Historic Photographers of America’s History

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. See Full Article HERE.

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.

Born in Ottawa, Illinois on July 21, 1903, Lee originally trained as a chemical engineer when he grew up. However, in the fall of 1936 became a member of the team of photographers assembled under Roy Stryker for the federally sponsored Farm Security Administration documentation project. Lee is responsible for some of the iconic images produced by the FSA, including photographic studies of San Augustine, Texas in 1939, and Pie Town, New Mexico in 1940. After the FSA was defunded in 1943, and after his own service in the Air Corps during World War II, Lee continued to work under Roy Stryker, producing public relations photographs for Standard Oil of New Jersey.

Some 80,000 of those photographs have been donated by Exxon Corporation to the University of Louisville in Kentucky. Lee moved to Austin, Texas in 1947 and became the first instructor of photography at the University of Texas in 1965. He died in Austin, Texas on August 28, 1986. An important collection of his work is at the Wittliff Collections, Texas State University.

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 1890’s.

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. See Full Article HERE.

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 February 2019.

Also See:

Artists in American History

Documenting American History

President Roosevelt’s New Deal

Writers in American History


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