Remembering the Photographic Masters

© Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas Images-Contact Press Images

Every email I receive from writer Steve Meltzer these days has been sadly familiar. “We’ve lost another one,” Steve will write while sharing news of the passing of yet another photographic master. The list is staggering, all men of a certain age (in their 80s) who’ve passed away in the last month or so.

There was art photographer Ray Metzker who died at the age of 83 in October. Metzker was an extraordinary photographer, whose work is in the collections of dozens of art institutions. He had more than 50 one-person museum shows and was the recipient of two Guggenheim Foundation Fellowships. Even more importantly, Metzker’s beautiful, challenging and uniquely modern landscape photos were like no others out there.

As Steve described it in his obituary of Metzker: “After processing the film he would take his black and white negatives into the darkroom and long before Photoshop, manipulate them. He’d combine negatives layer upon layer, make multiple exposure prints or prints small sections of many images on one piece of print paper. He did this always with an eye on creating eye-catching but often perplexing images.”

Then was Swiss photographer Rene Burri who also passed away in October, at at the age of 81, after a long illness. Burri was one of the last of the major photographers of the post World War II generation and was best known for his photos of artist Pablo Picasso and Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. Burri’s life may have been best summed up in a statement from his family that reads, in part: “With (the death of) René Burri the world of photography loses one of its most powerful artists, a true humanist, who skillfully documented from behind the scenes the suffering and joy of humankind.”

And then, just a few weeks ago, Lucien Cleruge, one of France’s foremost photographers, passed away at the age of 80. Clergue was a founder of the Recontres D’Arles international photography festival and was known as the “Eye of Midi,” for his stunning black-and-white images that captured the sensuality of Mediterranean life in the Midi, a nickname for the South of France.

These are all sad passings in the photography world but these masters’ work will live on for generations, proving the endurance of great art. Meanwhile, other photographic masters are still chugging along, including 91-year-old Marc Riboud, who currently has two new shows in France and New York City.

Sebastião Salgado, who, at 70, is a spring chicken, by comparison, has a major exhibition of his work, titled “Genesis,” now at the International Center of Photography. Salgado’s majestic, black-and-white images are the stuff of dreams and his subject is about as big as it gets: the genesis, fragility and continued endurance of life on this planet. If you have a chance to get to New York, I highly encourage you to see this show, which proves that the work of the great photographic masters continues.