Get inspired by famous portrait photographers
A true portrait should, today and a hundred years from today, be the testimony of how this person looked and what kind of human being he was.
Originating over 4,000 years ago, portraits have played a significant role in human history especially since the broad scope of portraits includes painting, photography and sculpture. So what exactly is a portrait by definition?
A portrait is an artistic representation of a person in which the face and its expression is predominant. But, it also goes beyond that. The deeper purpose of a portrait is to display the likeness, personality and even the mood of the person.
Because of the essence of portraits, portrait photographers can teach us so much even if we don’t always share their passion for portraits. To help jumpstart your interest in learning more, I’ve compiled a list of famous portrait photographers that I feel any serious, passionate and committed photographer should know. Perhaps along the way you’ll even find a few seeds of inspiration for your own work.
Richard Avedon (1923-2004)
Richard Avedon was an iconic fashion and portrait photographer whose work helped define the style, beauty and culture of the United States during the twentieth century.
His portraits reflected a great deal of complexity, which is why I consider him to be both an amazing portrait photographer and an artist who captured his directions through photography. He was in complete control of what his subjects—the people in front of his lens—were portraying.
While all of his work is stunning, there are three portraits that I feel are truly breathtaking.
With both Twiggy and Avedon making remarkable statements in the fashion industry in each of their fields of expertise, it’s no surprise that Avedon photographed Twiggy multiple times. This particular image is the property of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA | The Collection | Richard Avedon. Twiggy, hair by Ara Gallant, Paris. January 1968) and is quite simple. However, the dreamy quality of it is absolutely amazing and is a great example of Avedon’s impeccable role as a master of conceptualization.
Avedon was deeply influenced by Martin Munkácsi, which is seen in Dovima with Elephants, 1955. Surreal, oneiric and humorous in fashion is how I describe this image that juxtaposes the elegance and the freedom of a deliberate lean portrayed by the model Dovima, in contrast with the rough and tamed elephants in the back.
The beautiful parallelism of the dripping cloth and the elephant’s frontal foot, is a subtle reminder of the art direction behind this iconic image of the fashion world.
An extremely bold portrait of a beekeeper named Ron Fischer from Oak Park, Beekeeper, 1981 is the result of Avedon posting two ads in national beekeeper journals. Four months later, Ron appeared. Avedon already had a concept in mind, which he then sketched on paper. The entire production only lasted a couple of days and resulted in an absolute masterpiece of portrait photography.
Annie Leibovitz (1949- )
A well-known portrait photographer with an exceptional and consistent body of work, Annie Leibovitz’s commercial work is widely popular but her more personal work is something that very few have seen. I once had the opportunity to browse through her noncommercial work in A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005 and instantly became an even bigger fan of her talent and unique style that was inspired by the reportage style of Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Leibovitz is the author of the iconic photograph of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, a portrait that the world has seen countless times and is the last professional photograph ever taken of Lennon since he was murdered only five hours later. Making history, the image was first published on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in January 1981.
Numerous elements make this portrait a masterpiece. Ono’s hair floats in the clear background and is firmly grabbed by Lennon to prevent her escape while there is a tangible difference between their looks in addition to the stark contrast between her dark clothes and his nakedness.
To add to her repertoire of work, Leibovitz was even hired by The Walt Disney Company to photograph several roles and scenes that are iconic to the Disney brand.
Helmut Newton (1920-2004)
Born as Helmut Neustädter in Berlin, Helmut Newton was a notable fashion photographer who was recognized for his provocative photographs and for working primarily in black and white. His most important and prominent publisher was Vogue.
In front of his very eyes and camera lens, Newton created notable portraits of iconic stars including David Bowie and Leonardo DiCaprio, Sophia Loren and Margaret Thatcher, to name a few. With such a vast array of celebrities willing to pose for him, it is no surprise that his work was frequently published by Vanity Fair, Nova, Queen, Playboy and, of course, Vogue, who published impressive 64 covers featuring Newton’s art.
Of his entire portfolio, my favorite shot is Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking Jacket because it presents a beautiful and androgynous portrait of an elegant model in the middle of a street. A complete breakthrough at the time, Newton presented an innovative perception of beauty with a masterful vertical shot featuring exceptional composition and mood.
Yet another great treasure Newton gave to Vogue is this shot taken in London in 1967 where a model runs away from a stalking airplane that fits ideally in the overall composition.
Martin Chambi (1891-1973)
While Europe and North America debated and struggled between pictorialism and straight photography, Martin Chambi was creating stunning portraits of his own social context in a smaller part of the world in Peru.
Like many photographers, Chambi had two streams in his repertoire—his commercial work and personal work, both of which were amazing and teach us so much about the use of light, contrast and sharpness.
Here are three of my favorites.
Víctor Mendívil and the Giant Paruro is an evoking portrait that I personally think symbolizes Chambi’s beliefs that rural people are a rank above people from the city.
Pequineque Friends is a relaxed portrait, which is very rare at that specific moment in time where everything was pictorial and assembled.
Queromarca Rural Woman with Child is an exceptionally strong portrait that still has a powerful message behind it even today.
Even Chambi’s commercial work like the Wedding of Don Julio Gadea has a sublime quality that few photographers of his generation had. Despite the numerous wedding photographers in existence today, there is still a lot to learn from this single image that features such an interesting composition of a black and white arrangement in the crowd.
From these samples, you’ll see that Chambi’s style is so unique that it has truly set him apart from a vast group of photographers in the field.
Daniel Mordzinski (1960- )
Because photography is such a vast world, it often requires specialization in order to achieve stunning and legendary work. These niches can be narrowed down to a sublime point, which is exactly what Daniel Mordzinski has done by narrowing his work so much that he’s become the Photographer of the Writers.
I was first introduced to Mordzinski’s impressive work throughout several books and websites. Today, due to a tragedy at Le Monde that resulted in the loss of a large portion of his work during an irresponsible inventory mistake, it’s easier to see his complete work on his website listed below.
Delight yourself and take a look at one of my personal favorites, a portrait of Jorge Luis Borges. Visit http://www.danielmordzinski.com/ to see more.
Arnold Newman (1918-2006)
Better known by his academic influence as a photography teacher and talented portrait photographer rather than by his role in the news world, Arnold Newman created notable environmental portraits that effectively communicated the context, professions and passions of the people he portrayed.
Environmental Portraiture is known as a field of photography in which the photographer directs the subject in a carefully controlled setting inside the everyday ambiance of the person being portrayed. Newman was a master at environmental portraiture.
His signature picture was a minimalistic monochrome portrait of Igor Stravinsky taken in 1946 in his environment—close to his piano and of nothing more than a light colored wall. This contact sheet is fascinating evidence that great work requires discipline and objective eyes as the remarkable portrait shows a serene Stravinsky lingering close to a beautiful open-tailed piano in front of a dual shaded wall. Bold, innovative and minimalistic, the portrait is also curiously beautiful in how the shapes inside the composition depict a perfect triangle at the center of the image.
Another iconic picture by Newman and a personal favorite of mine is a portrait of Martha Graham. This is a very simple yet strong portrait that is marked by exceptional and basic composition techniques.
Philippe Halsman (1906-1979)
After a tragic experience in his early twenties caused him to leave his native Austria and make a new home in France, Philippe Halsman eventually began contributing to fashion magazines. Finally stumbling into Vogue, he quickly gained the reputation of being the best portrait photographer in all of France.
Thanks to the dedicated work of the Philippe Halsman Foundation, you can see his work here.
Throughout his career, he photographed dozens of talented and iconic individuals such as Louis Armstrong, Audrey Hepburn and Albert Einstein. However, I think his most notable subject was Salvador Dalí because of their partnership in creating out-of-this-world images like the famous Dali Atomicus.
In 1961, Halsman took his work and influence one step further and published Halsman on the Creation of Photographic Ideas to stimulate photographers to pursue unusual images by following six rules. These rules are:
- The rule of the direct approach
- The rule of the unusual technique
- The rule of the added unusual feature
- The rule of the missing feature
- The rule of compounded features
- The rule of the literal or ideographic method
Diane Arbus (1923-1971)
Diane Arbus presented the world with another face, an unseen face that was in the shadows. Her subjects were different; they were always beyond the standards of perfection that fashion so often depicted. For example, her most notable portraits featured marginalized people such as dwarfs, giants, transgenders, nudists and circus performers.
Teaming up with her husband, Allan Arbus, the duo contributed to several fashion magazines such as Glamour, Seventeen, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar where their clear vision resulted in a shared hate for the fashion world.
Showing a great level of respect and fascination for her unique subjects, Diane was able to get closer into an intimate dimension with her marginalized subjects. Through brief social interaction where she established a parallel trust, she was able to produce meaningful and unforgettable portraits that few can fathom or contemplate.
Of her entire portfolio of work, my favorite portrait is Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967 that depicts twins and triplets gathering for Christmas Eve. The image shows a slight contrast of a subtle smile and frown despite both being identical. Personally, I like to believe that this image was inspired Stanley Kubrick when he was seeking the twin performers that appeared in The Shining, 1980.
Steve McCurry (1950- )
While everyone instantly recognizes this image, there is far more to Steve McCurry’s body of work. Known as an outstanding and notable photojournalist, it’s hard to believe that one person has captured so many amazing photographs in a single lifetime—but he has and continues to do so.
McCurry’s portraits have a powerful quality that is hard to explain as it exceeds my scope and breadth of communication and talent. I simply love to watch his work. His portraits have a consistent quality that is something every aspiring and veteran photographer should continue to study and learn as consistency of this nature requires practice and discipline, which lead us closer to perfection and mastery.
The Afghan Girl is a portrait of a girl named Sharbat Gula that was taken in December 1984 at a refugee camp and was later published on the cover of National Geographic magazine in June 1985. This image is so powerful that it is often considered to be one of the greatest portraits of all time. Her expressive eyes, the magnificent sharpness of the shot, the complementary colors of her clothes paired with the background and her facial features, and the almost moving expression of her face are some of the most tangible elements that make this portrait truly remarkable.
Take a look at more of McCurry’s impressive portfolio by visiting his website at http://stevemccurry.com/.
Jimmy Nelson (1967- )
Jimmy Nelson is a tough guy, there’s no doubt about it, but he has a compassionate side for people whose culture is so close to disappearing. Like Mordzinski’s angle in crafting unique portraits of writers, Nelson’s most notable work and his primary goal is of capturing and portraying the people and cultures around the world that are about to be extinct for a variety of anthropological reasons.
Determined to create significant work for humanity and the generations to come, Nelson’s technical mastery is splendid but, beyond that, his mission to capture the most vulnerable moments and cultures of the world adds yet another dimension of importance to his artistry.
The most important thing we can learn from Nelson is the care he has for people. That care, which later converts into trust, allows him to get into the most intimate circles of these endangered cultures all because of his patience and respect. As photographers, we need to take a cue from Nelson and stop shooting for the sake of shooting. Instead, we need to care about our subjects in order to better tell and share their story while achieving the best portraits possible.
Valérie Jardin once said that it’s important for photographers to watch TED Talks on a regular basis. There’s one in particular that I’d like to share with you. Gorgeous portraits of the world’s vanishing people by Jimmy Nelson. I hope you enjoy.
As for the treasure at the end of the list, one of the best portraits I’ve ever seen ever is taken by the talented Tina Modotti (1896-1942). Here, she captures a completely natural and candid portrait of Frida Kahlo and Chavela Vargas.