Historic Photographers of America’s History


Two photographers early 1900

Two photographers taking each others picture with hand-held cameras while perched on a roof, between 1909 and 1932

When photography first began in 1839, cameras began to accompany explorers on their travels. However, at this time, technology had not yet reached a point that the images could be used in publications. Instead, skilled illustrators were required to translate these early images. It was not until the 1860s, that the first practical paper photographs were achieved.

By the mid-1800s, around the time of the Civil War, the photographer was buried in his portable dark tent, which consisted of the camera equipment and a portable darkroom. At that time, they processed their photos right on the spot. By the 1870s, photography had advanced to a point that treated plates could be taken out to the field, exposed, and brought back to a dark room for later processing. In 1884, George Eastman patented the first film in roll form to prove practicable and four years later, in 1888 perfected the Kodak camera, the first camera designed specifically for roll film.

Throughout the second half of the 19th Century, as photography was going through a number of technical improvements, many a brave adventurer set out to document the events, people, and scenes that made this country grand.

Historic Photographers:

Ansel Easton Adams (1902-1984) – An American photographer and environmentalist, he is best known for his black-and-white photographs of the American West, especially in Yosemite National Park.

George Grantham Bain

George Grantham Bain

George Grantham Bain (1865-1944) – A New York photographer, Bain founded the first news photograph service, Bain News in 1898.

Mathew B. Brady (1822-1896) – One of the most celebrated 19th century American photographers, he is best known for his photographs of celebrities and his documentation of the Civil War. He is credited with being the father of photojournalism.

Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868-1952) – A photographer of the American West, he is best known for his many images of Native Americans.

Jack Delano (1914-1997) – Working for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), Delano was also a composer noted for his use of Puerto Rican folk material.

Walker Evans (1903-1975) – An American photographer is best known for his work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) documenting the effects of the Great Depression. He said that his goal as a photographer was to make pictures that are “literate, authoritative, transcendent.”

Allen Street, Tombstone, Arizona, 1882

Allen Street, Tombstone, Arizona, 1882

Camillus Sydney “Buck” Fly (18??-1901) – Best known for his photography of the Geronimo’s surrender in 1886, Fly was living and working in Tombstone during the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. He also served as the sheriff of Cochise County, Arizona for two years.

Alexander Gardner (1821-1882) – A Scottish born photographer, he moved to the United States in 1856 where he developed his profession. He is best known for his photographs of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln, and the execution of the conspirators to Lincoln’s assassination.

Freighting in the Black Hills, South Dakota by John C.H. Grabill

Freighting in the Black Hills, South Dakota by John C.H. Grabill

John C. H. Grabill – An American photographer, he is known for his photographs taken in South Dakota and Wyoming in the late 19th century.

Herman Heyn (1866-1949) – An important portrait photographer in Omaha, Nebraska, from the 1880s through the 1920s, he is nationally noted for more than 500 images of Native Americans, mostly Sioux.

Frances “Fannie” Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952) – One of the earliest American female photographers and photojournalists.

Migrant Mother during the Depression era

Migrant Mother, 1936 by Dorthea Lange.

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) – A documentary photographer and photojournalist, Lange is best known for her Depression-era work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Lange’s photographs humanized the consequences of the Great Depression and influenced the development of documentary photography.

Russell Lee (1903-1986) – Photographer and photojournalist who became a member of the team of photographers assembled for the federally sponsored Farm Security Administration (FSA) documentation project.

Timothy H. O'Sullivan

Timothy H. O’Sullivan

Timothy H. O’Sullivan (1840?-1882) – An American photographer, O’Sullivan was best known for his photographs taken during the Civil War and in the American West. Born in New York City in about 1840, O’Sullivan began working as an apprentice to famed Mathew Brady when just a teenager. When the Civil War began in early 1861, he joined the war effort and was commissioned a first lieutenant in the Union Army. Over the next year, he fought in Beaufort, Port Royal, and Fort Walker in South Carolina; and Fort Pulaski, Georgia.

After being honorably discharged, he joined Brady’s team in photographing the Civil War. However, he soon left Brady to photograph Civil War battlefields on his own. In July 1862, O’Sullivan followed the Major General John Pope’s Northern Virginia Campaign. He soon joined up with Alexander Gardner, who had also worked for Matthew Brady, but, quit in late 1862, probably in part because of Brady’s practice of attributing his employees’ work as “Photographed by Brady.”

In July 1863, O’Sullivan created his most famous photograph, “The Harvest of Death,” depicting dead soldiers from the Battle of Gettysburg. In 1864, following General Ulysses S. Grant’s trail, he photographed the Siege of Petersburg before briefly heading to North Carolina to document the siege of Fort Fisher. That brought him to the Appomattox Court House, the site of Robert E. Lee’s surrender in April 1865. After the Civil War, Alexander Gardner published a two-volume work, Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War, in 1866, which included 44 of O’Sullivan’s photographs.

O’Sullivan’s experience photographing in the field earned him a position as the official photographer for the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel led by Clarence King. From 1867 to 1869, he followed the first governmental survey of the American West. The expedition began at Virginia City, Nevada, where he photographed the mines and worked eastward. His job was to photograph the West to attract settlers. O’Sullivan’s images were among the first to record the prehistoric ruins, Navajo weavers, and pueblo villages of the Southwest.

In 1870 he joined a survey team in Panama to survey for a canal across the isthmus. From 1871 to 1874 he returned to the southwestern United States to join Lieutenant George M. Wheeler’s survey west of the One-Hundredth Meridian. He faced starvation on the Colorado River when some of the expedition’s boats capsized. Few of the 300 negatives he took survived the trip back East. He returned to Washington, D.C., in 1874 and made prints for the Army Corps of Engineers. In 1880, he was made chief photographer for the United States Treasury. However, the position would be brief as he died at Staten Island, New York on January 14, 1882, of tuberculosis at the age of 41.

Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks (1912-2006) – A groundbreaking American photographer, musician, poet, novelist, journalist, activist and film director, Parks is best remembered for his photo essays for Life Magazine.

Marion Post Wolcott (1910-1990) – A noted photographer who worked for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the Great Depression documenting poverty and deprivation.

Arthur Rothstein, FSA photographer

Arthur Rothstein, FSA photographer

Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985) – An American photographer. Rothstein is recognized as one of America’s premier photojournalists.

Andrew Joseph Russell (1830-1902) – A 19th-century American photographer of the Civil War and Union Pacific Railroad. Russell was born in New Hampshire in 1829 but was raised in New York City. He began his training as a painter before Civil War. There he was assigned to the United States Military Railroad Construction Corps, in part because his family had a history in canal and railroad construction. In that role, he photographed primarily transportation subjects for the Union but was responsible for a few photographs of more historical and graphical interest, which were later sold to and distributed by the Mathew Brady Studios. One more famous photo was “Confederate dead Behind the Stone Wall” after the Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia which occurred in May 1863. After the end of the Civil War, Russell was commissioned by the Union Pacific Railroad to take photographs of the eastern portion of the building of the as the route moved west from Nebraska toward Promontory Point in Utah. He is most famous for his “Joining of the Rails” image of the laying of the Golden Spike at Promontory Point, Utah, but also took a number of photographs of the American West. After 1870 Russell returned to New York where he became the world’s first photojournalist working for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper until the early 1890s.

Ben Shahn (1898-1969) – A Lithuanian-born American photographer, Shahn is best known for his works of social realism, his left-wing political views, and his series of lectures.

Erwin E. Smith, cowboy photographer, 1908

Erwin E. Smith, cowboy photographer, 1908

Erwin E. Smith (1886-1947) – Often referred to as “one of the greatest photographers of cowboy life,” Smith created engaging and action-filled images of cowboys and ranch life that have come to symbolize the universal western cowboy type.

William Eugene Smith (1918-1978) – An American photojournalist known for his refusal to compromise professional standards and his brutally vivid World War II photographs.

Roy Emerson Stryker (1893-1975) – An American economist, government official, and photographer, Stryker is most famous for heading the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the launching the documentary photography movement of the FSA.

John Vachon – John F. Vachon (1914-1975) – Vachon worked as a filing clerk for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) before he was recruited to join a small group of photographer s, who were employed to publicize the conditions of the rural poor in America.


Compiled & edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated November 2019.

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