THE BLOG
10/13/2014 10:38 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Is This the Greatest Photographer You've Never Heard Of?

The notion of a groundbreaking photographer first seeing the light of day in a photo studio might sound like something out of an absurdist novel. But that's exactly how, and where, J.R. Eyerman ("J" to friends and colleagues), who made some of the most frequently reproduced pictures of the 20th century--and yet remains an unfamiliar name even to most self-proclaimed "photography buffs"--came into the world.

[See Eyerman's very best pictures at LIFE.com]

In a short, informal biography that he sent to LIFE magazine in 1940, before he was made a staff photographer, Eyerman wrote of himself:

Full name is J.R. Wharton Eyerman. I was born [in 1906] in what was "the oldest and largest photographic studio in [Montana]". . . . My parents took advantage of the town's leading citizen to the extent of giving me his full name. The initials didn't stand for anything. . . .

I learned photography from my mother, a beautiful photographer. My father let me follow him on out-of-door work and as a lad I helped him make thousands of negatives in Yellowstone and Glacier Park. I left Butte and photography at the age of 15 for the University of Washington at Seattle. Four years later I was a civil engineer doing structural design. . . .

Within a few years, Eyerman had transitioned to a career in photography--one in which his engineering background would frequently come in handy. During his time at LIFE, Eyerman covered World War II (in all three major theaters, from North Africa and Europe to the Pacific), sports, celebrities, the birth of the Atomic Age, natural and technological wonders--all while envisioning and creating new photographic devices and techniques to help him take "untakeable" pictures.

J.R. Eyerman died at his home in Santa Monica, Calif., 1985. His pictures live on.

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Charlton Heston as Moses in "The Ten Commandments," drive-in theater, Utah, 1958.

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Newly built houses jammed side-by-side, divided by a street clogged with moving vans, California, 1952.

[See more of J.R. Eyerman's classic photos at LIFE.com]