers throughout the century.


  • The Metropolitan Museum Of Art <>
  • PBS American Masters <>
  • Legends Online--Joel Meyerowitz <>
  • Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History <>