For me the subject of a picture is always more important than the picture. And more complicated.
Photography wouldn't be what it is today if it weren’t for the courage and passion of these 15 astounding photographers who share one amazing thing—their genre. Like so many other things in history, photography is often seen as a crowded place for men but, thanks to the conviction and passion of many great women, photography has achieved a sublime state of both art and discipline.
Thanks to our list of “Famous Female Photographers,” we recall the great works of the proximate past in this frantic world of immediacy and viral content. In the spirit of lists and our love of photography, we’re excited to bring you 15 famous female photographers of the 20th century.
From complex artists like Francesca Woodman to the unbelievably fierce like the young Gerda Taro, women have greatly contributed to photography as we know it today. In fact, it wouldn't be the same without each of these 15 amazing women. And, while narrowing the list has been difficult and bittersweet, we’re thrilled to share our top 15 picks for famous female photographers.
1. Annie Leibovitz (1949 - )
Spending her childhood and adolescence in different cities around the United States, Annie Leibovitz’s first contact with photography was domestic and made a huge impact on her style. She started her academic studies in photography in 1970 at the San Francisco Institute of Art. Months later, she achieved her first of many milestones when one of her images graced the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 1971. Two years later, publisher Jann Wenner named Leibovitz the Chief Photographer of Rolling Stone, which she held for 10 years before leaving in 1983 for a position with Vanity Fair.
She was inspired and influenced by many other photographers like Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson—who are surprisingly well-known for their documentary and street work—during her time at the San Francisco Art Institute. Also inspired by Richard Avedon, Leibovitz had a beautiful relationship with writer and essayist Susan Sontag, who greatly contributed to Leibovitz’s inspiration and work.
Today, Leibovitz is considered to be the photographer of the famous. Her productions are very well thought out and offer extreme conceptualization. She is also known for taking the last image of John Lennon before his death.
2. Berenice Abbott (1898 - 1991)
An American photographer largely known for her portraits, Berenice Abbott’s love of photography started in 1920 when she worked as a darkroom assistant for the peculiar photographer and vastly known surrealist Man Ray. Developing her own talent and aesthetic after meeting people like Max Ernst, James Joyce and Edna St. Vincent Millay, she was also inspired by the pleasant images of Eugène Atget.
In an artistic sense, Abbott pursued objective images that stood on their own merit, rather than just referencing other classical art forms with black and white being her medium of choice. Her portraits are historically centered around the world wars and cultural figures with her architectural and urban photography like those seen in her New York City pieces offering a striking aesthetic.
You can see some of her work here.
3. Cindy Sherman (1954 - )
Cynthia Morris Sherman is a peculiar artist and female photographer who is also one of the most important figures of the post-war era with her work exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art for over three decades. She is best known for personifying the classical stereotypes of the film noir and the European cinema in what is known as "author films" of the 1950s and the 1960s.
Her most famous work is Untitled Film Stills, which was produced from 1977 to 1980 and includes a series of 69 pictures where she enacts female clichés of 20th-century pop culture. Her consistent double role as a subject and viewer is striking evidence of her artistic statement and conscience.
You can see her work here.
4. Diane Arbus (1923 - 1971)
Diane Arbus was an American photographer who focused on an exceptionally singular demographic—the marginalized. During her time, this social pocket was populated by dwarfs, giants, transgenders, nudists, circus performers and many other surreal personas that captured her attention. She is often considered the Sylvia Plath of photography because of her work as well as her early suicide. What we know today about Arbus is thanks to the brave and passionate conviction of John Szarkowski, the famous and historical curator of the Museum of Modern Art. He presented her work alongside Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander under the concept titled "A New Generation of Documentary Photographers."
Embodying the importance of getting close to people when it comes to environmental and everyday portraits, Arbus is truly an inspiration. She has been credited for her uncanny and amazing ability of separating her subjects from their context or their society.
5. Dorothea Lange (1895 - 1965)
Dorothea Lange was a very important American documentary photographer and photojournalist who is known for her work during the Great Depression of the 20th century for the Farm Security Administration (FSA).
Migrant Mother is perhaps her most iconic work and is also the most famous image she produced during her tenure with the FSA. The image embodies the complex struggles of the American working class of the time.
You can see more great examples of her work here.
6. Francesca Woodman (1958 - 1981)
Born at the center of a family of artists, Francesca Woodman was no stranger to American photography and its influencers thanks to her parents, George and Betty Woodman. Today, the Woodmans manage their daughter’s archives, which includes approximately 800 images of which only 120 have been publicized through exhibitions or in books.
Perhaps not the most famous female photographer, Woodman’s talent is undeniable. She is known mainly for her self-portraits and has been defined for her unveiling attitude toward the camera. Although she tragically committed suicide at the age of 22 in 1981, her work continues to be the subject of widespread critical acclaim and attention.
You can see some of her work here.
7. Gerda Taro (1910 - 1937)
Gerda Taro is one female photographer that history should never forget. Born as Gerta Pohorylle but taking on an alias as a young and talented photojournalist, Taro was a pioneer in photojournalism especially when it came to the discipline of war. Today, she is recognized as the first photojournalist to cover a Belic conflict and, sadly, is also known as the first woman who died doing this brave task.
Romantically involved with Endre Ernö Friedmann, Taro and Friedmann both shot under one signature—Robert Capa. Because of this and the difficulty in determining the authority of some images, Taro’s work is often complex and difficult to examine. One mechanism that has been reliable in crediting certain images to Taro and others to Friedmann is the format of the images. Taro worked with a 6x6 medium format camera while Friedmann worked with a 35mm format camera; however, even then, camera sharing could have easily taken place.
Friedmann’s brother, Cornell Capa, is the man behind the International Center of Photography and has taken on the task of publishing some of Taro’s work here. You can also listen to this song by Alt-J that is dedicated to Taro or watch The Mexican Suitcase video that speaks about a few negatives produced by Taro, Friedmann, and David "Chim" Seymour.
8. Helen Levitt (1913 - 2009)
For me (and many other photographers as well), capturing humor with photography can be difficult. However, Helen Levitt made it seem easy. An American photographer known for her street photography, Levitt’s talent didn’t stop there as she mastered capturing humor on the streets. She is now considered the "most celebrated and least known female photographer of her time" and was a pioneer of color photography and color street photography. Today, there’s even a huge debate over street photography being monochrome or in color.
Applying for and receiving not just any grant but a prestigious Guggenheim grant, Levitt had a stellar opportunity to explore her hometown. With the grant renewed for a second time in 1960, she honored the grant’s requirements and the world of photography by capturing hundreds of images that shifted from black and white to color.
9. Imogen Cunningham (1883 - 1976)
An American photographer mainly known for her botanical work as well her nudes and industrial landscapes, Imogen Cunningham was a member of the famous direct photography f/64 group. She was one of the first professional female photographers with her love, passion and commitment for the art reaching many disciplines of the craft.
One important aspect of Cunningham’s artistry is that she was also very interested in human subjects, especially artists, with even her industrial landscapes showing an undeniable "human footprint." She is often associated with other iconic 20th century photographers like Ansel Adams, Minor White, and Dorothea Lange.
10. Margaret Bourke-White (1904 - 1971)
Margaret Bourke-White's work has become the paradigm of the social and political commitment of North American photographic journalism. She was particularly interested in industrial photography and received her first commission from Fortune magazine in 1930. During the Second World War, she worked as a war correspondent and portrayed the often harsh reality of war. Her moving images of the liberation of the concentration camps had worldwide repercussion in terms of perception and consciousness.
Thanks to a commission from LIFE magazine, Bourke-White moved to India in 1946 to capture the liberation of the Hindus. Her most iconic image from this period is of Ghandi and the Spinning Wheel, which emphasized the importance of the spinning wheel as a symbol of India's independence.
You can see some of her work here.
11. Mary Ellen Mark (1940 - 2015)
Mary Ellen Mark was an amazing American photojournalist with a special social focus on people who were "away from mainstream society." Her most famous work is Streetwise and can be seen here. Thanks to publications like LIFE, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and The New York Times, her work has seen the light of day. She was also a member of the Magnum Photo Agency for 5 years.
Although she is widely known as a photojournalist and documentary photographer, her images go beyond genres. Her work isn’t like any other news photographs because they are deeply rooted in reality with many of the social struggles and issues of the time and era recorded in the human faces of her subjects in what would otherwise be dimmed in the dry world of statistics.
You can see some of her work here.
12. Sally Mann (1951 - )
Extremely well known in the world of fine art, Sally Mann’s favorite technique has been large format, black and white photographs. She centers in the eerie aspects of life and dares the viewer with images that often feel odd to the average public eye.
Prolific when it comes to her subjects from landscapes to intimate and close images of her own family members and loved ones, Mann is known for using her family as her primary subjects. As we can see in this magnificent piece of work, she shares the intimacy of her own young children, often nude, going about their daily lives—eating, sleeping, and playing.
You can see great examples of her work here. If you ever have the opportunity to attend an exhibition of her work, please do so. You won’t regret it!
13. Susan Meiselas (1948 - )
Susan Meiselas is an American documentary photographer whose work has been published in many newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, The Times, Time, GEO and Paris Match. Besides being a member of the Magnum Photo Agency since 1980, she received the 1979 Robert Capa Gold Medal and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1992.
Her iconic image titled Molotov Man became a symbol for revolutionary causes first in Nicaragua and later in other countries much like Alberto Korda’s Guerrillero Heroico became an international symbol. Meiselas also documented the El Mozote Massacre in 1981 during the civil war conflict in El Salvador.
One of her most important essays is Carnival Strippers in which she documented the two faces of travelling carnival shows in the United States from 1972 to 1976.
You can see more of her work here.
14. Tina Modotti (1896 - 1942)
Although she was born in Italy, Tina Modotti’s life and photography were strongly marked by the time she spent in Mexico with her photographs conveying her own sensitivity to Mexican culture while reflecting the evolution of her political ideas. Immersed in the avant-garde Mexican scene, she created an important photographic archive about the culture and politics of the country after the revolution.
Many believe that Modotti tried to balance the dichotomy between aesthetics and politics by presenting them with absolute elegance. By far, her most iconic image is Worker's Parade. More of her work can be found here.
15. Vivian Maier (1926 - 2009)
Vivian Maier was not known as a photographer like the other women on our list. Instead, she worked as a nanny four four decades and carried her camera around in her spare time to pursue and collect moments on the streets. She took over 150,00 photographs during her lifetime and has rewritten the history of street photography with her work. She is a great example of the importance behind constantly revisiting history.
During her lifetime, her images were completely unknown and, therefore remained unpublished. Her images were for her and no one else. Her private photographs were controversially discovered by John Maloof, which is why her most treasured images are now available for our delight. You can see more of her work here and here. You can also watch the documentary film Finding Vivian Maier to understand more about her beliefs. Afterward, maybe you'll have your own questions about the controversial discovery and publication of her work.