Best American Chess Photography
George Bernard Shaw and his wife playing chess, 1907, by Alfred Stieglitz

Best American Chess Photography



What is photography?

Merriam-Webster gives this definition, “the art or process of producing images by the action of radiant energy and especially light on a sensitive surface (such as film or an optical sensor).”

A too technical interpretation open to criticism as it is only about (chemical) process behind photography. Even the word art seems to have the meaning #1 of the four definitions of Art in M-W. Where is the art meaning #4, "the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects" in our photography equation?

Because photography is one of the arts. As any other art form it "enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time."―Thomas Merton.

The regular readers of my blog remember that we have already covered photography and its connection to chess. In the Legendary Photographer Explains Chess Player's Thought Process post we saw how photography is really not just about pressing a button. Snap. In the same way that chess is really not just about making a physical move on the board.

In that article, the legendary Ansel Adams explains that there is something more essential in both photography and chess against mere mechanical process ― the way we think. Imaginatively. Creatively. Artistically.

“The concept of the photograph precedes the operation of the camera. The print itself is somewhat of an interpretation, a performance of the photographic idea.” ― Ansel Adams

This is the same idea that is elaborated in my debate with GM Yasser Seirawan (sparked after his "[Nimzovich's] ideas were all rubbish"), which is that everything starts with an idea. The rest is just the implementation of the idea.

Unless you just do a snap; or aimless wood pushing in chess; or kick the football randomly into the air...

Back to photography. I checked Encyclopedia Britannica on photography and what I found there makes much sense. It follows Adams' line of thought:

"As a means of visual communication and expression, photography has distinct aesthetic capabilities. The essential elements of the image are usually established immediately at the time of exposure which is unique and sets photography apart from other ways of picture making and due to this seeming automaticity gives the process a sense of authenticity. As they say 'the camera does not lie'.

"This understanding of photography’s supposed objectivity has dominated evaluations of its role in the arts. In its early history, photography was sometimes belittled as a mechanical art because of its dependence on technology. In truth, however, photography is not the automatic process.

"The skilled photographer can introduce creativity into the mechanical reproduction process. The most important control is, of course, the creative photographer’s vision. He or she chooses the vantage point and the exact moment of exposure. The photographer perceives the essential qualities of the subject and interprets it according to his or her judgment, taste, and involvement.

An effective photograph can disseminate information about humanity and nature, record the visible world, and extend human knowledge and understanding. For all these reasons, photography has aptly been called the most important invention since the printing press."―Encyclopædia Britannica.

Today, I am presenting you with 24 pieces of photographic art of the very best of American Masters. I primarily focused on the old guard (the oldest photography by Mathew Brady is from the American Civil War, 1864).

So you are having an opportunity to see what may be a deeply intimate and affectionate connection between our beloved game and all of us who have been enjoying it. With passion. Day after day. You may sense something about the nature of the game, as well as about our human nature and our need to play and about importance to be in a playful mode. The following photographies may extend a bit that understanding and tell us who we are and what chess really means for us...


1. Mathew Brady (1822, Warren County, NY - 1896, New York)

photo by Mathew Brady

Miss Minnie Warren and Commodore Nutt, who served as bridesmaid and groomsman to Mr. and Mrs. General Tom Thumb at their wedding, playing chess, New York, 1864 (Photo credit: unknown)


2. Alfred Stieglitz (1864, Hoboken, NJ -1946, New York)

Alfred Stieglitz photo

Two Men Playing Chess, Bavaria, 1907. Dr. Raab (right) plays chess with (probably) Herr Götz. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Henry R. Kravis Gift, 2005


3. Frank Eugene Smith (1865, New York - 1936, Munich)

Frank Eugene Smith photo

Dr. Emanuel Lasker and his Brother, 1907. Metropolitan Museum Of Art, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1933


4. Man Ray (1890, Philadelphia - 1976, Paris)

Man Ray photo

Juliet Browner in front of a chess set designed by Man Ray, 1945


5. Alfred Eisenstaedt (1898, Dirchau, West Prussia - 1995, Oak Bluffs, MA)

Alfred Eisenstaedt photo

US Women's Chess Champion Lisa Lane playing in tournament at Marshall Chess Club, 1962 © LIFE Photo Collection


6. Weegee (1899, Zolochiv, Ukraine - 1968, New York)

Weegee photo

Chess players and musicians in the Washington Square Park, cca. 1955 (Photo credit: unknown)


7. Margaret Bourke-White (1904, New York - 1971, Stamford, CT)

Margaret Bourke-White photo

Henlein Nazi rally, Prague, 1938 © LIFE Photo Collection


8. Horst P. Horst (1906, Weißenfels-an-der-Saale, German Empire - 1999, Palm Beach Gardens, FL)

Horst P. Horst photo

Model leaning on a chess table © Vogue photos


9. Philippe Halsman (1906, Riga, Russian Empire - 1979, New York)

Philippe Halsman

Hans Richter vs Marcel Duchamp, Live Chess Match (the man in the tree is the French-American artist Marcel Duchamp), 1956 © Philippe Halsman/Magnum Photos


10. Carl Mydans (1907, Medford, MA - 2004, Larchmont, NY)

Carl Mydans photo

Bobby Fischer, 1962. International Center of Photography. Gift of the Estate of Carl Mydans, 2005


11. Gordon Parks (1912, Fort Scott, KS - 2006, New York)

Gordon Parks photo

Between scenes in the show at New York's Latin Quarter, Pat Farrell prepares to make a chess move. Opponent (right) is Grace Sundstrom. Kibitzing at left is Shirley Forrest, an ex-schoolteacher.

© Gordon Parks-The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images


12. Eve Arnold (1912, Philadelphia - 2012, London)

Eve Arnold photo

Chess game in Greenwich village, 1950 (Photo credit: unknown)


13. Robert Capa (1913, Budapest - 1954, Vietnam)

Robert Capa photo

Two boys play a game of chess on a park bench with crowd of spectators looking on, Moscow, 1947

© The Robert Capa and Cornell Capa Archive, Gift of Cornell and Edith Capa, 2010


14. Ted Williams (1925, TX - 2009)

Ted Williams photo

Gene Lees playing chess with American jazz trumpeter and bandleader, Dizzy Gillespie. 1961 (Photo credit: unknown)


15. Molly Malone Cook (1925 - 2005)

Molly Malone Cook photo

Chess players, Washington Square, New York City, late 1950s (Photo credit: unknown)


16. Elliott Erwitt (1928, Paris)

Elliott Erwitt photo

Mexico, 1973. © Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos


17. Lewis R. Lew Bush (1932, Miami - 2013, Palm Coast, FL)

Lew Bush photo

Playground scholars, Jacksonville, 1961. State Library and Archives of Florida


18. Bruce Davidson (1933, Oak Park, IL)

Bruce Davidson photo

Los Angeles, California. 1964 © Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos


19. William Carter (1934, Los Angeles)

Andre Kertesz photo

Andre Kertesz, Washington Square, New York City, 1963

[Andre Kertesz (1894, Hungary - 1985, New York) is another giant of American photography, known for his groundbreaking contributions to photographic composition and the photo essay.]

William Carter papers, © Stanford University Libraries


20. Ellis (Eli) Reed (1946, Linden, NJ)

Eli Reed photo

Members of the rap group Run DMC on the road between Virginia and New York, 1986. © Eli Reed/Magnum Photos


21. Annie Leibovitz (1949, Waterbury, CT)

Annie Leibovitz photo

Harry Potter. The life size chess match photo for Vanity Fair ©Annie Leibovitz/Vanity Fair


22. Steve McCurry (1950, Darby, PA)

Steve McCurry photo

Game of chess outside a tailor's shop. Jodhpur, Rajasthan Blue City. © Steve McCurry


23. Alex Webb (1952, San Francisco)

Alex Webb photo

Havana, Cuba, 2008. Capablanca chess club. © Alex Webb/Magnum Photos


24. Carolyn Drake (1971, Los Angeles)

Carolyn Drake photo

Bend, Oregon. 2015. Boyscouts from LA at a rest stop. © Carolyn Drake/Magnum Photos

Which photography has made the most impression on you and why?