If you enjoy doing (or even looking) at photos of people, I highly recommend that you spend some time learning from the famous portrait photographers in history that were masters of the craft. The best of the best, most iconic, famous portrait photographers in history are the gurus that you need to know about and study.
Study work by famous portrait photographers
But just who are these icons? Well ask any professional portrait photographer and you’ll probably get a different list. But many names will intersect and appear on every list.
So this is my list. It consists of several masters of portrait photography who’ve influenced me in my career and whose work I admire.
There are many others and you may have different names. After reading through this article, leave a comment below and tell me which famous historic portrait photographers made your list and why.
#1 Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002)
Yousuf Karsh, an Armenian-Canadian photographer, is likely THE most famous portrait photographer in history. I’d be surprised if you haven’t at least heard his name. He is also referred to as Karsh of Ottawa,
Not to be confused with his brother Malak Karsh (who was also a great photographer in his own right), Yousuf Karsh was famous for his portraits of politicians, royalty, and celebrities.
To give you some idea HOW many famous people he photographed and how famous he was as well, consider this. In 2000, the International Who’s Who produced a list of the 100 most notable people of the previous century. Karsh had photographed 51 of them, and he himself was also on the list (the only Canadian to make the cut)!
Here is just a small list of some of the people he photographed during his illustrious career, and this is just the tip of the iceberg:
- Winston Churchill
- Queen Elizabeth II (and as a Princess as well as the royal family)
- Ernest Hemmingway
- Albert Einstein
- Muhammad Ali
- Eleanor Roosevelt
- Henry Ford
- Hellen Keller
- Elizabeth Taylor
- Walt Disney
- John F. Kennedy
- Multiple different Popes
- Martin Luther King
- Leonid Brezhnev
- Fidel Castro
- Mother Theresa
- As well as many other famous scientists, world leaders, actors, photographers, painters, dancers, etc…
In Canada, we were SO proud to be able to call him Canadian, we put him on a stamp after his death in 2002. He was also awarded the highest honor available in this country as a Companion of the Order of Canada.
Are you getting the idea? Famous!
The two portraits above of Churchill and Hemmingway are his most iconic images. I urge you to do some research on the Churchill image and find out how he got the now-famous scowling image.
“There is a brief moment when all there is in a man’s mind and soul and spirit is reflected through his eyes, his hands, his attitude. This is the moment to record.” Yousuf Karsh
Find out more about Karsh on the official website karsh.org (run by his estate) or buy a book of his work on Amazon. There are many to choose from and every single one is worth having as a hardcover coffee table edition, I have three! Keep your eyes open at used book stores and grab anything with his name on it.
#2 Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879)
I put Julia Margaret Cameron next on my list because she was creating portraits long before most of the other people on this list were even born.
She was a pioneer in this field, which is truly exceptional as a woman at that time.
She received a camera later in life, at age 48, and begin photographing as a hobby. She photographed people she knew and was acquainted with (who just happened to be philosophers, authors, poets, and inventors – Charles Darwin, for example) and whomever she could convince to sit for her.
Because she never desired to open and run a commercial studio (there’s a lesson in here for you) she developed a style quite unique and opposite of the portrait photographers of the era. As such, her work was criticized by her peers as out of focus and poor quality.
But looking at her work from a historical lens, you can see its significance and the message she was trying to convey with her images.
They have an almost ethereal feeling them, a renaissance look. Her images tell a story.
“I believe that… my first successes in my out-of-focus pictures were a fluke. That is to say, that when focusing and coming to something which, to my eye, was very beautiful, I stopped there instead of screwing on the lens to the more definite focus which all other photographers insist upon.” Julia Margaret Cameron
#3 Irving Penn (1917-2009)
One of the 20th century’s greats, Irving Penn was a top photographer with Vogue for over 60 years. He is famous for his images in the fashion industry and his personal work.
The simplicity of his portraits (often a plain backdrop) allows the subject to stand out and their personality and character to be at the forefront. Looking at the two images above, would you ever guess they were taken by the same photographer?
A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective - Irving Penn, PhotographerClick To Tweet
“A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective.” Irving Penn
Start your research on the Irving Penn Foundation official website in the portrait gallery. But I also suggest you view his fashion and travel work as well, and to look for some books on his published work online.
#4 Diane Arbus (1923-1971)
Diane Arbus was an American photographer whose body of work is comprised of intimate black and white portraits. Her work is compelling, often haunting or disturbing, and it makes a statement.
She is the best know for her iconic portraits of marginalized people, those on the fringes of society.
Her goal was to normalize people in groups such as the LGBTQ+ community, strippers, carnival performers (then called freak shows), nudists, elderly people, and anyone that was different than the standards set out by society as “normal”.
She was ahead of her time as a photographer. Sadly because she suffered from depression and she herself never felt she fit in, she took her own life at age 48.
I believe there are things nobody would see if I didn't photograph them - Diane Arbus, PhotographerClick To Tweet
“I believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.” Diane Arbus
You can read a bit about her on Artnet, there isn’t an official website or page that I can find. So you’ll need to do your own digging after that.
#5 George Hurrell (1904-1992)
George Hurrell was an American photographer, best known for his portraits of Hollywood movie stars in the 1930s and 1940s. His images are dramatic with hard, contrasty lighting and glamourous at the same time.
He actually trained as a painter but decided he preferred photography as his medium of artistic expression. He got his start in Hollywood as the official photographer for MGM in 1930.
It's all so simple – no one believes me … you strike a pose, then you light it. Then you clown around and get some action in the expressions. Then, you shoot - George Hurrell, PhotographerClick To Tweet
“It’s all so simple – no one believes me … you strike a pose, then you light it. Then you clown around and get some action in the expressions. Then, you shoot.”George Hurrell.
Visit the official George Hurrell website to see more of his images. There are also several books of his work available – if you opt to purchase one you won’t be disappointed and it will be a conversation starter if you leave it on the coffee table.
#6 James Van Der Zee (1886-1983)
James Van Der Zee documented the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s with his portraits of middle-class African-American families and celebrities including singer Mamie Smith, activist/publisher Marcus Garvey, and dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
He also documented each of his photos with his signature and a date, which is now extremely valuable historically.
Most of his portraits created in his studio are what we may consider standard commercial photography, but they give us a glimpse into life in Harlem at that time and the people that lived there.
I find his images compelling and there is a simple elegance about them that makes me want to know more about the people in front of his lens.
“It’s a hard job to get the camera to see it like you see it. Sometimes you have it just the way you want it, and then you look in the camera and you don’t have the balance. The main thing is to get the camera to see it the way you see it.” James Van Der Zee
I can’t find an official website of his work but you can start your search with this collection and see what else you can discover.
#7 Arnold Newman (1918-2006)
As a contrast to the last photographer, Arnold Newman specialized in environmental portraits, those done on location to tell a story about the subject. He is considered by many to be the pioneer of this kind of photography.
Many of his portrait subjects consisted of artists, writers, and other photographers (including Ansel Adams below).
He was discovered by Alfred Stieglitz (if you don’t know his name, learn about him too!). He photographed Picasso and Georgia O’Keefe (one of my own personal favorite painters ever) many times as well as Andy Warhol.
One of Newman’s most famous images is of Nazi industrialist Alfred Krupp.
There is quite a story behind how a Jewish photographer came to photograph a man who played a role in the torture and death of many Jewish prisoners – CLICK HERE to read about it and watch a video clip of Newman himself talk about the experience.
A lot of photographers think that if they buy a better camera they'll be able to take better photographs. A better camera won't do a thing for you if you don't have anything in your head or in your heart - Arnold Newman, PhotographerClick To Tweet
“A lot of photographers think that if they buy a better camera they’ll be able to take better photographs. A better camera won’t do a thing for you if you don’t have anything in your head or in your heart.” Arnold Newman
I couldn’t have said it any better than that. In fact, I wrote about what you need to do to be a better photographer: 5 Tips for Creating More Interesting Photographs (make note of #1).
Another of his iconic portraits is of musician Igor Stravinsky.
I found the contact sheet below (this is a print made directly from a sheet of negatives to preview them, similar to viewing thumbnails in Lightroom now) and thought it interesting to see which image he chose and how he cropped it and the final version.
Visit the official site for Arnold Newman photography to view more of his portraits. Or find one of the many books filled with his work, have a look at your local library or used book store. I often discover hidden treasures, like coffee table books, in tiny hole in the wall shops.
#8 Herb Ritts (1952-2002)
American fashion photographer from Los Angeles, Herb Ritts, was famous for his work with models, musicians, and politicians of the 1980s and 1990s.
He rose to fame after images of friend Richard Gere, (below top left image in the collage), who was then an aspiring actor, drew attention, and anchored him as a celebrity photographer.
He photographed the likes of Madonna, Bob Dylan, Bruce Bowie, Tina Turner, Dizzy Gillespie, Prince, Michael Jackson, Elton John, Sting, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, and more. And that’s just the music world!
Add in his fashion work with Cindy Crawford, Naomi, Elle, Kate Moss, as well as leaders like The Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan and Ritts compares to the great Yousuf Karsh on the scale of number of celebrities photographed.
Sadly, he died at the age of only 50 from pneumonia due to complications from AIDS.
The body of work he left behind is his legacy.
Among the collection is also a series of black and white fine art nudes (like the image above) which are stunning captures of the human form with clean lines and solid form. I’ll let you find some of the more risque ones on your own!
“It’s always more comforting to know that in any given corner of any room or any location you’re on, you can make a photograph that you’ll appreciate.” Herb Ritts
“Within two hours of where I live, you have mountains and desert as a location. I like the natural elements that abstract into light, texture, shape, and shadow.” Herb Ritts
I had to share two quotes by Ritts above because I love the first one, and the second one is so applicable right now in the time of staying close to home.
Browse the gallery on the official Herb Ritts website to see more of his life’s work.
#9 Richard Avedon (1923-2004)
Richard Avedon was an American portrait and fashion photographer.
He was a regular contributor to Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and was the first staff photographer for The New Yorker. As well he was known for his brand-defining work with Calvin Klein, Revlon, and Versace.
I first learned about Avedon when I was in college taking photography.
One of my instructors introduced me to his work and I was taken by the simplicity and starkness of his images. His fashion images often include movement (like the one below) which adds a unique style.
Much of his work is also in black and white, photographed using a large format camera (like the one in the portrait of Arnold Newman above).
In the images below of Janis Joplin, you can see the edge of the film he used, an 8×10″ (yes inches) negative that produced incredibly detailed and sharp images. This adds another unique element to his style and another layer of simplicity.
I had the distinct pleasure of viewing some of his original prints in New York once at the MET museum. Whenever there is a photography exhibit where I’m traveling I try to see it. I’m thankful to have seen the work of many masters, including this one.
The images and prints were not only HUGE (over 60 inches) they were mesmerizing. Seeing the incredible detail in his portraits, and the nearly life-size nature of them brought his subjects to life.
If you ever get a chance to see any of this work in person, in the large format printed version – do it! Even if you have to drive a few hours to get there – just do it. That goes for any of the other photographers on this list too.
And if a day goes by without my doing something related to photography, it's as though I've neglected something essential to my existence, as though I had forgotten to wake up. I know that the accident of my being a photographer has made my life possible - Richard Avedon, PhotographerClick To Tweet
“My portraits are more about me than they are about the people I photograph.”Richard Avedon
“And if a day goes by without my doing something related to photography, it’s as though I’ve neglected something essential to my existence, as though I had forgotten to wake up. I know that the accident of my being a photographer has made my life possible.” Richard Avedon
I can relate to both of those quotes, can you?!
I’ve heard it described, and may have even said this myself – but when one IS a photographer, as opposed to just being a person who takes photos – is to eat, breathe, sleep and dream photography.
Visit the Richard Avedon Foundation website to see more of his images. There’s even an Avedon app for iOS!
#10 Philippe Halsman (1906-1979)
The self-portrait of Philippe Halsman and his wife Yvonne that you see here (right) pretty much sums it up. This was a man with great imagination and a sense of humor which he used often in his photography with legendary results.
He is famous for his portraits of people jumping and a 37-year collaboration with surrealist painter Salvador Dali.
Halsman said this of their work together, “Creating images that did not exist, except in our imaginations. Whenever I needed a striking protagonist for one of my wild ideas, Dali would graciously oblige. Whenever Dali thought of a photograph so strange that it seemed impossible to produce, I tried to find a solution.”
One of their most famous collaborations was the creation of the image below.
It took them 28 tries to get the shot. It was inspired by the artist’s painting, Led Atomica which appears on the right-hand side of the image, suspended in mid-air like Dali himself, a chair, his easel, a splash of water, and three cats. NO easy feat – keep in mind that this was done on ONE single frame of film – there was no Photoshop!
Another complex image the collaborated to create is the one below called “Voluptus Mors” (Voluptuous Death).
It is a portrait of Dali, posed next to a human skull which is comprised of seven female nude figures. It took over three hours just to get the models in place. Read more about the entire photo shoot here.
Halsman’s approach to photographing people was definitely unique and you may even think, a little bizarre.
However, if you look at any of Dali’s paintings or artworks, you’ll see it has the same sense of surrealness. But I’m sure a photo session with Halsman was NEVER boring!
“When you ask a person to jump, his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping and the mask falls so that the real person appears. In a jump, the subject, in a sudden burst of energy, overcomes gravity. He cannot simultaneously control his expressions, his facial and his limb muscles. The mask falls. The real self becomes visible. One only has to snap it with the camera.” Philippe Halsman
Another person he worked with many times was Alfred Hitchcock.
I personally can see the connection that Halsman had with both him and Dali. They all seemed to be of like minds and the body of work they created together shows in its unity.
“In my serious work, I am striving for the essence of things and for goals which are possibly unobtainable. On the other hand, everything humorous has great attraction for me, and a childish streak leads me into all kinds of frivolous endeavor.” Philippe Halsman
I encourage you to view more of Halsman’s portraits and read about how he made some of his unique and creative masterpieces. I HIGHLY recommend the book, Halsman at Work. It’s a behind the scenes look at the man and his work, written and photographed by his wife Yvonne.
#11 Martín Chambi (1891-1973)
I only recently discovered the work of Martín Chambi and I am completely enamored with his images.
I have to admit that I spent quite a few hours researching this article and going down many different rabbit holes, and I learned a few things myself as well as discovered a few lesser-known gems like Chambi, and Van Der Zee above.
Born Martín Jerónimo Chambi Jiménaz in Puno, Peru into Quechua-speaking family, he was one of the first major Indigenous Latin American photographers. He is recognized for the documentary value of his images of the people of Peru, particularly the countryside and Andes. Through his portrait studio in Cuzco, he photographed many of the prominent people of that area as well as Indigenous people and many self-portraits including the one above.
I think part of the reason I’m so drawn to his images is that many of the scenes and people he captured have a similarity to many of my own images taken in Peru. It’s striking how little has changed in over 100 years in some of the rural areas, and even within the city of Cuzco itself.
To me that’s remarkable and it only adds to the value of Chambi’s portrait photos as historical significance. Tell me if you see much difference in the people between Chambi’s images taken 100 years ago, and mine from the last decade.
He also photographed Machu Picchu and sold his landscape images as postcards (a first for Cuzco in that era). His images of Cuzco shows his amazing use of light. So while this is a portrait focused article, his other images are worth noting as well.
I am TOTALLY in love with the following image.
I love everything about it.
I know how he created this look (it was done with the large format kind of camera) and it is very effective. To me, it speaks volumes about Peruvian life and families. How many generations do you see in this image? It’s timeless!
Start with the Country Portraits gallery on the official Martín Chambi. The website is mostly in Spanish but you don’t need to speak the language to understand the images. Then read about how Chambi was declared a national cultural heritage by Peru recently, in November 2019. More reading CLICK HERE as well.
“Desde su estudio en Cusco, Martín Chambi no solo capturó su realidad: se convirtió en un genuino generador de cultura mucho más allá de la anécdota de ser el primer fotógrafo indígena de la historia.” Óscar Colorado Nates
“Rough translation: From his studio in Cusco, Martín Chambi not only captured his reality: he became a genuine generator of culture far beyond the anecdote of being the first indigenous photographer in history.” Óscar Colorado Nates
“My father was enchanted by light.” Julia Chambi
Julia Chambi is Martín’s daughter, who got his work recognized after his death.
#12 Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952)
Edward Sheriff Curtis was an American photographer and ethnologist whose focus was on the American West (many decades before Avedon photographed) and specifically on the Indigenous people of that area. His work was influential in showing these people as a vanishing race.
Starting at the turn of the century, he photographed over 80 tribal groups ranging from the Inuit people in the north to the Hopi people in the Southwest. He became known as the “Shadow Catcher”, and created portraits of many well-known Indigenous people of that time including Geronimo, Red Cloud, Chief Joseph, and many others.
He used a large-format view camera, typical of that time period, and a process called photogravure as well as sepia toning to give his images their distinctive brown coloration.
One of his goals was to record as much of his subjects’ traditional way of life as possible. So in addition to his over 40,000 images, he also made audio recordings, conducted interviews, and took written notes to preserve this heritage.
So his body of work is not only important as images but as documentation of history.
I want to make them (American Indians) live forever. It's such a big dream I can't see it all - Edward S. Curtis, PhotographerClick To Tweet
“I want to make them [American Indians] live forever. It’s such a big dream I can’t see it all.” Edward S. Curtis
View more of his amazing portraits on the Edward S. Curtis Gallery site. The book which was the culmination of his work, The North American Indian, is a major collection of photographic and historic significance. It’s on my own wish list!
Well if you’re still here, kudos, well done! I hope you enjoy learning more about these amazing photographers and their work as much as I do.
Photography education is an ongoing process, it’s a journey, not a destination. Sometimes, in order to move more confidently into your own future, you must delve into the past. What did you learn from these iconic portrait photographers in history? There are many lessons here if you just look!