AIA’s List of the Most Famous Portrait Photographers
In this edition of AIA’s favorite series, we put together a list of the most famous portrait photographers – inspirational artists who have been lucky enough to do portrait photography for the world’s movers and shakers. Their unique talent allows them to not only preserve lasting images of stars, colorful characters, and historical figures, but also to capture a bit of their essence, which is also preserved for generations to come.
Yousuf Karsh (1908 – 2002), born in Mardin, came through great hardships to become recognized critically as one of the world’s most famous portrait photographers. Born under the rule of the bloodthirsty Ottoman Empire, Karsh had to witness his relatives ‘massacred’ whilst his sister died of starvation in a tumultuous, poverty-stricken village that was under the duress of hardline ideology. Yet out of this adversity came Karsh’s drive, his creativity – his spark. Moving to Canada, he became notable for being a master of studio lighting, with his work finding its way onto the covers of Life magazine. Throughout his career, which he mostly devoted to monochrome portraits, he took photo’s of esteemed and prestigious cultural and political figures, including Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein and Andy Warhol. His is a true rags-to-riches story.
Annie Leibovitz (1949) is a photographer born in Connecticut. She is best known for her work for Rolling Stone magazine, with her most famous photograph undoubtedly being an image of Yoko Ono being embrace by a naked John Lennon, taken on the last day of The Beatles’ singers life, and which adorned the cover of Rolling Stone in 1980, and which established her as one of the world’s most famous portrait photographers. Working for the publication from its inception in 1973 until 1983, she balanced her commercial work with her own artistic needs, which she claimed was important. She has also worked for Vanity Fair, who were impressed with her innovative use of lighting, and for whom she photographed celebrities such as Penelope Cruz and Woody Allen, and caused controversy in 2008 when she allegedly photographed a topless Miley Cyrus, who was then 15.
Eve Arnold (1912 – 2012), daughter of immigrant Russian-Jewish parents, rose to prominence as one of the worlds most famous portrait photographers after a brief spell at Harper’s Bazaar in Manhattan. Arnold, in the true spirit of a an artist with a sharp businesswoman’s mind, divided her life’s work between taking the photographs of the rich and the famous, including Marilyn Monroe, and taking photographs of the poor. She would often travel to places in the world where hardship and conflict were part of the daily ritual; her work took her to South Africa, Vietnam and Mongolia, where she documented the turmoil that was ravaging the locals. Aside from Marilyn Monroe, Arnold is most remembered for taking photo’s of Queen Elizabeth II and Malcolm X.
Philippe Halsman (1906 – 1979), born into the Russian Empire in Riga, Latvia, came to establish himself as one of America’s most famous portrait photographers via France, where he worked for influential fashion magazine Vogue. Harsman, like many artistic Europeans, particularly those born into the aggressive Russian Empire (including Mark Rothko), fled to America where he found commercial work with magazines such as Life who recognized his ability and innovative methods. He would often produce images that were sharp as opposed to soft and, upon meeting Salvador Dali, another European living in America, his work took on a new form of imagination and fantasy. He is known for taking photographs of such figures as Marilyn Monroe, Woody Allen, and Albert Einstein.
Steve McCurry (1950), born in Pennsylvania, took a slow route to photography. Initially interested in filmmaking, he took a theatre arts course at University before discovering his passion for photography a little later whilst taking photo’s for The Daily Collegian. But it wasn’t until he travelled to India, and subsequently Pakistan, that he became interested in photojournalism. His images of the impending invasion of the Soviet Union into Afghanistan became famous around the world, systematically launching his career and propelling him into the world’s consciousness. Many awards later, as well as receiving overwhelming acclaim for his ‘Afghan Girl’ portrait photograph, McCurry is now widely recognized as being a portrait photographer who reveals the inner plight and outer destruction that people of the middle east have to face on a daily basis. His subjects often stare into the camera with a look that suggests a plea, a prayer for help, the result being a harrowing experience for the spectator.
Edouard Boubat (1923 – 1999)’s route into photojournalism came after he was a witness to the mindless atrocity and horror of World War II. Yet the visceral nature of work didn’t harden him, nor did it impregnate him with the desire to photograph hardship and expose conflict and misery around the world. Referred to as a ‘peace correspondent’ who was an advocate of pacifism, he had no political leaning but attempted to photograph subjects that could lift the spirit. He travelled the world with his camera, and, in a few ways his photographs of smiling people, particularly children and women, would anticipate the optimistic work of French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who, indeed, became famous for making a film about a woman who simply smiles through all adversity. He picked out subjects who had optimism amidst the misery of the world and his work brought joy to many.
Diane Arbus (1923 – 1971), born in New York City, is famous a portrait photographer notable for focusing her work on so-called marginal members of society, such as dwarves, transvestites, and people who otherwise challenge our perception of what is ugly and what is beautiful. Her subjects are often challenging, surreal, and occasionally appear in a nightmarish context, inviting the viewer to either be horrified by the spectacle or to engage in a dialogue with the deviants who confront them. Yet there is more than a touch of wit and laconism in her work, and by the 1960’s, she had established a reputation as a cult photographer who was held in great esteem by fellow artists and critics. Arbus, through her work, came to be labelled ‘the photographer of freaks’, a moniker she disliked and tried to shake off before her suicide in 1972. Despite her depression and her portfolio of deviants and ‘freaks’, Arbus was a respected photographer, a teacher, and in 1963 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Jay Maisel (1931), born in Brooklyn, New York, studied painting and graphic design at Yale University before taking to photography in 1954. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Infinity Award of the International Centre of Photography, and his commissioned work includes the album cover for Miles Davies’ Kind of Blue, which has become iconic among jazz music enthusiasts. Maisel has over the years become notable for experimenting with composition, often utilizing unusual cropping techniques to invest emotion and meaning into his work.
Irving Penn (1917 – 2009), brother to film director Arthur Penn, was born in New Jersey and studied at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art for four years but didn’t make the transition into photography until the 1940’s, when his career was sparked by an interest in amateur photography. It wasn’t long before he was offered work at Vogue magazine and in the 1950’s he created his own studio where he threw himself into commercial photography, becoming known mostly for his work in the fashion field. His most famous subjects in terms of portrait photography include the artists Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon, all of whom he photographed in stark black and white, and often at acute angles. He also photographed JFK and Al Pacino.
Dorothea Lange (1895 – 1960) was a documentary photographer as much as she was a portrait photographer; indeed, one beget the other. She is widely known for her work throughout the Depression-era in America, where she photographed desperate families who were trapped in the financial malaise that was swamping the country. Indeed, Lange’s portraits of this time capture the overall bleakness of the nation like no others; they depict the hunger, the want, the misery succinctly but emphatically. Lange, a survivor of polio, was no stranger to hardship which invested in her a sense of endurance and empathy. After the Depression-era, she photographed migrant workers, and embarked on war assignments that took her to Manzanar, where POW’s were held for indefinite periods of time without charge. Dedicated to exposing injustices in the world, she worked for Life magazine and in 2006, a school was named after her in California.