To be considered for this list of the top 10 most influential nature photographers of all-time, the photographers had to have left a lasting impact either on society or on future photographers. Most of these photographers can be considered revolutionary in their own right as opposed to evolutionary which is the category in which the majority of photographers fall under. There are many photographers in recent years who have made a name for themselves in the digital era but it is too soon to know who from this era will leave a lasting historical impact on future generations.
1. Ansel Adams – The grandfather of landscape photography. He is the one nature photographer that transcends the genre and even photography for that matter. His images are so well-known that photographers and tourists-alike are still trying to fill his tripod holes 60 – 70 years after his most famous images were made. Perhaps his greatest legacy were his environmental conservation efforts with the Sierra Club that led to creation of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks among other areas, and also the art education institutions that he helped to create.
2. Galen Rowell – A well-rounded photojournalist with a special ability to connect with a vast audience through his writings, Rowell influenced countless photographers in multiple genres beginning with rock climbing, wilderness adventure and then eventually landscape photography in the 2nd half of his career. The list of current working photographers that have followed in his footsteps reads like a who’s who in outdoor adventure and landscape photography and number too many to list. He was one of the first to utilize 35mm cameras exclusively in outdoor photography and popularized the use of graduated neutral-density filters.
3. William Henry Jackson – One of the early pioneers of landscape photography, Jackson’s photos were instrumental in the creation of the National Parks system beginning with Yellowstone National Park in 1872. Not to go unmentioned should be the fact that this was essentially the first of a long-tradition of using nature photography as a catalyst for environmental conservation efforts.
4. Eliot Porter – In contrast with Ansel Adams’ big landscape style, Porter’s photos were more “quiet” and focused on the intimate landscape scenes that are easily overlooked. It is easy to overlook his body of work in favor of postcard views but one needs to only look at the photographers that he influenced to see that his work has left a lasting impact. Photographers including William Neill and Charlie Cramer have styles that bear a strong resemblance to Porter’s vision. His most famous body of work is arguably the book, In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World.
5. David Muench – Like Ansel Adams did with black and white landscape photography a generation prior, Muench is synonymous with color landscape photography. The now-cliche’d use of prominent foreground elements leading the eye through the frame to the background in the distance was a style that Muench became known for back in the 50’s and 60’s. You would walk into any library or bookstore in America in the past 40 years and be hard-pressed to not see his books or calendars even if you don’t know his name.
6. Carleton Watkins – Created some of the earliest known images of Yosemite National Park which helped to spark interest in the western landscape.
7. Philip Hyde – A top Sierra Club photographer in the 50 – 70’s, Hyde’s photography was instrumental in campaigns to save southwestern landscapes from flooding due to dams including the Grand Canyon and Dinosaur National Monument which led to the birth of the modern environmental movement. A number of leading nature photographers cite him as an inspiration for their life’s work.
8. Robert Glenn Ketchum – He is arguably the most prominent conservation photographer working today. His photography is actively used to further environmental causes in the American political system. His aerial photography of Alaskan landscapes are especially stunning.
9. John Shaw – The author of several best-selling nature photography how-to books he is often credited with helping beginning photographers to improve their photography and is still a leading figure in the workshop market today.
10. Arthur Morris – A sign of an influential photographer is one that is often imitated, and one would be hard-pressed to see any bird photography that doesn’t bear Morris’ influence. He is arguably the most prolific bird photographer of all-time and runs a successful birding workshop business.
Honorable Mentions: Art Wolfe, David Doubilet, Subhankar Banerjee
I tried my best to remove my bias from creating this list by judging solely on resume and lasting impact on future generations of photographers. It is no secret that Galen Rowell was my biggest influence in photography but even if he weren’t, I would probably still rank him in a similar fashion. I’m also a fan of many more contemporary photographers so perhaps in ten years there might be some new names on this list that reflect the digital era. On the flip side, just because they are on this list doesn’t necessarily mean that I am a fan of their photography either but their accomplishments deserve to be recognized. With that said, I believe that valid arguments could be made for the ordering of any of the top four photographers on this list.
I’m interested in hearing what others think and if you think anyone has been left out. So if you would like to participate, then feel free to leave your list within the comments or create a blog post on your blog with your own list of most influential nature photographers and include the relevant link in the comment section.