Monday, 30 January 2012

Ten Iconic Photographers: by Caroline Collett, Artist of the Week

Photography and poetry have always been my favourite art forms. Both are so expressive with such economy of form – and so true to life in their fragmented, fleeting intensity.
Here are the ten photographers who have inspired me most; not only with their exquisite eye, but with the singular sensibility and attitude that makes their work uniquely their own.

French photography, like French cinema, had a real golden period between the wars, with photojournalist greats like Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson taking to the streets to record the strangeness, poetry and passion they found there. But Brassaï is my favourite. He was just that little nosier and darker and prepared to go that little bit further underground to find his subjects in the dark streets of night-time Paris. Proud, carefree and defiant, Brassaï’s Parisians remain within touching distance.

A contemporary genius. I probably have more Tillmans’ books than any other photographer’s. His aesthetic defines this era, as if recording the most important bits of today with tomorrow’s perspective already in the bag. Deceptively informal, his photographs are all about mood and can even seem unstudied, with an almost unbelievable sense of spontaneity. Above all I love his still lives and their touching, melancholic poignancy.

Corinne Day died in 2010 in a life cruelly cut short. Classified as a fashion photographer but, as with Helmut Newton (another icon), so much more than that. For me Corinne is an iconoclast and a rebel with a fantastically real sense of beauty. I love her view of femininity and I see in her a fan too – always eager to record and define the cool and poise of her models, their attitude so much more important than their clothes.

Tina Modotti’s concise body of work is one of my all-time favourites. Her black and white shots, mostly taken in Mexico in the 1920s, have an enduringly modern graphic sensibility and a wonderful understanding of light, shade and formal composition, whilst her social consciousness and revolutionary mindset created some wonderfully tender portraits of people, even if their individuality is sometimes surrendered to archetype.

Modotti’s lover and teacher. Like Hughes and Plath in poetry, or Modotti’s friends and Mexico City contemporaries Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in art, Weston and Modotti were a high-style creative couple, whose artistic development within the same medium is inextricably linked. Weston was the master of the black and white still life and his studies of form – from shells to pelican wings and mutant vegetables – were and remain gobsmackingly beautiful.

Hounded out of Berlin by the Nazis in his youth, Helmut Newton remains the ultimate Berliner and chose the city he yearned for in his enforced absence to house his archive after his death. His photography – dark, decadent and uncompromisingly sexual – is the photography of that lost Berlin of the 30s- of cabarets, androgyny, dominance and submission, secret trysts behind closed doors. He didn’t consider himself an artist and was proud of being ‘a gun for hire’. A razor-sharp shooter, never equalled.

The great chronicler of contemporary Britain, there’s something appealingly nerdy about Martin Parr, but also something slightly vengeful in his photographs of all the non-nerds at play. He reveals us to ourselves in all our pretentions to glamour, showing instead our greed, brassiness and parochialism, with our eccentric country fairs and our sunburn at the beach. But with just enough tenderness to get away with it. I think.

A precursor to a whole generation of British photographers (including Martin Parr), Tony Ray-Jones was the son of a painter who, like Corinne Day, died tragically young, aged just 30. He left behind a wonderful but small body of post-war black and white photographs of Britain at play. Full of pathos and dark humour and with a social sub-text of class, gender and age, the images also reveal a thrillingly sharp eye for composition – so much more than most other documentarists.

Stephen Shore is the photographer equivalent of one of my favourite artists, Edward Hopper: a chronicler of poetically empty space. He pioneered a certain cool, a way of finding the wonder in the overlooked, the everyday and the ordinary. ‘Uncommon Places’, his collection of America’s empty parking lots, diners and isolated houses, churches and people, is truly seminal. I find his work incredibly atmospheric and full of meaning, in spite of its almost deliberate meaninglessness.

My final choice is Armenian photographer Yousuf Karsh, who emigrated to America as a 16-year old and became one of the greatest high society and celebrity photographers of his age. His subject matter isn’t revolutionary, but he remains for me the master of this area of work, without the fawning feel of most celebrity snappers. Another great formalist, he always tried to express his subjects’ gifts and true nature and his enormous respect for his subjects – he shot everyone from Picasso to Einstein – as well as his own sense of wonder, always shines through.

- Caroline Collett

To see Caroline's own work, visit her Shed Profile


  1. didn't know Tina Modotti's work, really beautiful...looking forward to the rest of your AOTW!

  2. Caroline Collett1 February 2012 at 00:48

    Thanks a lot! Would have loved to have given examples of each photographer, but didn't want to risk the copyright legal fees! Great that you discovered someone new through the article.

  3. Hi Caroline, so enjoyed clicking through the links, refound photographers I'd forgotten and remembered why I loved the others. Martin Parr is my absolute hero. Have you seen him interviewed? So self effacing, he reminds me a lot of Richard Wentworth, the sculptor, with a fresh, cheeky, irreverent way of seeing the world but at the same time with a love in his heart for his material and subject matter.
    I didn't know Tina's work either, so I have successfully spent about 40 minutes happily lost in images...


    1. Caroline Collett1 February 2012 at 10:53

      How dim of me - hadn't realised they'd been linked, that's brilliant. Felt strange to write without examples! Had to spend a couple of days in Dorchester Hospital with one of my kids recently and discovered Martin Parr had done a special project for them with a dozen or so shots of village fetes etc. It was such a joy to find them and really kept me sane as I kept going past them whilst marching up and down the endless corridors! Very happy to turn anyone on to Tina Modotti - I think she's very unsung. Stunning looking woman too - Edward Weston did some amazing portraits of her!