The Power of Photography | The most significant images of the 20th Century

From iconic portraits of Bob Dylan, Winston Churchill and Muhammad Ali to quiet understated moments, collector Peter Fetterman brings together some of the most memorable images of the 20th century.

From iconic portraits of Bob Dylan, Winston Churchill and Muhammad Ali to quiet, understated moments, collector Peter Fetterman brings together some of the most memorable images of the 20th century in a stunning new book.

Above: Alice Mann: Dr Van Der Ross Drummies, 2017 (Alice Mann’s intimate portrait photography thematizes femininity, performance, and collaboration. The South African photographer has received particular acclaim for her “Drummies” series, which captures female drum majorette teams in Mann’s home country).

In today’s photo-saturated world, it takes a lot for a photo to transcend the ordinary. For Henri Cartier-Bresson, a successful image boils down to the ‘decisive moment’, when everything seems to align at precisely the right time. For Don McCullin, it is about emotion: “if you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”

Whatever it is, powerful photography is instantly recognisable. In his latest book, Peter Fetterman takes us on a journey through the most significant images of the 20th century, offering a moving portrait of humanity.

Lisa Law:Bob Dylan, The Castle Solarium, Los Angeles, California, 1966

Lisa Law: Bob Dylan, The Castle Solarium, Los Angeles, California, 1966 (While Bob Dylan was staying at “The Castle,” a stopping place for many creative individuals visiting the Los Angeles bohemian scene, he spent countless hours writing alone in his room. This shot from that period is vintage Dylan, dressed immaculately in all black and wearing dark shades, in a state of constant intellectual contemplation)

Peter Fetterman lives and breathes images. As a collector and gallerist, he has been involved with photography for 40+ years, and while he runs arguably the most important commercial photography gallery in the world, he remains remarkably humble. “I have to pinch myself every time the word ‘collector’ enters my orbit,” he writes in the introduction to his latest book, The Power of Photography. “To me, to become a collector one had to be born into a gilded age or be part of a distinguished heritage of enormous wealth.”

Peter’s upbringing was a world apart, both his parents leaving school at 13 and struggling their whole lives to make a living and raise a family. There were no books or art in their small apartment, but Peter vividly remembers discovering cinema as a young teen and spending his free time immersed in movie theatres. After gaining a university scholarship, Peter went to Los Angeles in 1979 intent on pursuing a career in film production. But his life took an unexpected turn when he found a passion for photography.

Eve Arnold: Malcolm X, 1961 (LIFE magazine assigned Eve Arnold to document the controversial and intensely charismatic Malcolm X. For nearly a year, Arnold followed the activist, from Washington to New York to Chicago)

Elliott Erwitt: Valencia, Spain, 1952 (Erwitt, with his laconic eye for multiple meaning, has been captivated by the enigma of ‘couples’ for his entire career. “The subject is of great interest to me, having been half of one myself now and again—blissfully sometimes, sometimes not so,” says Erwitt. “I’ve taken many pictures on that subject in the natural course of my favourite pastime…photography.” Pictured here, Robert and Mary Frank.

Lillian Bassman: Across the restaurant at Le Grand Vefour, Barbara Mullen, Harper’s Bazaar, Paris (“When I photograph a woman, I project what I’m not. What I would like to be.” – Lillian Bassman)

David Bailey: John Lennon and Paul McCartney, 1965 (Over a career spanning more than half a century, renowned British photographer David Bailey CBE has shot everyone, from the Queen of England on her 88th birthday to Australian aboriginals and Indian sadhus; London’s Eastenders to icons of fashion, music, film, and art – watch our video interview with him here)

One photograph in particular had caught his attention: a shot by American photographer Max Yavno of a film premiere for The Heiress which he’d seen on the wall at a dinner party one evening. Peter was instantly mesmerised. As it turned out, the owner – a commercial photographer – was selling it, but for $400. “At the time, my total net worth was $2,000. I was living in a dingy apartment and driving a beat-up Ford Pinto that had dubious working brakes,” he recalls.

“If I’d been half rational, I would have used the money to replace the brakes. But l’amour fou, I had to have this image as it deeply resonated with me … This started me off on my collecting compulsion, which got so intense over the years that after a horrendous experience producing a film for MGM, I decided to abandon my previous career …  and focus on a way to be surrounded by these magical pieces of paper full time. I have never regretted this decision. It was meant to be.”

This sense of l’amour fou became central to Peter’s career as a collector, leading him to open a gallery in Santa Monica – now home to one of the largest inventories of classic 20th-century photography in the USA – and compelling him to track down and meet many of the creators behind his favourite images, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, with whom he formed a unique bond. In fact, it was through Henri and his wife Martine Franck that Peter met Sebastião Salgado, who he has collaborated with for nearly 35 years, and countless other photographers including Willy Ronis, Robert Doisneau, Edouard Boubat, and Sabine Weiss. “I don’t think I would have had the life in photography I’ve had without them,” he writes of Henri and Martine.

Having since devoted much of his life to collecting, Peter has an intuitive eye for powerful photography, hunting images the way collectors hunt precious gems. For him, a powerful photograph is always transformative – whether it was taken by a renowned photographer or an anonymous print he’s stumbled across at a vintage fair. “Collecting is like reading a great novel; you are one person before and one person after,” he reflects. “That’s the litmus test on whether or not you should acquire an image. Does it haunt you?

Len Prince: Ford Model VIII Bathing Cap, New York City, 1991

Marc Riboud: Yves Saint-Laurent, Paris, 1964 (Renowned documentary photographer Marc Riboud worked from the 1930s through the early 21st century. Born in Lyon, France, he took his first photos at age 14 at Paris’s 1937 Universal Exhibition. Riboud fought in the World War II resistance effort and trained afterward as an engineer)

Martha Holmes: Jackson Pollock Painting in his Studio, Springs, Long Island, NY, 1949

Martine Franck: Swimming Pool Designed by Alain Capeilleres, Le Brusc, Var, France, 1976 (Belgian-born Martine Franck embarked on her remarkable photography career in 1963, when she took a relative’s Leica with her on a trip to China. Franck’s images, mainly portraits and documentary photographs, focus on women, artists, and peripheral communities)

When Peter was forced to temporarily close his gallery during the covid pandemic, he found himself reflecting on the images that have most haunted him throughout his career. Stuck at home like the majority of the world, he started sharing them on a daily blog and while it initially began as a short-term project, the response was so great that Peter decided to compile a book of images. “This was to become my autobiography; how I met these people and what the photo means to me […],” he says. “The Power of Photography is a personal journey through a world I am very fortunate to have found.

The book, which features 120 images from Peter’s personal collection, contains some of the most defining images of the 20th century. From small understated moments to iconic portraits of celebrities and figures who changed the course of history, it illustrates how even the quietest images have the potential to move us: A bowl of pears. A diver suspended in mid-air. The sun hitting the Big Sur as a carless highway winds invitingly into the distance. The avian form of Joni Mitchell skating across ice.

Paul Fusco: Untitled, from the book RFK Funeral Train, 1968 (spectators across the United States observing, sometimes saluting, the passing of Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral train)

Neil Leifer: Muhammad Ali vs Sonny Liston, 1965 (Muhammad Ali stands over Sonny Liston after dropping Liston with a short hard right to the jaw in Lewiston, Maine)

Weegee: Easter Sunday in Harlem, 1940 (At a time of racial tension in many parts of the United States, Weegee’s photographs showed an unusual sensitivity in their portrayal of minorities. Here, an African-American man in his best suit is surrounded by other churchgoers on Easter Sunday, 1940)

Sebastião Salgado: Ashaninka, State of Acre, Brazil, 2016 (In striking black-and-white photographs, Sebastião Salgado documents marginalised people and majestic landscapes, sometimes uniting them in the same frames)

Henri Cartier-Bresson: Queen Charlotte’s Ball, 1959 (Henri Cartier-Bresson shaped the field of photography with his lively, candid black-and-white pictures, which embraced documentarian intimacy and poetic dynamism. His concept of the “decisive moment,” in which photographers must snap their shutters at the exact right time to achieve the ideal shot, was particularly influential among photojournalism and street photography circles)

Earlie Hucknall Jr.- Girl with flag, 3rd ward, Houston, 1991 / page 48

Earlie Hudnall Jr: Girl with flag, 3rd ward, Houston, 1991 (Celebrated photographer Earlie Hudnall, Jr. is best known for his gripping photographs highlighting the overlooked beauty of everyday life in Black communities in the southern United States)

Alfred Eisenstaedt: Head Waiter Renee Breguet Serving Drinks on Grand Hotel Ice Rink, St. Moritz, 1932

Although many of the images have standalone intensity, it is Peter’s direct encounters with the artists themselves that allow us to see them in a new light. Alongside Yosuf Karsh’s 1941 portrait of Winston Churchill – “probably one of the greatest 20th-century portraits ever made” – Peter shares the story of how the photographer tamed a disgruntled prime minister into having his portrait taken, leading Churchill to shake his hand and tell him afterwards: “you can even make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed”.

Elsewhere in the book, we discover how David Montgomery found common ground with Queen Elizabeth, how Gregori Maiofis got a ballerina to perform in front of a bear and why Henri Cartier-Bresson believed cats to be the perfect ‘anarchist’ pet. Through his texts and the accompanying artist quotes, Peter reminds us of the disparate elements that come together in the creative process, how every image also contains something of the person who took it.

“I hope [this book] will move people,” says Peter. “I am not naive in thinking this will change the world, I just want the book, these images, to give people a moment of pleasure, of contemplation or inspiration.

“Photography, for me, has deep meaning and passion. It has educated me. I’ve learned so many things through images that otherwise I may not have encountered. Go on your own journey of self-discovery. Open your eyes and say yes to other people, other cultures. We are all connected. That’s the essence of the power of photography: connection.”

The Power of Photography is published by ACC Books and can be purchased here. An exhibition of the images will also be on display between June 11 – Sept 3 2022 at the Peter Fetterman Gallery at Santa Monica Bergamot Art Center.

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