Mary Ellen Mark

Top 25 The Best Portrait Photographers of All Time

© Mary Ellen Mark

Portraiture, one of the oldest and most captivating photographic genres,
has roots dating back to the earliest days of the medium.


─── by Elizabeth Kahn, May 15, 2024
  • From iconic figures to everyday people, throughout history, skilled practitioners have sought to capture the essence of others. Compiling a list of its most significant exponents is a daunting task, but this is what we’ve endeavored to do: select what we consider the best portrait photographers of all time, each of whom has left an enduring mark on the style.


    1. Irving Penn

    “What I really try to do is photograph people at rest, in a state of serenity.”

    One of the most influential practitioners of the 20th century, American photographer Irving Penn (1917-2009) was a true master of portraiture who helped shape the genre as we know it today. The stunning images he captured for Vogue had a dramatic impact on the world of fashion photography, and he also photographed some of the most iconic figures from the worlds of art, music, and film. However, his subjects were not exclusively models or 20th-century icons. The portraits he captured during his extensive travels, notably during the mid-1960s to early 1970s, in his makeshift studios, are equally captivating, further demonstrating his skill, artistry, and mastery of the format.

     

    2. Dorothea Lange

    “Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.”

    American photographer Dorothea Lange (1895 – 1965) stands as one of the greatest photographers in the medium’s illustrious history, best known for her impactful, humanistic work for the Farm Security Administration during ‘The Great Depression’. Over six years, she traversed 22 states, documenting the monumental ‘Dust Bowl’ migration—the largest in American history—where millions of families fled the drought-stricken Plains States in search of livelihoods and hope. Starkly honest and anthropological, yet imbued with compassion, her images were hugely impactful, bringing a human face to a crisis often overlooked by many Americans embroiled in their own struggles. No image demonstrates this better than her most iconic: ‘Migrant Mother’, a truly powerful portrait that remains perhaps the most enduring example of social documentary photography in existence.

     

    3. Richard Avedon

    “My portraits are more about me than they are about the people I photograph.”

    Arguably the most important fashion photographer of all time, New York City-born Richard Avedon (1923-2004) transformed the industry with his prodigious artistry and uncompromisingly creative approach to his work. Throughout his extraordinary career, he captured countless images for the world’s largest fashion brands and publications and also photographed some of the 20th century’s most iconic figures. Yet, some of his most powerful portraits depict more ‘ordinary’ subjects. The most notable of such works are the evocative portraits commissioned by the Amon Carter Museum of Art in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1979 (and later published in the landmark photobook ‘In the American West’), portraying the everyday people whom he described as ‘the hidden strength of the country.’

     

    4. Yousuf Karsh

    “Look and think before opening the shutter. The heart and mind are the true lens of the camera.”

    Widely recognized as one of the most influential practitioners of the 20th century, Armenian-Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002) spent his illustrious career portraying the most renowned figures from politics, sport, and popular culture. Thanks to his masterful use of light, his images are rich in contrast and imbued with a rare intensity, creating a unique sense of drama, and today, a number of them—such as his depiction of Winston Churchill—stand as some of the most iconic portraits in existence.

     

    5. Steve McCurry

    “If you wait, people will forget your camera and the soul will drift up into view.”

    Steve McCurry (b.1950) the American photographer, is perhaps the most prominent figure in photography today, celebrated for his remarkable body of work that encompasses some of the most iconic images of our time. While his oeuvre spans a range of styles, many of his most famous images are portraits captured in everyday settings during his extensive travels. None are more renowned than ‘Afghan Girl,’ his breathtaking 1984 photograph of 12-year-old Sharbat Gula, which graced the cover of National Geographic the following year. It remains one of the most famous portraits in existence, embodying McCurry’s most famous quote (seen above).

     

    6. Philippe Halsman

    “To me the face – the eyes, the expression of the mouth – is the thing that reflects character.”

    Philippe Halsman (1906-1979) was born in Riga when it was still part of the Russian Empire, and began his photography career after relocating to Paris in the 1930s. Establishing a portrait studio in Montparnasse in 1934, he photographed some of the city’s most renowned creatives, including André Gide, Marc Chagall, and Le Corbusier, utilizing an innovative twin-lens reflex camera of his own design. Later immigrating to the US, Halsman produced his most iconic work, including numerous collaborations with Salvador Dali as well his memorable portraits of celebrities like Marilyn Monroe. He famously requested subjects to jump during sessions, capturing candid moments that revealed their true personalities.

     

    7. Seydou Keïta

    “…I was really in love with photography…”

    Mali’s other superstar portraitist (alongside Malik Sidibe) Seydou Keïta (1921-2001) is renowned for the balanced sense of formality and acute intimacy he created with his subjects, resulting in captivating portraits that captured the essence of his compatriots during the mid to late 20th century. His resourcefulness and improvisational talent are evident in his photos; he would use household items to create his studio, draping rugs and fabrics over string to fashion backdrops for his portraits, and furnish his studio with various props, from costumes to Vespas. As one of the most esteemed photographers in Mali, people would often travel to have themselves immortalized in their finest attire, bringing with them their most cherished possessions. His vast archive of over 10,000 negatives came to light in the 1990s, earning him worldwide recognition during the latter stages of his life.

     

    8. Herb Ritts

    “I like form and shape and strength in pictures.”

    American Herb Ritts (1952-2002) one of the preeminent photographers of his era, was a master of his craft, demonstrated beautifully in his captivating monochrome portraits. His work is distinguished by a minimalist aesthetic, placing emphasis on the inherent beauty of the human form. Like predecessors Avedon and Penn, Ritts drew inspiration from various artistic mediums, including painting, sculpture, and film, resulting in stunning imagery that captured the essence of some of the world’s most prominent figures during the 1980s and 1990s.

     


    9. Helmut Newton

    “My job as a portrait photographer is to seduce, amuse and entertain.”

    German-Australian photographer Helmut Newton (1920-2004) was a luminary in the world of cinematic portraiture, influencing generations of practitioners with his distinctive style. Drawing inspiration from film noir, Expressionist cinema, S&M culture, and surrealism, Newton’s work was creative, captivating, and often controversial. He frequently eschewed studio settings in favor of opulent mansions or upscale hotels, lending his images a voyeuristic allure, which accentuated the eroticism and sense of intrigue for which he is renowned.

     

    10. Annie Leibovitz

    “A thing that you see in my pictures is that I was not afraid to fall in love with these people.”

    Arguably the most influential portrait photographer of our time, American Annie Leibovitz (b.1949) has produced some of the most captivating and iconic portraits in her illustrious five-decade-long career. Renowned for her masterful use of lighting, she has a remarkable eye for color and composition, often integrating elements into her backdrops rather than opting for blank studio settings. Throughout her 5 decade long career, she has photographed many of the most renowned figures from popular culture, including, (perhaps most famously) John Lennon, who she captured naked alongside his wife Yoko Ono just hours before he was murdered.

     

    11. Sally Mann

    “To be able to take my pictures, I have to look, all the time, at the people and places I care about.”

    Sally Mann (b.1951) is a master of candid portraiture, celebrated for her deeply personal work often depicting those closest to her. The American photographer gained prominence in the late 1980s with her series ‘At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women’, capturing the children of friends and relatives in her home state of Virginia. However, it was her series ‘Immediate Family’ that truly propelled her career. Moving, controversial, and now iconic, this intimate collection predominantly features her three children against the Arcadian backdrop of her woodland summer home in Virginia. Released as a book in 1992, it remains a seminal piece of fine art and documentary photography, continuing to influence and provoke debate today.

     

    12. Bruce Gilden

    “I’m photographing myself out there. Not myself physically, but mentally. It’s my take on the world.”

    While Brooklyn native Bruce Gilden (b.1946) is primarily recognized as a street photographer, many of his best-known images are also striking examples of portraiture. However, these images stand in stark contrast to the carefully staged imagery typically associated with the genre. Shot in a distinctive and confrontational manner, often at arm’s length from his subjects and utilizing flash, Gilden’s portraits are unabashedly direct, offering a uniquely visceral take on what is often viewed as a ‘formal’ style.

     

    13. Dan Winters

    “It’s important as artists to stay true to the path that we are on…Focus on your voice and your vision. Make honest images that are connected to humanity.”

    One of the most renowned modern exponents of the style, Californian photographer Dan Winters (b.1952) has, over the course of his impressive career, photographed some of the most famous figures from the world of film, politics, music, and sports. His striking works emanate a brooding intensity, masterfully sculpting subjects with light and form, whilst his use of austere backdrops, reminiscent of Irving Penn’s, creates additional impact, further directing focus squarely on the subjects.

     

    14. William Klein

    “I came from the outside, the rules of photography didn’t interest me.”

    Though he worked across a range of mediums throughout his career, William Klein (1926-2022) is best known as a photographer, whose primary focus was street and fashion photography – often blending the two genres to create unique imagery that left a significant mark on the medium. Despite his lack of personal interest in fashion, the NYC-born photographer who relocated to Paris in 1948, became a prominent figure in the industry during the 1950s and 1960s. His stunning images produced for Vogue magazine were often unorthodox, incorporating techniques such as flash combined with multiple exposures, the use of wide-angle or telephoto lenses, and photographing models on the street rather than in traditional studio settings. These unconventional approaches helped influence a generation of photographers to experiment with new styles and perspectives.

     

    15. Malik Sidibe

    “It’s a world, someone’s face. When I capture it, I see the future of the world.”

    Malick Sidibe (1936-2016) known as “the Eye of Bamako,” is the most renowned of Mali’s many iconic photographers, who dedicated much of his career to capturing the youth of the capital from the 1950s to the 1970s. His life’s work revolves around scenes of celebration, showcasing the burgeoning rise of pop culture in the Malian capital, though alongside his candid, photojournalistic endeavors, Sidibe prolifically documented young people in his studio, capturing them in striking poses against patterned backdrops. Rather than focusing on a narrative, Sidibe was drawn to faces, considering each one a world unto itself.

     

    16. Eve Arnold

    “Lesson number one, pay attention to the intrusion of the camera.”

    The first woman to join Magnum Photos, British-American photojournalist Eve Arnold (1912-2012) photographed many of the iconic figures from the second half of the twentieth century. Her striking portraits had a sensitive, natural feel, thanks to her candid approach, use of natural light, and the trust she built with her subjects, no more so than in her intimate depictions of Marilyn Monroe during the late 50s and early 60s.

     

    17. Edward Steichen

    “A portrait is not made in the camera but on either side of it.”

    Luxembourg-born Edward Steichen (1879-1973) was a hugely important photographer, who, alongside figures like Alfred Stieglitz and Clarence H. White, played a pivotal role in the influential Photo-Secession movement, which advocated for the acceptance of photography as a form of fine art. From 1923 to 1937, Steichen served as Vanity Fair’s “Modern Eye,” pioneering an innovative genre of celebrity portraiture. Employing techniques borrowed from fine art and stage photography—such as artificial lighting, high contrast, sharp focus, and geometric backgrounds—his images possessed a striking modernist sensibility, laying the foundation for contemporary portrait photography.

     

    18. Nadav Kander

    “Revealed yet concealed. Shameless yet shameful. Ease with unease. Beauty and destruction. These paradoxes are displayed in all my work; an inquiry into what it feels like to be human.”

    London-based photographer Nadav Kander (b.1961) has gained worldwide renown for his powerful portraits of prominent figures from the worlds of film and politics. In the tradition of the finest portraiture, Kander’s work is direct, characterized by a simplicity and an astute mastery of form and light, reminiscent of the great still-life photographers of the post-war period, imbuing his images with a sense of intense drama and intimacy that captivates the viewer.

     

    19. Diane Arbus

    “I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.”

    Diane Arbus (1923 – 1971) the New York City photographer, remains a somewhat divisive figure, eliciting both acclaim and criticism for her portraits of those on society’s margins. While some view her work as “predatory” or “voyeuristic,” others argue it is “anti-humanist”, yet her impact on the medium cannot be denied. Despite the ‘staged’ nature of her style, Arbus’s portraits possess an informal quality stemming from the intimate connection between her and her subjects, which sets her work apart from many other exponents of the style. However, the ongoing debate surrounding her legacy underscores the complexities of her contribution to photography and the enduring questions it raises about representation and ethics in the art form.

     

    20. Peter Lindbergh

    “You don’t photograph the physiognomy of someone else, but rather the feelings of the two people who were in the room when you took pictures.”

    German photographer Peter Lindbergh (1944-2019) is considered one of the most important fashion photographers of all time, having revolutionized the genre with his forthright yet artistic approach. From his iconic ‘white shirt’ group portrait captured on the beach in Malibu in 1988, which introduced the world to a group featuring the most famous models of the time, to his more recent creations, Lindbergh’s high-contrast black-and-white portraiture for Harper’s Bazaar and other leading fashion publications blends understated glamour with realism, thus emphasizing the natural beauty and elegance of his subjects.

     

    21. Alfred Eisenstaedt

    “In a photograph a person’s eyes tell much, sometimes they tell all.”

    German-American photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt (1898-1995) was a seminal figure of his era, leaving a lasting mark across various genres, particularly street photography, where he pioneered the use of the 35mm camera. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Eisenstaedt defied confinement to a specific industry or style, possessing the ability to capture a diverse range of moments and situations with a sharp eye and masterful composition. His portraiture for LIFE magazine, which depicted some of the world’s most famous personalities including Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy, stands as a testament to his skill and artistry, and would contribute to shaping the genre as we know it today.

     

    22. Mario Testino

    “My pictures are my eyes. I photograph what I see – and what I want to see.

    Peruvian photographer Mario Testino (b.1954) stands among the most prominent fashion photographers of our era, celebrated for his glamorous imagery that strikes a balance between opulence and honesty. He is credited with creating some of the most iconic fashion portraits in recent memory, featured in publications like Vogue, V Magazine, Vanity Fair, and GQ, as well as for the world’s leading luxury brands. However, perhaps his most poignant portrait is that of Princess Diana, taken months before her tragic death in 1997.

     

    23. Jimmy Nelson

    “Through the lens of my camera, I am able to share the extraordinary beauty of our world’s vanishing cultures and inspire others to celebrate and preserve their unique heritage.”

    Jimmy Nelson (b.1967) is a world-renowned, British-born artist who, over the past decade, has traversed the globe to document indigenous cultures facing the threat of extinction. Throughout his career, Nelson has ventured into the most remote corners of the world, capturing striking portraits that serve as a testament to the resilience of these communities. His acclaimed project and photobook, “Before They Pass Away,” depicts 35 indigenous communities across the globe who have managed to preserve their unique traditions and practices despite the encroaching forces of globalization and industrialization

     

    24. Mary Ellen Mark

    “The obsessions we have are pretty much the same our whole lives. Mine are people, the human condition, life.”

    One of the most important photographers of her time, Mary Ellen Mark (1940-2015) dedicated much of her remarkable five-decade-long career to documenting those on the fringes of society with unwavering honesty, insight, and compassion. Over the years she photographed sex workers in Mumbai, patients at an Oregon mental institution, and teenagers living on the streets of Seattle. Her deeply absorbing portraits perfectly capture the essence of her subjects, highlighting their humanity in a way that fosters empathy and understanding among viewers.

     

    25. August Sander

    “…let me in honesty speak the truth about our epoch and people.”

    German photographer August Sander (1876-1964) was one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, a master of portraiture, he is best known for his groundbreaking series, “People of the Twentieth Century.” This landmark collection comprises over 600 striking black- and-white images, offering a comprehensive cross-section of German society and left a profound mark on the medium, inspiring generations of notable portrait practitioners who followed in his footsteps.


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