My Influences Part II: 20th Century Photographers

February 6, 2022

I don’t know of a photographer out there who doesn’t cite another photographer’s work as inspirational at the very least. While I will discuss contemporary photographers in the next entry in this series, in this entry I’d like to discuss three photographers who influenced me early on.

While I feel it’s essential to acknowledge those whose work has helped shape my own, at the same time, I’ve tried very hard not to simply reproduce the work of those I count as influential, but rather, to take what they’ve shown me and use it in my own way. Hopefully I’ve been somewhat successful in that regard, in that despite learning from others, my work is very much identifiable as my own.

So what follows is a list of photographers I consider influential in my early journey as a photographer. It is by no means comprehensive, but hopefully provides some insight into my journey.

Entrance Gates to Greenwood Cemetery, Sunset Park by Tony Velez

Entrance Gates to Greenwood Cemetery, Sunset Park by Tony Velez

Tony Velez

Tony was my first photography teacher, a professor at Kean University. Our styles couldn’t have been more different. Tony was more of a jack-of-all-trades, and more of an activist with his camera. While I am very much an environmentalist, and through my images communicate the beauty of nature, Tony was more up front about his causes, giving voice to those who had no voice through his portraits, while also documenting history with his camera. His work has been recognized by the Brooklyn Museum, New York Historical Society, New Jersey Historical Society, and more. He was a Vietnam Veteran and later an anti-war activist.

Brooklyn Bridge and Empire Stores, by Tony Velez

Brooklyn Bridge and Empire Stores, by Tony Velez

Tony had a gentle way about him, and a teaching style that endeared himself to everyone who took his classes. At the time, I had dreams of becoming a sports photographer, which was about as different a subject from Tony’s subjects as could be found. But he still found a way to help me improve my take on the subject matter, and helped me become more technically proficient, both with the camera and in the darkroom. It was through Tony’s instruction and critique that I first began to see what was possible with a camera, and ignited the passion for photography that still burns in me.

Tony passed away on July 6, 2016 at the age of 69 from cancer caused by exposure to Agent Orange while in Vietnam. It's been about 7 or 8 years since I last spoke to him, but its his voice I hear in my head when I'm looking at my images and deciding whether or not it's worth editing.

Ansel Adams

This is going to sound cliché, as just about every landscape photographer on the planet will count Ansel Adams as an influence. I was first consciously introduced to Adams’ work through my classes with Tony Velez. In addition to learning the technical and practical aspects of photography, Tony also gave us an appreciation for other photographers. No class would be complete without a discussion of Ansel Adams.

Adams was groundbreaking in many ways. Much like the Hudson River School painters did, Adams helped increase interest in environmental protection and brought awareness to the loss of our country’s natural resources. The more I travel and photograph the landscape, the more important the environment and causes such as climate change become to me as well. Practically speaking, his development of the zone system, the founding of Group f/64, and the principal of visualization still resound today.

A comparison between the contact print and finished print of Ansel Adams' Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.

Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico by Ansel Adams. On the left is the contact print with no darkroom manipulation. On the right is a later print that has been dodged and burned and a detail enhancer applied to the negative to enhance the white crosses in the cemetery.

With regards to my own work, Adams’ influence is found in the philosophical side of my work. Adams is well known as a darkroom master. I didn’t begin photographing landscapes until after the advent of digital photography. Early on, I often felt like digital processing using Photoshop was somehow cheating. Then I read about the making of “Moonrise: Hernandez, New Mexico”, and saw both the contact print and the finished print, and read about all of the darkroom work that went into the printing: dodging and burning the sky, and brushing detail enhancer (acid) over the area of the cemetery, among others. I began to realize I wasn’t doing anything new by digitally processing an image, I was doing old things in a new way.

In addition to opening my mind to processing an image more dramatically, upon reading Adams’ book “Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs”, showed me how visualization can help me in the creation of an image by properly exposing the image at the time of capture, with the intent to process the image in a specific way when I got back to my computer.

Finally, the principals of his Group f/64, which espoused deep depth of field and sharp focus throughout an image, is prevalent in my own work today.

Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, by Ansel Adams

Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, by Ansel Adams

Galen Rowell

As a student, I began reading Outdoor Photographer as often as I could. Galen Rowell was a founder of the magazine. His column was always the first stop in my reading. As a more modern photographer, I liked his use of bold color, and his views of epic landscapes that seemed as if you could step right into them.

Rowell’s use of a variety of focal lengths, and use of dramatic light in the landscape, laid the groundwork for my own vision of the landscape. Unlike Adams, who used large format film, Rowell was using 35mm film, which to a student, was a lot more accessible and made me feel as if I could one day attain the same results.

Rowell was tragically killed in a plane crash in 2002, so unfortunately missed the all but the earliest digital cameras. It would have been interesting to see what he would have created had he been able to.

So those are three of my earliest photographic influences. In part three of this series, I’ll cover more contemporary photographers.

Galen Rowell's most famous work, Rainbow Over Petal Palace.

Galen Rowell's most famous work, Rainbow Over Petal Palace.