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10 Famous Women Photographers You Should Know About

famous women photographers

This is a quick look at 10 famous women photographers who have played a big part in the history of photography. Together they represent a diverse range of genres, styles and time periods.

But why bother grouping 'women' together as a category of photographers? Haven't women photographers down the years just produced images with the same wide range of creative motivations as men? Well yes, but I just thought it might be worth introducing you to handful of photographers, who all happen to be women, for a few simple reasons:

Firstly, just in case you happen to be looking into the work of women photographers for your own reasons.

Secondly, it has to be said that for some years photography was a rather male dominated occupation. Although this is far from the case now, during the earlier stages of the history of photography, many more pictures were taken by men than women.

Photography equipment has only become affordable to everybody comparatively recently. There were fewer hobbyists in the early days and cameras were used as professional tools. Since women were excluded from many working environments, this played a significant role in reducing the number of female photographers.

Finally, partly as a result of the above, there's been a bit of a tendency to attach a masculine, or macho, quality to photography.

I think this also springs from the 'risk-taking' aspects of photojournalism. Photographers go where the action is, and put themselves into whatever position necessary to best capture it. They go to war zones and other troubled places to really 'get amongst' their subjects.

Certainly, many female photographers have been more than a match for their male counterparts in this regard. Margaret Bourke White, a.k.a 'Maggie the Indestructible', springs to mind!

But I think it might be possible to notice a certain common thread of close human observation in the work of many top women photographers. Sometimes, as with Dorothea Lange, this is infused with a sense of compassion, at others, as in the work of Lisette Model, revulsion!

So, here is a list of 10 famous women photographers, including famous portrait photographers, famous fashion photographers, famous landscape photographers and famous documentary photographers...

Women Photographers at National Geographic    

This is an inspiring volume of images by female photographers working for National Geographic.


1. Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 - 1879)

Portrait of Charles Darwin 1881
Portrait of Charles Darwin 1881
Cameron, Julia...
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Julia Margaret Cameron is one of the most famous women photographers of the 19th century. She was given her first camera fairly late in life, but set about using it to create some brilliant portraits and photographic images of literary and religious scenes.

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She was taking pictures during the really early days of photography, so it's interesting to see such good shots from this time. What's more interesting is that quite a few of her portraits feature some of the most brilliant people from Victorian society, e.g. Charles Darwin, Alfred Lord Tennyson and George Frederic Watts.

She tended to use a soft focus and seek to imitate contemporary oil paintings. Whilst it later became obvious that this was a pretty limiting way to view photography, her pictures are nevertheless extremely interesting and amongst the best from the 19th century.

Julia Margaret Cameron Gallery


2. Diane Arbus (1923 - 1971)

Diane Arbus is well known for images of people on the fringes of society. She photographed people who were categorized as different, 'other', not part of the society most people liked to see.

She had grown up in a wealthy family in New York, and soon after marrying set up a photography business with her husband Alan Arbus. But it wasn’t long before she grew tired of commercial photography and was drawn to the subjects that interested her most.

She photographed the likes of transvestites, dwarfs, nudists and giants; the kinds of people for whom a normal place in society is not reserved. One fascinating image shows a very young teenage couple in Hudson Street, Ney York, with clothes and facial expressions that somehow belong to people far older than them. It's a subtle strangeness that’s very compelling.

Tragically, Arbus took her own life in 1971.

Diane Arbus Gallery

diane arbus

Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph  

80 photographs by Diane Arbus, beautifully arranged and compiled in this hardback volume. Highly recommended.


3. Margaret Bourke White (1904 - 1971)

Silhouette of the Embattled Kremlin During German Bombing Raid on the City
Silhouette of the Embattled Kremlin During German Bombing Raid on the City Photographic Print
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Margaret Bourke White is one of the most famous women photographers of all time and helped open the door for other women to work in contexts they had previously been excluded from.

She was drawn to things on the largest scale. From the vast machinery of Soviet industry - which she was the first Western photographer allowed to photograph - to the global conflict of WWII - where she became the first ever female war correspondent.

Bourke White's numerous close scrapes earned her the nickname "Maggie the Indestructable". One of her most famous images features Mahatma Gandhi, taken at the time of Partition, who is seated crossed legged beside his famous spinning wheel.

Margaret Bourke White Gallery


4. Mary Ellen Mark (1940 - )

Mary Ellen Mark has spent much of her career shooting stills on film sets like Apocalypse Now and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. But she's become one of the most famous women photographers chiefly through her moving and disturbing pictures of people on the fringes of society.

She has spent time living with homeless people, prostitutes and drug addicts, capturing their lives and giving them expression. A lot of the time it's easy to forget these kinds of people actually exist. People often find it more convenient to be indifferent to them. Ellen Mark has been determined to at least attest their existence through her photography.

One of her most famous shots features a homeless family all sitting in a clapped out car, viewed from the side.

In the front seat are the parents, whilst peering out of the back window are their incredibly young children, a boy and a girl, who already seem completely care-worn and world-weary.

Mary Ellen Mark Gallery


Women Photographers at National Geographic    

This is an inspiring volume of images by female photographers working for National Geographic.


5. Martine Barrat

Martine Barrat is another of the famous women photographers on this list drawn to a group of people whom the rest of the world often forgets. Her life long subjects were the black American communities of Harlem and the South Bronx, New York.

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Barrat didn't merely study these places with cool headed detachment. She actually made her life there. She had been born in Algeria and then grew up in Paris. But her photographic career really began when she moved to live in New York. She became part of the communities of Harlem and the South Bronx and the world of her photographs was her world.

Barrat published an incredible book, which I recommend to you, called 'Do or Die'. It's a visual account of the lives of young boxers in this part of the world, with a great foreword by Martin Scorsese.

Martine Barrat Gallery


6. Lauren Greenfield

Lauren Greenfield is one of the most important photographers working today. Her work explores the pressures on young women, emanating from Hollywood and celebrity culture in general, for bodily 'perfection'.

Greenfield began working for National Geographic after graduating from Harvard, and has since published 3 significant books: Girl Culture, Fast Forward and Thin. These collections explore the themes of young people's self-esteem, Hollywood myths, teenage aspirations and anorexia.

Greenfield has also produced a successful documentary film, Kids and Money.

Lauren Greenfield Gallery


7. Dorothea Lange (1895 - 1965)

Migrant Mother, 1936
Migrant Mother, 1936 Photographic Print
Lange, Dorothea
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Dorothea Lange is certainly one of the most famous women photographers of all time. Once again, the subject and character of her work is often marked by compassion for outsiders in suffering, and close observation of their plight.

She recorded the tragic effects of the Great Depression of the 1930's, particularly on the lives of exploited migrant workers in California. Her most well known image from this time is Migrant Mother. It shows an attractive, dignified looking woman, clearly in desperately tough conditions, with her two children draped either side of her. It's an incredibly powerful shot that has become an iconic symbol of motherhood.

Lange also took a number of moving images of Japanese children swearing allegiance to the US flag after the invasion of Pearl Harbour, and soon before they were rounded up into relocation camps by the WRA.

Dorothea Lange Gallery 


8. Annie Leibovitz (1949 - )

Annie Leibovitz is amongst the most famous portrait photographers and famous women photographers about today. She has produced a lot of incredibly well known images of celebrities during her career with Rolling Stone Magazine and Vanity Fair.

Many of Leibovitz's images have been controversial, like the shot of a naked, pregnant Demi Moore. But there's a lot more to them than just the shock factor. Her photos are full of ideas and suggestions, meticulously expressed. Two of my favourites are the pictures of Whoopi Goldberg in a bath of milk, and John Lennon clinging like a child to Yoko Ono.

Lebovitz met the author Susan Sontag in 1989 and they became partners until Sontag’s death in 2004. Her most recent publication, A Photographer's Life, is a retrospective of her career featuring both published and personal images.

Annie Leibovitz Gallery


9. Annie Griffiths Belt

A Blossoming Dogwood Tree in Virginia
A Blossoming Dogwood Tree in Virginia
Belt, Annie...
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Annie Griffiths Belt is one of the most famous landscape photographers around today. But she doesn't just shoot landscapes. Her career with National Geographic has yielded a fantastic collection of images of inspiring people and places from throughout the world.

I especially like some of the landscape shots she's taken from an aerial perspective. It's a great way to show the beauty, drama and scale of the natural world in a fresh and original way.

Annie Griffiths Belt Gallery 


10. Lisette Model (1901 - 1983)

I'm a big fan of Lisette Model's photography. Whilst many of the other famous women photographers on this list have been drawn to human subjects out of compassion, Model saw the vulgar, the misshapen, the grotesque and the ignoble.

She was born in Vienna where she developed a passion for music. On moving to Paris she furthered this passion, but also discovered photography. Right from the start she found herself drawn to the more base qualities of human beings. At the outbreak of WWII she and her husband moved to New York, which then became the focus of her sensitive, but sometimes unforgiving, photographic scrutiny.

Who Are Your Favourite Famous Women Photographers?

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The New Yorkers in her shots are presented as coarse, almost bestial and physically repulsive on a Brobdingnaggian scale! They are often gorging on food, pulling lurid facial expressions and shot from terrifically unflattering angles. Heavy make up and smart suits are an unconvincing veneer of refinement in this essentially flesh based world!

Model is one of the most famous women photographers of the 20th century and many of her shots are well known. One you've probably seen features an enormously overweight woman in a swimsuit, frolicking around on Coney Island beach! It's light and amusing - but there's also something strange, revolting and slightly un-human about it.

Lisette Model Gallery

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