Photography has been traditionally a male dominated art form. The following are 30 of the most influential female photographers of all time; women who wouldn’t accept status quo. They are an inspiration to us all.
Dorothea Lange was an American documentary photographer and photojournalist known for her images of the Great Depression, which humanized the plight the plight of migrant farm workers. She is best known for ‘Migrant Mother’ taken in 1936, which is said to be one of the best-known photographs in history. She also photographed the Japanese internment camps in the 1940’s. Dorothea Lange documented life in America and gave us a tremendous body of work that is invaluable to human history.
Margaret Bourke-White was one of the early women photojournalists, and photographer for LIFE and Fortune magazines. Margaret Bourke-White’s work has become the paradigm of the social and political construct of North American photo journalism. She was the first woman accredited by the United States Military as an official war correspondent during WWII and her work portrayed the often-harsh reality of war. Bourke-White may be most well-known for famously photographing Mahatma Gandhi just hours before he was tragically assassinated.
Mary Ellen Mark has achieved worldwide visibility and many awards for her images depicting humanism surrounding many social issues. She was known for her broad scope of photography extending from photojournalism and documentary photography to portraiture and advertising photography. Her work depicts the reality of many of the social struggles of our times and create a unique sense of closeness and care for the people she photographed. Her work has been exhibited at galleries and museums worldwide and widely published in Life, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, New York Times, and Vanity Fair. She is best known for her work with a 13-year-old prostitute named Tiny, who she photographed for over 30 years.
Gerda Taro is a female photographer that history should never forget. She is regarded as the first female photojournalist to cover the front lines of war, and was unfortunately, the first female to die while doing so. Born as Gerta Pohorylle, Taro was a pioneer in photojournalism- especially when it came to the discipline of war. She was critically wounded during her coverage of the Republican army retreat at the Battle of Brunete. On July 25, 1937, she hopped onto the footboard of a car carrying wounded soldiers when a Republican tank crashed into its side. She is best known for her contributions to the work of Robert Capa and her Spanish Civil War photographs are a permanent fixture at the f/stop photography festival in Leipzig, Germany.
Sally Mann is largely known for her large format black and white photographs. She uses her own family as her subjects and, although the work is amazing, a piece called ‘Immediate Family’ has created tons of controversy. Immediate Family shares the intimacy of her own young children, often nude, going about their daily lives. Mann’s photographs deal squarely with the taboo subject of nude children and work confronts the viewer with images that are at odds with the public’s perception of acceptable art. Her work highlights the vagueness and over breadth of child pornography and challenges what it means to be protected under the First Amendment.
Vivian Maier was not known as a photographer – she worked as a nanny for decades and carried her camera around in her spare time to pursue and collect incredibly intimate moments on the streets. She took over 150,000 photographs during her lifetime and has rewritten the history of street photography with her work. Her works were undiscovered until 2009 when A Chicago collector, John Maloof, linked his blog to a selection of Maier’s photographs on the image-sharing website Flickr. Her work went viral, and has subsequently attracted critical acclaim. Since then, Maier’s photographs have been exhibited around the world. She is truly one of the masters of street photography and has given us a great showcase of the beauty of everyday life.
Born Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob, Claude Cahun was a Jewish-French photographer, sculptor and writer who rose to fame during the 1920s with her Surrealist self-portraits. Cahun identified as being agender, and her work often questioned traditional gender roles. At the start of World War II, Cahun became involved in the politics of the time, producing propaganda against Nazi Germany which resulted in Cahun being arrested by the Gestapo. Cahun was imprisoned for one year until eventually being freed at the end of the war. She continued to produce photographs until her death in 1954. At a time where men dominated the Surrealist art world, Cahun was a breath of fresh air. In her self-portraits, Cahun dressed up as a model and a soldier to name a few. Cahun’s work continues to inspire feminist and a-gender photographers across the globe.
Eve Arnold was a pioneer of photojournalism. She specialized in capturing natural shots of famous celebrities and was particularly noted for her work using available light, concentrating on the image in the lens and avoiding extensive use of photographic lighting and flash. Arnold’s images of Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Misfits (1961) were perhaps her most memorable, but she also photographed Queen Elizabeth II, Malcolm X, and Joan Crawford, and traveled around the world, photographing in China, Russia, South Africa and Afghanistan.
Diane Arbus was an American photographer noted for photographs of marginalized people such as dwarfs, giants, transgender people, nudists, circus performers—and others whose normality was perceived by the general populace as ugly or surreal. Her images often had a disturbing element to them and have had a lasting legacy on urban street culture. Embodying the importance of getting close to people when it comes to environmental and everyday portraits, Arbus is truly an inspiration. She has been credited for her uncanny and amazing ability of separating her subjects from their context or their society. Diane Arbus is sometimes referred to as the Sylvia Plath of photographers. Sadly, she took her own life in 1971.
Cynthia Sherman is an artist and female photographer who is also one of the most important figures of the post-war era. Her work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art for over three decades. She is best known for personifying the classical stereotypes of the film noir and the European cinema in what is known as “author films” of the 1950s and the 1960s. a New York City based photographer, she has produced photographs featuring herself as the model that examine the roles of women in society. She was a 1995 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship.
Perhaps not the most famous female photographer, Francesca Woodman’s talent is undeniable. She is known mainly for her self-portraits and has been defined for her unveiling attitude toward the camera. Although she tragically committed suicide at the age of 22 in 1981, her work continues to be the subject of widespread critical acclaim and attention. Francesca Woodman liked to depict nude women in her photographs, capturing them in ethereal settings and poses. She was also apt to putting herself in front of her camera, positioned in empty domestic settings that gave her body take on a ghostly presence. As many critics have noted, Woodman seemed to have a talent in using photography to play with the ways we perceive time. Woodman had only a few exhibitions during her life, but numerous exhibitions each year since her death.
Helen Levitt was an American photographer known for her street photography, in which Levitt mastered capturing humor on the streets. She is now considered the “most celebrated and least known female photographer of her time” and was a pioneer of color photography and street photography. Under the patronage of a Guggenheim grant in the late 1950s and early 1960s, she captured hundreds of color negatives of New York City that were tragically stolen by a burglar a decade later. Thankfully, she continued to take photographs up until her death in 2009, many of which are memorialized in a book of her work titled Here and There.
Imogen Cunningham was an American photographer known for her botanical photography, nudes, and industrial landscapes. She was one of the first professional female photographers and a member of the famous direct photography f/64 group. Cunningham’s artistry was that she was very interested in human subjects, especially artists, with even her industrial landscapes showing an undeniable human footprint. Later in her career Cunningham turned to documentary street photography, which she executed as a side project while supporting herself with her commercial and studio photography. In 1945, Cunningham was invited by Ansel Adams to accept a position as a faculty member for the art photography department at the California School of Fine Arts.
Susan Meiselas is an American documentary photographer whose work has been published in many newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, The Times, Time, GEO and Paris Match. Besides being a member of the Magnum Photo Agency since 1980, she received the 1979 Robert Capa Gold Medal and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1992. Her iconic image titled Molotov Man became a symbol for revolutionary causes first in Nicaragua and later in other countries. Meiselas also documented the El Mozote Massacre in 1981 during the civil war conflict in El Salvador. She is best known for her 1970s photographs of two separate subjects: war-torn Nicaragua and American carnival strippers.
Germaine Krull was a photographer and political activist, who attended art school in Munich. In 1926 Krull moved to Paris where her photography skills really developed. She decided to pursue a career in photojournalism and worked for the French magazine VU. Her work ranged from fashion photography, to nudes, to portraits. By the late 1920s, she was one of the best photographers in Paris, alongside famous artist Man Ray. Krull also published one of the first books solely made up of photographs, called Métal. The book depicts images of bridges, buildings, and other industrial objects. Métal is considered one of the most important photobooks in history.
Arguably one of the most famous female photographers of our time, Annie Leibovitz is an American portrait photographer. She is famous for photographing John Lennon on the day he was assassinated, and her work has been used on numerous album covers and magazines. She started out as the staff photographer at Rolling Stone and is now at Vanity Fair. She’s shot everyone, and her portraits define our times. She became the first woman to hold an exhibition at Washington’s National Portrait Gallery in 1991, and her photographs are intimate, demonstrating that she’s not afraid to fall in love with the people she photographs. Today, Leibovitz known to as the photographer of the rich and famous.
Tina Modotti was an Italian photographer, model, actress, and revolutionary political activist. Her life and photography were strongly marked by the time she spent in Mexico with her photographs conveying her own sensitivity to Mexican culture while reflecting the evolution of her political ideas. Immersed in the avant-garde Mexican scene, she created an important photographic archive about the culture and politics of the country after the revolution. Many believe that Modotti tried to balance the dichotomy between aesthetics and politics by presenting them with absolute elegance. By far, her most iconic image is Worker’s Parade.
Julia Margaret Cameron was a British photographer during the 1800’s. She was 48 years old when she began working as a photographer and her career only lasted 11 short years. She became known for her portraits of celebrities of the time, and for photographs with Arthurian and other legendary or heroic themes She approached photography as an artist, claiming Raphael and Michelangelo as inspirations. She was also business-savvy, copyrighting all her photographs to be sure she’d get credit. Her work has influenced modern photographers, especially her closely cropped portraits, and Cameron’s photographic portraits are now considered among the finest in the early history of photography.
Nan Goldin’s is an American photographer whose photographs have depicted gender-bending, the effects of AIDS, and her own life of sex, drugs and abusive relationships. She presented her first show at a New York nightclub in 1979, her images distinct for their treatment of intimacy, sexuality, abuse and transgression in the drug-heavy years of NYC. These works eventually transformed into “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” originally imagined as a slideshow of photos of Goldin’s friends and herself set to music by artists like Nina Simone and The Velvet Underground. Goldin’s work has evolved greatly since the 1980s, including the 2004 series “Sisters, Saints & Sybils” which explores the photographer’s sister Barbara’s suicide at the age of 18. Nan Goldin invokes pure emotions and memories in her framing, translating her subjects’ elation, hesitation, anger or content into frozen moments in time.
Jill Greenberg is an American photographer known for her portraits and fine art work that often features anthropomorphized animals that have been digitally manipulated with painterly effects. Her photography of animals is regarded for its capability to show a wide range of expressions and feelings that are comparable to that of a seasoned actor or actress. Jill Greenberg’s photographs, and her artistic manipulation of them before publishing, has sometimes been controversial and she dubbed herself “The Manipulator”. Greenberg’s work and career has also focused intermittently on feminist issues, starting with her senior thesis, “The Female Object”. Greenberg is credited in the commercial photography industry as having produced several unique styles that have since been emulated by other photographers.
Gertrude Käsebier was one of the most influential American photographers of the early 20th century. She was known for her images of motherhood, her portraits of Native Americans and her promotion of photography as a career for women. Käsebier was also well known for a professional disagreement with fellow photographer and art promoter Alfred Stieglitz over considering commercial photography as art. She helped establish the Women’s Professional Photographers Association of America and inspired women in the early 1900’s to pursue their dreams of becoming a photographer.
Dorothy Norman was a prominent New York social activist, writer, and photographer. She was mentored by Alfred Stieglitz who was also her lover even though they were both married. Norman never worked as a professional photographer, instead capturing images of friends, loved ones and prominent figures in the arts and in politics. She’s especially known for photographs of famous people, including Jawaharlal Nehru, whose writings she also published. Norman’s work is noted for its clarity of vision, masterful mix of light and shading, and professional-quality printing techniques.
23. Christina Broom
Christina Broom was a Scottish photographer, credited as the UK’s first female press photographer. Broom took up photography to make money after her husband became unable to work. Her plans changed once she discovered a true passion for photography, and she began to take photographs of soldiers stationed near her home. By the time war erupted Broom was an established photographer who sold her images of soldiers on the battlefield to publications and newspapers around England. During this time Broom became close with the Royal family and was given the privilege to photograph the King and the Prince of Wales. Although her wartime photography that began her career, Broom’s is most famous for her photographs of the Suffragettes. She documented the protests and demonstrations that took place in Britain in the early 20th century, and her photography was her contribution to the feminist movement.
Leni Riefenstahl was a film director, producer, screenwriter, editor, photographer, actress and dancer. She is best known as Hitler’s propagandist, although through her filmmaking, Leni Reifenstahl disclaimed any knowledge of or responsibility for the Holocaust. In 1972, she photographed the Munich Olympics for the London Times. In 1973 she published Die Nuba, a book of photographs of the Nuba peple of southern Sudan, and in 1976, another book of photographs, The People of Kan. In her 90s, Riefenstahl was still photographing marine life and gained the distinction of being one of the world’s oldest scuba divers. She’s truly an inspiration to us all.
Doris Ulmann was an American photographer, best known for her dignified portraits of the people of Appalachia. Her photographs of the people, crafts and arts of Appalachia during the Depression helped to document that era. Prior to the depression she photographed Appalachian and other Southern rural people, including in the Sea Islands. She was as much ethnographer as photographer in her work. She, like several other notable photographers, was educated at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School and Columbia University. She practiced Pictorialism and was a member of the Pictorial Photographers of America. Her photographs are also part of many museum collections including the Smithsonian and the J. Paul Getty Museum.
Anna Atkins was an English botanist and photographer. She is considered the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images, and some sources even claim that she was the first woman to create a photograph. As an understudy of William Henry Fox Talbot, Anna Atkins learned about two of his inventions related to photography: the “photogenic drawing” technique (in which an object is placed on light-sensitized paper which is exposed to the sun to produce an image) and calotype. She used the Calotype process to make cyanotype photograms of algae and self-published her photograms in the first installment of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions in October 1843, which is considered the first book illustrated with photographic images.
Lee Miller is an American photographer. She began her career after she decided to give up modeling and get behind the lens of a camera herself. The famous surrealist painter, Man Ray, was one of her first teachers. After a tumultuous relationship with the artist, Miller became a war correspondent for Vogue in Europe during World War II. She is perhaps most famous for a photograph of her bathing in Adolph Hitler’s bathtub in Munich, Germany in 1945. Although she is most recognized for a photograph that she didn’t take, Miller was the only female combat photographer in Europe during the Second World War. She documented the liberation of the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps and giving the rest of the world a glimpse into the perverse horrors that took place in these camps. After the end of the war, Miller continued to work for Vogue, but her most memorable work was produced during her time on the battlefield.
Ilse Bing was a German avant-garde and surrealist photographer who produced pioneering monochrome images during the inter-war era.. Her most memorable work was produced when she was living in Paris in the 1930s. Bing was known in Paris as the ‘Queen of the Leica’ because of the unique handheld Leica camera she used to shoot all her photography with. Bing was included in the first modern photography exhibition at the Louvre in 1936, and she was also included in the famous exhibition Photography 1839-1937 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1937. When Paris was taken by the Germans in 1940, Bing and her Jewish husband were both sent to internment camps in the South of France while they awaited their American Visas. She survived, but Bing gave up photography in the 1950s and turned her focus to poetry and drawing. Today, Bing’s works can be seen at the Art Institute of Chicago and in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Fannie Johnston was an early American female photographer and photojournalist whose career lasted for almost half a century.. In the 1880s she moved to Paris where she studied art, then returned home to Washington D.C. where she learned photography and quickly established herself as a portrait photographer. Her portraiture clients included Mark Twain, President Teddy Roosevelt, and Susan B. Anthony. Johnston was a constant advocate for the role of women in the rising art of photography. The Ladies’ Home Journal published Johnston’s article “What a Woman Can Do With a Camera” in 1897. . She is most famous for her self-portrait, depicting the ‘New Woman’ of the 1890s’, with her petticoat showing, a mug of beer in her hand, and a cigarette hanging from her mouth. The photo was empowering for its time and reflects Johnston’s views regarding feminism and the liberation of women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Ruth Orkin was a self-taught award-winning American photographer, photojournalist, and filmmaker, with ties to New York City and Hollywood. Best known for her photograph An American Girl in Italy (1951), she photographed many celebrities and personalities. The subject of the now-iconic photograph was the 23-year-old Ninalee Craig (known at that time as Jinx Allen). The photograph was part of a series originally titled “Don’t Be Afraid to Travel Alone.” The image depicted Craig as a young woman confidently walking past a group of ogling Italian men in Florence. Shortly after, her freelance career grew as she traveled internationally on assignments and contributed photographs to Life, Look, Ladies’ Home Journal, and others. Orkin is credited with breaking into the heavily male field of photography.