Michael Rammell

Top 3 Inspirational Photographers from history

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Continuing with my 'Top 3' theme for March, I'm back today to share with you, my top 3 inspirational photographers from history - those photographers who are sadly no longer with us, but whose work continues to impress and inspire.

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Last week I shared my top 3 favourite / inspirational wedding photographers and in the coming weeks, I'll be sharing with you lots of my top 3's, including my top 3 favourite photography podcasts, my top 3 Adobe Lightroom processing tips and even my top 3 creative working spaces in London.

For now though, let's dive into top 3. Some of you may be asking yourselves why it is I'm talking about 'Photographers in history' and not just photographers. Well, I've already shared my favourite 3 photographers right now in a previous post from back in 2015 - and those photographers remain very much the same to this day, but I wanted to talk a little more about those photographers who are sadly no longer with us. Those who have left behind a portfolio and body of work that have no doubt had an impact on many of us at some stage.

In truth, had I written this article around 18 months ago, 2 of the 3 photographers in my list wouldn't feature, because it is in only in recent times that they have unfortunately passed away. 

So, let's get started. Here are my top 3 inspirational photographers from history. Be sure to check out the links - the work and projects they've left behind are definitely deserving of your time and viewing. (be sure to drop your favourite photographers in the comments too, or send me an email at Michael@RammellPhotography.com

1. Fan Ho. October 1931 - June 2016

Fan Ho, is perhaps less of a household name than the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, but for me at least, his work has left a huge impression on me and serves as a benchmark for what quality, impactful work should look like.

Without disrespecting any other accomplished Street Photographer (or at least not wanting to), it could be said that many of us have work that looks similar. After all, nothing is new these days, especially to an untrained eye. However, there is no mistaking a Fan Ho photograph for anyone else's.

His work has that unmistakable film look, it's Hong Kong during the 50's & 60's in an era less seen in photographs. His work was minimalist and clean in a way that was ahead of it's time. That shows in the way that the work still feels new today. Yes, sure the work is old now, but it has not aged. The fact it is shot on film is obvious, but the style feels ultra modern. The use of geometry, light and shadow, and black and white make every Fan Ho Image unique and identifiable as a Fan Ho Image.

I talk about making intentional images quite often, the idea that you see a scene and make the picture, rather than just taking it - ducking and weaving to look for a stronger composition or even coming back at another time when the light is more pleasing. To me, all of his images I've seen, seem to exhibit these intentional acts, perhaps more than I've ever seen in work by other photographers.

I've been admiring Fan Ho's work for as long as I've been a street photographer and was devastated to discover he had passed away in June 2016. I can't even remember exactly when it was I came across his work for the first time, but since that time a link to his website has taken firm pride of place atop my list of bookmarks and I view it more regularly than any other photographers' work from any genre or decade.

There's simply no mistaking Fan Ho for someone else.

His work, like many master photographers (and I mean to use that word in a literal sense, rather than just in a complimentary fashion), had a number of books to his name featuring his work. One of note, and one that is still widely available today, is 'Hong Kong - Yesterday'. For this book, Fan Ho revisited some old, previously un-printed negatives he had stored away to produce a great collection of work that had, before then, not seen the light of day.

It makes you wonder what other negatives he had that also didn't meet his high standards, that the rest of us would quite possibly simply marvel at!

Ted Forbes' Study and Farewell videos on YouTube

My aim with this post is to simply encourage you to take a look at Fan Ho's work in the hope that you'll find it as inspiring and captivating as I do. That said though, if you're looking for a succinct, yet thorough study of Fan Ho, then no one does it better than Ted Forbes of The Art of Photography show. Ted dedicated two episodes of his YouTube / Video Podcast. In the first episode Ted walks and talks us through his life and work. 

Ted Forbes looks at the life and work of Photographer, Fan Ho. Born in Shanghai in 1931. After learning how to develop images using the family bathtub he went on to be one of the most notable street photographers and finest artists China has produced.

Then, after Fan Ho's death back in June 2016, Ted released a lovely video in homage to the talent that he was:

2. Mary Ellen Mark. March 1940 - May 2015

Whoever you are, whatever you shoot and even if you're relatively new to photography, Mary Ellen Mark should be a name you recognise at least. Given the amount of press and coverage that she and her work (rightly) received in the past few years.

She is known mostly as a photojournalist and documentary photographer, who's images told great stories (often single images were able to tell entire stories!). She had a stint as a Magnum Photographer and produced work that featured/features in galleries and museums all over the world. Mary Ellen Mark worked on documentaries, most notably 'Streetwise in Seattle'. As you would expect from such an accomplished photographer, She also has over a dozen books to her name too.

From a purely photographic perspective, Her work captured so much within a single frame, not in that there were lots of subjects or that the images were busy, but rather that each image was filled with a story. Or, rather the image perfectly accompanied the story that she was telling with a particular project. In her interview with Mark Selliger (Which I'll come to shortly), she talks about the time she photographed in a morgue. Whereas most of us would averse to doing this, Her desire to document and tell a story took over, enabling her to produce images of the bodies that are both shocking, but compelling to look at too.

despite appreciating art myself, I often 'don't get art', but I'm inclined to say that these particular images are very much art.

Many of the portraits that She made were simply haunting, in a uniquely Mary Ellen Mark style.

I myself only became aware of Mary Ellen Mark through a YouTube show called 'Capture', hosted by Mark Selliger. In one particular episode Mark Selliger interviewed Her along with Helena Christensen. Now, yes, it really is only recently that I became aware of Her compared to many. Never-the-less though, I admire her work, her words and her projects and only hope to be able to make a small percentage of the impact that Mary Ellen Mark made on the photographic world.

If you get a chance to watch this episode of Capture, you'll hear that She worked exclusively with film her entire career.

Mary Ellen Mark also gave a talk at the Photography Show in March 2015, just month's before she passed away. I was at the show that year, but unfortunately didn't get a chance to see her give her talk. It bothers me to this day that I missed that opportunity to hear such a wonderful and talented photographer. 

Mary Ellen Mark makes my top 3 because of her strength as a storyteller. As someone who wanted to make an impact with her images and because she was an artist in every sense of the word. 

3. Jane Bown. March 1925 - December 2014

When it comes to portraits, I'm a believer that the technical is simply unimportant. Sure, you can use 100 lights in a perfect studio and the lighting matters, but it is the relationship between the photographer and the sitter and the ability of the photographer to capture it, that comes through in the final image. I know that many portrait photographers out there at this point may either be screaming 'NO! What are you talking about you're totally wrong' whilst many others may be in total agreement with me, that the connection is more key, but, I just think that portraits are often as much a reflection of the photographer, as they are the subject. 

Jane Bown, for me, is a beautiful example of this.

Bown is another superb talent who has passed away only relatively recently back in 2014. However, before she passed away we were fortunate enough that she was able to do a series of interviews and recordings to talk about her work and share some of her stories, meaning we have more of a record of what the woman behind the camera was like. To us, the public (not family members), we're often curious about what it takes to produce work like Her's and what's involved to get those opportunities. It was evident that years of hard graft and effort, as well as consistently producing her own wonderful style of images, was the key to that.

Bown worked for the Observer Newspaper (UK) for a little over 60 years, which gave her many assignments to photograph some well known people, such as Bjork, The Queen (The actual Queen, as in, The Monarch), Mick Jagger and more. Rather than me simply regurgitating those stories here on the blog however, I'd encourage you to have a look at a beautiful documentary called 'Looking for light: Jane Brown' (snippet below):

For me, there is so much more to her than is even discussed and mentioned in the documentary. For example, just the fact that she was a female photographer during a time when it was very much a male dominated industry, in a male dominated time! (50's, 60's & 70's). It's perhaps a discussion for another time, but equal rights had a long way to go back then and still aren't where they ought to be, even today.

As mentioned, I'm a lover of black and white, and with Bown's work featuring nearly exclusively mono images, this is perhaps why I'm drawn to the images she has produced.

Now, as I have said many times before, that gear doesn't matter, there is a little bias here for me when it comes to Jane Bown, as she and I are both lovers and users of Olympus cameras. Whilst she used the original Olympus OM-1 35mm film SLR (groundbreaking at the time), I entered the world of Olympus with the very modern take on that same camera with the Olympus OM-D E-M5 - the modern day incarnation of Bown's camera of choice. Although she Initially photographed using a Rolleiflex, she later moved to Olympus OM-1.

Portraits are a challenging discipline. Some find that the more time they have to think, the more paralysed they can become by the choice that becomes available to them. Whilst others thrive in limited environments, with limited time. Bown proved she was more than capable no matter what the situation. In another video I found on YouTube, Bown talks of the time she photographed Samuel Beckett, who tried to leave without having his picture taken. Ever the optimist and thinking on her feet, however, she pursued Beckett as he left the building and proceeded to make his portrait in the alleyway outside. That image is very much one of her standout Images to this day and features in many of the documentaries I've seen and bodies of work of Bown that I've managed to find. Again, I've included a snippet of this story in this YouTube video:

Books & Media

Like all of the greats, She has a few books featuring her work. All of them wonderful. Jane Bown's 'Cats' in particular is very playful. At first it may sound odd that such a legendary portrait photographer has a book filled with 100 cat portraits, but in truth, that same unique Bown style and feel comes through just as strongly with the 'portraits' of the cats, as it does with her images of John Lennon, Samuel Beckett and the other famous people she has in her portfolio. It is well worth a read. Other books include 'A Lifetime of Looking', which is perhaps could be considered her 'title' book. It features an extensive collection of her most iconic images, as well as images only published in this book too. Another Jane Bown book, although, less widely available as far as I can fine is the aptly titled 'Observer', both in that she observed life, but also in that she worked for The Observer Newspaper and that the work featured in this book is the work Bown made when on assignment for the paper.


So, if we're talking about photographers who have unfortunately passed away, but who's work lives on, these have been my top 3 most inspirational. Who are yours? Henri Cartier-Bresson? Saul Leiter? Drop a comment below or get in touch with me via email, at Michael@RammellPhotography.com. You can also use the contact form too.

I love discussing photography, so if you'd like to talk about it more with me why not join me in London on April 30th for my latest FREE photo walk. All of the details are available over on the events page. Be sure to check it out and sign up. It's open to everyone and there are no limits to the number who can attend. All you need to do is register your details and show up on the day.

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