Top 20 Famous Portrait Photographers of All Time

by Cutting Edger / Last Update: June 24, 2024 Top 20 Famous Portrait Photographers of All Time

Portrait photography is one of the most popular forms of photography. It has had its appeal since the starting age of photography. Portrait photographs have connected people from different sections of society in the same thread. It has sparked the fire of desire in the viewer's mind. Portrait photographers are the magicians behind these magical connections.

Today we are featuring the Top 20 famous portrait photographers of all time. Stay with us and enjoy the discussion about photography maestros. Inspire yourself with these adventurous journeys.

 

Evolution of Portrait Photography

Portrait photographs always prioritize their subjects. Portraits have the unique power to capture the soul inside a subject. In earlier times, portrait paintings were a sign of elegance. Traditional portrait painting was quite a long process. A portrait painting took 2-3 months. It took years to draw a perfect portrait. Success and perfection were dependent on the portrait painters.

Portraits became much easier after the invention of the camera. Portrait photographs were way more perfect and time-efficient. Portrait photographs replaced portrait paintings. It reshaped the history of the photography industry. 

 

Robert Cornelius (1809 – 1893)

Robert Cornelius was an American portrait photographer. His daguerreotype self-portrait in 1839 is widely regarded as the first known photographic portrait in the USA. Cornelius successfully established the world's 2nd photographic studio in 1840.

This was the first photographic studio in Philadelphia, USA. Cornelius is credited for reducing exposure times for daguerreotypes. He decreased the exposure time of daguerreotype photography from 15 minutes to less than one minute.

 

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 – 1879) British Photographer

Julia Margaret Cameron is one of the most talented portrait photographers. She is known for her soft-focus portraits. Her portraits are arguably the first 'close-up' photographs in history. Cameron is often criticized for her unretouched prints.

She always focused on the real appearance of her subjects. Of 900 photographs she took in her 12-year-long career, most were portraits. Portrait of famous scientist Charles Darwin is one of her notable works. In 2019, Cameron was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum.

 

James Van Der Zee (1886 – 1983) Portrait Black American Photographer

James Augustus Van Der Zee is an American photographer. He is famous for his portrait photographs. His carefully posed family portraits reveal that the family unit was an important aspect of Van Der Zee's life. James was one of the activists of the Harlem Renaissance. James pioneered photo retouching.

He is famous for combining several photos into a single image. In his portraits, James preserved black New Yorkers' history and cultural heritage. Some of his customers criticized him for editing images. However, he always saw it as an enhanced presentation. In his portraits, the subjects are visually more appealing than they were in real life.

 

Dorothea Lange (1895 – 1965) American Photographer and Photojournalist

Dorothea Lange is the most celebrated portrait photographer ever. Lange portrayed the immense suffering of US citizens during the Great Depression in her documentary photography. Lange used to work in a studio as a portraitist.

During the great depression, she found the ambition of her career and transformed herself into a portraitist for the helpless people going through immense suffering in the streets of California. She captured the pain of homeless people in her photographs. Used her camera as a weapon against poverty. Lange was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2003.

 

George Hurrell (1904 – 1992) Hollywood Glamour Photographer

George Edward Hurrell revolutionized the style of portraits in Hollywood. Before him, the majority of the promotional pictures were composed in quite identical ways. He changed the lighting and focused on taking more glamorous portraits.

He was capable of catching glamor in his portraits. Some of his portraits have notable attribution to the careers of several Hollywood celebrities. He made training films for the First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Air Forces.

 

Yousuf Karsh (1908 – 2002) Armenian-Canadian Photographer

Yousuf Karsh is the magician of portraits. With a distinct lighting style, genius composition, and commitment to bringing out the person inside through his works. Karsh has photographed the portraits of influential personalities in modern history. Karsh has photographed nearly 23 state leaders around the world.The State Bank of England used the portrait of Winston Churchill by Yousuf Karsh in £5 bills.

His portraits of US president John F. Kennedy, the first lady, shook up the media. As a genius, Karsh was immensely gifted and believed to be the last of his kind. Karsh photographed personalities like Queen Elizabeth II, Mohammed Ali, Nelson Mandela, Albert Einstein, and Ernest Hemingway. Karsh won the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement in 1961.

 

Irving Penn (1917 – 2009) American Fashion Photographer

Irving Penn used to work for fashion magazine The Vogue. With an astonishing 165 covers over the 66 years that he wrote, Irving Penn's impact on fashion portrait photography cannot be overstated. Penn had Mr.Alexei Bradovich, the famed art director of Harper's BAZAAR as his professor. A through-line in Penn's work is how all his subjects are treated equally in front of his camera.

A famous actress is presented in the same way as a tradesman. Penn developed a technique to democratize the subject in his portrait photoshoots, stripping away all artifice to reveal something behind the design. Penn was awarded “The Cultural Award from the German Society” for Photography in 1987.

 

Arnold Newman (1918 – 2006) American Photographer

Arnold Newman stands as a unique name in the world of 20th-century portrait photography. He wasn't just capturing faces but creating insightful glances into his subjects' lives and personalities. Newman's signature style is known as environmental portraiture. The idea was to place his subjects in settings that reflected their work or interests. 

Before Newman, most portraits were formal studio-oriented. Newman creatively broke the rule and set new standards. He meticulously researched his subject and then created compositions that used props and backgrounds to tell a story. Newman was awarded The Royal Photographic Society's Centenary Medal and Honorary Fellowship in 2004.

 

Helmut Newton (1920 – 2004) German-Australian Photographer

Helmut Newton was a German-Australian photographer. He was renowned for his provoking and fashion-forward style.  His black and white portraits, often featuring powerful women in dramatic lighting and unconventional poses, challenged traditional notions of beauty and sensuality.  

Working for Vogue and other major publications, Newton blurred the lines between fashion and art, leaving a lasting influence on the industry. Starting his career in fashion photography, Helmut Newton excelled in portraiture as well. He brought his signature style – bold lighting, graphic compositions, and a touch of sensuality to his portraits. This unconventional approach made his portraits captivating & solidified his reputation as a true visionary.

 

Diane Arbus (1923 – 1971) American Photographer

Diane Arbus approached portrait photography differently. She chose uncommon subjects like strippers, carnival performers, nudists, and people with dwarfism. Her family portraits of middle-class families struck hard the reality. Arbus developed a close rapport with her subjects, capturing their vulnerability and humanity with a fearless gaze. 

Her work sparked controversy, with some finding it sympathetic and others strongly matched with society.  Regardless of perspective, Arbus's portraits forced viewers to confront uncomfortable realities and redefine what constitutes a compelling portrait.

 

Richard Avedon (1923 – 2004) American Photographer

Richard Avedon redefined the genre by stripping away artifice and capturing the reality of his subjects. Avedon was always interested in experimenting with how portraiture captures the personality and soul of its subject. He moved beyond flattering poses and soft lighting, often placing celebrities and cultural figures in unusual compositions.

Avedon's keen eye captured exposure and emotions, sometimes through direct gazes or unexpected gestures.  He wasn't afraid to expose imperfections. He always believed they revealed a deeper truth about his subjects. This stripped-down approach and his innovative use of negative space made Avedon's portraits iconic, forever influencing the fashion and celebrity photography world.

 

Sebastião Salgado (Born February 8, 1944) Brazilian Photographer and Photojournalist

Sebastião Salgado's photographs portray individuals living in extreme poverty. Sebastião Salgado connects his viewers to his photographs through a series of portraits. His idea behind this is that interconnected images allow him to weave a series of narratives. These series of narratives are far richer than any single frame could portray. 

Unlike many photos from developing countries focusing on suffering, Salgado's pictures capture the strength and respect his subjects deserve. He shows their reality without making them seem like helpless victims. Salgado uses black-and-white photos with dramatic lighting. This style makes his portraits feel timeless. It also emphasizes the people he photographs' strength, perseverance, and self-respect.

 

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946 – 1989) American Photographer

Robert Mapplethorpe is one of the most controversial portrait photographers in the history of photography. But beyond these controversies, he took himself to the next level of prominence as a portrait photographer. He broke all those limits set by previous practices.

He took brave portraits like erotic portraits of male and female bodybuilders. Robert Mapplethorpe often photographed a Black model named Derrick Cross. One of his portraits, simply called "Derrick Cross" from 1983, has a special pose. The way Derrick stands in a portrait reminds experts of the famous statue "Farnese Hercules."

 

Annie Leibovitz (Born October 2, 1949) American Photographer

Annie Leibovitz is an American portrait photographer best known for her celebrity portraits. Her signature style involves intimate settings and poses that capture the essence of her famous subjects. One of her most iconic works is the Rolling Stone cover photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, tragically taken just hours before Lennon's death. Leibovitz's achievements are extraordinary. She's a Library of Congress Living Legend for being the first woman ever to have a solo exhibition at Washington's National Portrait Gallery.

 

Steve McCurry (Born February 24, 1950) American Photographer

One famous portrait photograph is enough to do justice to the name of photographer Steve McCurry. The Afghan Girl. The picture shows a girl's face with a red scarf on her head. She's looking straight at the camera. The photo titled "Afghan Girl" was featured on the cover of National Geographic magazine in June 1985. 

This photo became "the most recognized photograph" ever published in National Geographic history. He achieved the Hasselblad Master Robert Capa Gold Medal for Best Photographic Reporting from Abroad for his brave photojournalism in Afghanistan during the Soviet Invasion.

 

Cindy Sherman (Born January 19, 1954)  American Artist

Cynthia Morris Sherman (Born January 19, 1954) is an American photographer. She is known for her experiments of photographic self-portraits, illustrating herself in many different characters in different contexts. Her first recognized work is often considered to be the collection Untitled Film Stills. 

In the series of 69 black-and-white photographs, the artist poses in different characters like librarians, hillbillies, and seductresses. The settings of the photographs are streets, yards, pools, beaches, and interiors. Most of these photographs are portraits.

 

Dan Winters (Born October 21, 1962) American Photographer and illustrator

 

Dan Winters is an American portrait photographer. He took birth in Ventura, California on October 21, 1962. He started to study photography and the darkroom process in a local club called 4-H in 1971 while a member of. Aged only, still studying in high school, he started his career in the motion picture special effects industry. He specialized in the area of miniature construction and design. 

Portraits of celebrities such as Bono, Neil Young, Barack Obama, Tupac Shakur, the Dalai Lama, Stephen Hawking, Leonardo DiCaprio, Helen Mirren, Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Angelina Jolie, Sandra Bullock, Brad Pitt, Steven Spielberg and Al Gore are some of his notable works. Dan won a 1st place World Press Photo Award in the portrait category in 2003.

 

David LaChapelle (Born March 11, 1963) American Photographer and Music Video Director

David LaChapelle is an American portrait photographer. David is also famous for directing music videos and films. He is one of the most successful fashion photographers of this century. His contributions to fashion and photography are outstanding. 

David’s work often references art history and sometimes conveys social messages that made him unique of his kind. "Hyper-real and slyly subversive" and "kitsch pop surrealism" are his photographic styles. David's portraits have unique sarcasm. He hits the abnormalities of society with his creativity and sense of humor.

 

Jimmy Nelson (Born 1967) English Photographer

Jimmy Nelson is the only self-made celebrity photographer of his time. He started to take photographs on his journey to Tibet. As it was a forbidden city in earlier days, his works were widely accepted and applauded by the then-time media. Later on, he never stopped his journey. He has traveled to more than 30 countries and photographed people from different social and economic positions.

Jimmy is both discussed and criticized for the portraits of aboriginals of the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. While some tribesmen believe that Jimmy has portrayed wrong and outdated images of their identity, others believe that his works would help the coming generations to know more about their cultural heritage.

 

Martin Schoeller (Born March 12, 1968) New York-Based Photographer

Martin Schoeller is a New York-based portrait photographer. He is known for his "hyper-detailed close-ups" style. He has democratized his work by similar treatment of all subjects. His distinct style is regardless of the familiarity with the audience. Whether the subject is a celebrity or a general citizen. 

His most recognizable work is his portraits, shot with similar lighting, backdrop, and tone. His portraits of the Hadza tribal people of Tanzania and the Pirahã tribe in northwestern Brazil are published in National Geographic and The New Yorker. Martin's recent work on the similarities of identical twins named "Identical: Portraits of Twins" has received critical acclaim.

 

Conclusion

Portrait photographers capture moments in their own style. Still, the photographs tend to be easily relatable to people of any section of society. Their portraits have always sparked curiosity in viewers and often shake the world with striking realities. We are rolling with heartfelt gratitude toward all the legends of the photography industry.

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