12 Black and White Photographs that every Photographer Should Know

Consuming meaningful photographs (as if they were some sort of high quality product) has a very close relationship with becoming a better photographer. Of course, not every photograph out there is worthy of being read conscientiously, and an even larger percentage doesn’t meet the necessary conditions for becoming iconic.

Making a photography list is always a fun thing to do; but there are always many great images left behind. Today we want to share with you a series of photographs that every photographer definitely needs to know.

We hope that you read each and every single shot at a slow rhythm. Try to spend at least 5 minutes with each photograph, and with no distractions by your side. Read the images and find all the meaningful symbols that tell you something about what’s going on in the photo, or in the mind of the photographer. Our main goal is that from here on you’ll start consuming photos at a slower pace, and eventually, this will make you less worried about posting images like crazy across the web.

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Louis Daguerre – Boulevard du Temple – 1839

This photo is considered to be the first street photography ever. And there are some serious debates spinning around the conditions on which this shot was made. The context is beautiful and in the lower third of the picture we can see a small yet obvious human shape. What we have here are really two persons, a man and a shoe shiner. Some academics argue that they can see in fact more than two persons in this photo, but due to its low shutter speed, their presence is still uncertain.

André Kertész – Meudon – 1928

This is one of the finest examples of how complex a photograph composition could be.  And it is a firm statement of how rich a photo can become when read slowly. The image itself is highly surrealist thanks to the massive train floating delicately over the messy construction site. The people give this image a whole different layer of lecture, from the man holding the painting to the people walking at the distance.

André Kertész – La Fourchette – 1928

I rarely include two photographers in the same list, but Kertész was a really great photographer. If you want to learn from a single photographer, then you should study his work. His ability for capturing pretty much anything was outstanding. This image is for me the best example of “less is more”, and if you ever have trouble understanding about reductionism or even minimalism, then this photo will give you a hint.

Martin Munkácsi – Liberia – 1931

The image alone inspired Henri Cartier-Bresson to become a photographer. If you can’t find a better reason to watch it, then I don’t know what to say… Munkácsi was a master of fast action photographs, and this composition is gorgeous.

Dorothea Lange – Migrant Mother – 1936

As a part of the New Deal after the Great Depression in the United States, the Farm Security Administration hired various photographers to document the reality of the people. This is considered to be “the picture that did more than any other to humanize the cost of the Great Depression”. The visual complexity of the photograph has served several times to study composition, and it has also been considered to be a piece of art. The image itself is very controversial due to its commercial usage and non-retribution towards Florence Owens Thompson.

Margaret Bourke-White – Gandhi and the Spinning Wheel – 1946

The story behind this photograph is a great lesson for photographers that are always rushing into things. Bourke-White was able to do this photograph only after understanding the huge symbol the spinning wheel had for the people from India as an independence statement.

Henri Cartier Bresson – Rue Mouffetard, Paris – 1954

Capturing humor candidly is a huge challenge, so I hope this image can work as inspiration for several people out there. The joyful and even proudish expression of the kid while walking with two bottles of wine is priceless. This sort of photo is the concrete evidence that being prepared is more important than anything else in photography. Only practice can lead you to react instinctively while achieving great photos. Of course the kid is the main interest, but the girls behind him (almost celebrating his attitude) make the image even more delightful to watch.

Richard Avedon – Dovima with Elephants – 1955

This photograph has been a timeless example of how juxtaposition should be made. Dovima’s delicacy in contrast with the huge elephants is quite a delight to watch. Even the clothes enhance the model’s gestures. Anyone slightly interested in fashion photography should definitely take a look not only at this shot but the complete work of Richard Avedon.

Garry Winogrand – Central Park Zoo New York – 1967

Within such a heated political context, this photograph touched some nerves back in the late ’60s. Street photographs impose the challenge that pretty much nothing is in control. The best way to capture things is to be prepared, there’s no more to add to the recipe. The composition can be split into several elements, from the chimpanzees dressed as kids to even the kid at the right corner, or the obvious elegance of the couple among a crowd that has transformed itself into a mere background.

Josef Koudelka – Prague – 1968

The image seems to be simple, but is one of the most iconic photos ever thanks to its symbolic value. Koudelka took this picture at the very exact moment in which his city (Prague) was being invaded by foreign military forces. The wrist-watch is the best evidence of the moment in time when this tragic event happened. With the invasion of former Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union gave away its failure as a nation.

Donna Ferrato – Behind Closed Doors – 1982

This image shows us how important photography really is for showing things that need to be seen. Donna Ferrato started one of the most ambitious photographic projects ever thanks to this image, documenting domestic violence while happening. The short documentary film available at Time’s website is really worth watching.

Sally Mann – Candy Cigarette – 1992

There is a “rule” (more of a trick) in photography that states that compositions with odd numbers are more pleasing for the human eyes. This magnificent photograph is a great proof of that. There is an appealing aesthetic nature when a photograph has just 3 or 5 elements to look at. Consider this while composing your next photographs.

Author Details
Federico is a passionate documentary photographer and writer, who in his own words, “have given his life to photography, and it has totally been worth it.”
You can read more of his articles here or browse through his portfolio. He is currently based in El Salvador.
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Federico is a passionate documentary photographer and writer, who in his own words, “have given his life to photography, and it has totally been worth it.”
You can read more of his articles here or browse through his portfolio. He is currently based in El Salvador.

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