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10 Famous Portrait Photographers You Have To Discover!

Here is my introduction to 10 famous portrait photographers. They have all produced fantastic collections of work, which I hope you'll enjoy exploring as much as I have!

Yousuf Karsh

Edouard Boubat Philippe Halsman Cecil
Anton Kratochvil Mary-Ellen Mark Annie Leibovitz Steve McCurry

Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is one they would like to show the world.

...Very often what lies behind the facade is rare and more wonderful than the subject knows or dares to believe

- Irving Penn

Portrait photography is very popular; we like looking at pictures of people! It's a chance to study the details of someone's face, and the subtle marks of character and personal history that are written on it.

Most of our day-to-day encounters with people don't really provide the opportunity for close visual observation, without seeming creepy anyway! When a flash of real personality appears it's usually gone in a fraction of a second. Fortunately, it only takes a fraction of a second to take a photo!

The famous portrait photographers on this list are masters at capturing those telling, unguarded moments that suddenly bring people to life, and combining this with an artist's sense of form, texture, light and so on.


1. Yousuf Karsh (1908 - 2002)

Yousuf Karsh is definitely one of my favourite photographers. Over the course of his long career he captured a huge number of the 20th century's most prominent figures from the worlds of art, science, politics and entertainment.

Karsh had a turbulent early life in Mardin, modern Turkey, and was eventually sent to live with his uncle, a photographer, in Canada. His first photos, some of which are included on his website, clearly show that he had a great eye from an early age.

He soon began mastering the art of portrait photography. His big break came when the Canadian Prime Minister noticed his work and invited him to photograph foreign leaders on their visits to the country.

Karsh went on to take portraits of dozens of fascinating people, from Einstein to George Bernard Shaw to Nelson Mandela. But it's his shot of Winston Churchill that is perhaps most famous. I'm sure you've seen it!

Shot in 1941, Churchill had just given an electrifying speech to the Canadian parliament. As he took his leave he was guided towards Karsh, who was waiting for a quick photograph. Karsh nervously asked Churchill to remove his cigar for the picture, with no luck. So he snuck up to the great man and, as deferentially as he could, plucked it from his mouth and put it to one side! The resulting expression on Churchill's face, combined with his already 'pumped-up' mood, produced a photo that has become perhaps the most famous symbol of his fierce defiance.

Yousuf Karsh Gallery

Karsh: A Fifty Year Retrospective

This is a collection of more than 200 stunning portrait photographs by Yousuf Karsh. Statesmen, artists and writers from the 20th century are captured in these memorable shots. It's one hell of a book!


2. Eve Arnold (1912 - 2012)

Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe, by Eve Arnold.
Allposters fine art print.

Eve Arnold is one of the most famous portrait photographers to have represented Magnum. She is especially well known for her brilliant shots of Marilyn Monroe, many of which were taken in 1960 on the set of "The Misfits".

Arnold moved to England in the early 60's and has produced some of the most famous photography of Queen Elizabeth II.

In 1980 the American Society of Magazine Photographers awarded Arnold a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Eve Arnold Gallery


3. Edouard Boubat (1923 - 1999)

Madras, by Edouard Boubat.
Allposters fine art print.

I love Edouard Boubat's photos. He travelled widely with the RAPHO agency, but for me it's his intimate shots of French life and the people he encountered that are really compelling.

He had a brilliant knack for capturing people in their own private worlds, whether that was lovers embracing, or children daydreaming. One of his most famous pictures, "Remi Listening to the Sea", is a portrait of a little boy holding a sea shell up to his ear and, with eyes closed, quietly listening to the sound of the 'sea'.

Boubat is often described as a 'humanist' photographer because of his ability to capture the beauty and dignity of his subjects. In 1973 he was awarded the Octavius Hill Prize, and that was followed by the Hasselblad Prize in 1988. He is one of my personal favourite photographers on this list of famous portrait photographers.

edouard boubat

Edouard Boubat: The Monograph  

Beautiful, witty and touching images of French life, as well shots taken on Boubat's extensive travels. Parisian cafe scenes, Breton fishermen, Indian families, African workers and more.


4. Phillipe Halsman (1906 - 1979)

Halsman is one of the most famous portrait photographers to have explored the themes of surrealism in his work.

He was born in Latvia and began his photographic career in Paris, where he set up a studio shooting artists and writers. During WWII Halsman fled to New York and went on to become a successful photographer with LIFE magazine. In fact, he had more photos featured on the cover of LIFE than anyone else: 101!

Much of Halsman's most famous photography resulted from a collaboration with the surrealist artist Salvador Dali. The ability of the camera to freeze moving objects in mid flight and produce strange effects was explored to the full in pictures like "Dali Atomicus".

The famous portrait of Albert Einstein looking rather mournful was also taken by Phillipe Halsman.

Phillipe Halsman Gallery

Marilyn Monroe, Hollywood 1952
Marilyn Monroe, Hollywood 1952, by Philippe Halsman.
Allposters fine art print.


5. Cecil Beaton (1904 - 1980)

Cecil Beaton was one of the most famous portrait photographers of the inter-war years. He captured the mood of irresponsible fun amongst the young members of a dying aristocracy in England, many of whom were his close friends.

But he was also very active during the golden age of Hollywood, capturing candid pictures of Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn. He took one famous picture of the latter wearing a costume that he had designed for her for the film "My Fair Lady".

Beaton's talents were not just as a photographer and costume designer. He was also an accomplished actor, painter, author and set designer!

As a photographer he was pre-occupied with style, elegance and beauty. He had a great ability to capture his subjects at their best, and was a popular choice of photographer for the Royal Family.

Cecil Beaton Photo Gallery

Queen Elizabeth II in Coronation Robes, England
Queen Elizabeth II in Coronation Robes, England, by Cecil Beaton.
Allposters fine art print.


6. Irving Penn (1917 - 2009)

Irving Penn had a very long career which yielded some of the most well known images of the 20th century. His work is characterized by highly organized compositions, in which subjects conform to rigorous, often geometric, aesthetic themes.

Penn studied several artistic disciplines at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art. But he devoted himself to photography throughout his career. He took particular interest in his photos as printed objects, and the quality of their finish. He personally applied a 'platinum palladium' finish to each photo to give it a really bold and crisp appearance.

I love the way Penn forces his subjects into strict aesthetic confines. He almost creates abstract shapes out of the relation between their bodies and the wall behind. In his studio, he often placed people at the intersection between two walls that met at a very acute angle and asked them to find a pose that they were happy with there.

Despite these 'forced' positions, Penn found a way of drawing out the personality of his subjects and capturing it in his shots.

Irving Penn Gallery

Longer Irving Penn biography

irving penn portraits

Irving Penn Portraits  

Irving Penn was one of the most famous portrait photographers of the 20th century. This great little collection of his work was produced in conjunction with an exhibition at NPG London.


7. Antonin Kratochvil (1947 - )

Anton Kratochvil grew up in Czechoslovakia, but was forced to flee prior to the Soviet invasion in 1967. He later moved to the United States and took work as a photojournalist on the LA Times. Kratochvil has reported from many troubled areas of the world and his work often focuses on human emotion.

He has also produced a large number of portraits of famous actors and musicians. These are often tightly cropped photos, shot outdoors in high contrast light. My favourite portrait photo by Kratochvil is of David Bowie, where a strange shaped shadow falls over the enigmatic singer’s face, making him tricky to fully make out.

Antonin Kratochvil Gallery


8. Mary-Ellen Mark (1940 - )

Ellen Mark is amongst the most famous portrait photographers of marginalised people. She is drawn to those on the fringes of society, who tend to be ignored and overlooked. Her moving images of the homeless, drug addicts and prostitutes have helped raise awareness of the existence and plight of these people.

Ellen Mark grew up in Philadelphia and was always interested in art. She experimented with a Box Brownie camera as a young girl and went to on to take a degree in Fine Art and the history of art.

For much of her career, Ellen Mark has worked on film sets shooting stills of the filming. She has worked on films such as "Apocalypse Now" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest". But it's her personal projects documenting the lives of marginalised people in US society that have preoccupied her most.

Mary Ellen Mark Gallery


9. Annie Liebovitz (1949 - )

Annie Leibovitz is probably the most well known photographer of the stars working today. She has produced a huge number of iconic photos, many of which were first published on the covers of Rolling Stone magazine and Vanity Fair.

Her images are meticulously put together in every way. The composition, the lighting, the colours and the concepts are all fine tuned to perfection. Probably her best known portrait is of John Lennon, clinging foetus-like to the outstretched Yoko Ono. It was a striking symbol of the musician’s vulnerability captured, amazingly and tragically, a few short hours before he was killed.

Leibovitz met Susan Sontag, author of "On Photography", in 1989 and they became partners until Sontag's death in 2004. The retrospective book "Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life" is an incredible collection of images taken by Leibovitz between 1990 and 2005.

Annie Leibovitz Gallery


10. Steve McCurry (1950 - )

Last, but by no means least, on this list of famous portrait photographers is Steve McCurry. McCurry's images of the people, places and cultures of South East Asia have made him one of the most respected photographers working today.

He began taking photos for his college newspaper and, upon graduation, saved up for a short trip to India. But McCurry's excitement at the visual possibilities afforded by India extended his trip to 2 years!

Before long he was working for National Geographic and, in 1985, produced his famous picture, "Afghan Girl", which became a symbol of the trauma suffered by the Afghan people during the Soviet invasion.

McCurry's ongoing fascination with the world of South East Asia has lead to an incredible collection of work that beautifully reflects the diversity of people, culture and religion in this part of the world.

Steve McCurry Gallery

Longer Steve McCurry Biography

The Unguarded Moment, by Steve McCurry

Images from McCurry's 30 years shooting in South East Asia and beyond. This is just a stunningly good book! The production quality matches the photography, which is no mean feat.


A list of 10 famous portrait photographers is obviously going to omit more deserving candidates than it includes. So who would be on your list? Let me know in the comments...

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