27 Famous Portrait Photographers (Past & Present)

Barack_Obama_family_portrait_2011-Pete-Souza

Learning from the work of famous portrait photographers can help you to pass from making nice photos to creating works of art.

In this list, you’ll find a mixture of famous portrait photographers from past and present to get you inspired.

(This isn’t, of course, a comprehensive list, but it’s a good starting point!)

If you’re eager to get to know some of the most influential portrait photographers in the world, let’s get started.

Top 27 Most Famous Portrait Photographers Ever

1. Annie Leibovitz

Annie Leibovitz is amongst the most famous portrait photographers in the world.

She started working for Rolling Stone magazine in 1970, and since then, she’s photographed many famous people from the music business, tv stars, politicians, etc.

One of her most famous portrait photographs is the one of John Lennon in bed with Yoko Ono done a few hours before Lennon’s murder.

Annie Leibovitz is still active, and she teaches an online Masterclass, in case you’re interested in learning from one of the most famous photographers in the field.

2. Arnold Newman

Arnold Newman, White House Press Office (WHPO), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Arnold Newman was a talented portrait photographer who studied drawing and painting. In 1946, he relocated to New York, and he started working as a photographer for well-known magazines such as Fortune, Newsweek and Life.

His environmental portraits in black and white are the more famous, especially his famous portrait of Stravinsky, which, by the way, was rejected by Harper’s Bazaar, who had commissioned the job.

3. David Bailey

 

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David Bailey is one of the most famous portrait photographers in the world. His unique style includes dramatic lighting and bare backgrounds.

Bailey’s famous works include portraits of many celebrities as well as portraits and behind the scenes reportages from the fashion world.

4. Eugene Korman

Better known as Gene Korman mainly worked in Hollywood and the movie industry, Eugene was taking still photographs for films such as Scarface or making glamour portrait photography for stars as big as Marilyn Monroe.

In fact, his stills for the movie Niagara were the base for Andy Warhol’s Marilyn’s series of portraits – iconic for the pop art movement.

5. Steve McCurry

Steve McCurry is a travel and documentary photographer who’s most famous for his National Geographic work.

During his travels, he makes the most remarkable environmental portraits – including the famous Afghan Girl.

He has two World Press Photo prizes and the Royal Photographic Society’s Centenary Medal, among his multiple awards.

6. Pete Souza

 

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Despite being a talented professional photographer since 1998, he became one of the most famous portrait photographers for his work capturing former US president Barack Obama.

Souza also worked as chief official White House photographer during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Both periods gave him the chance to photograph some of the most prominent world leaders at work.

Currently, he uses his photographic skills to photograph both celebrities as well as landscapes. You can check out his varied work on his Instagram account.

7. Yousuf Karsh

Yousuf Karsh in a studio, BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives, CC BY via Wikimedia Commons

Yousuf Karsh is an Armenian-Canadian portrait photographer who immortalized people as famous as Albert Einstein or Winston Churchill.

He photographed ‘anyone who was anyone’ and claimed that he chose this ‘remarkable cross-section of people’ for his own immortality.

He certainly achieved his goal, as he is one of the most famous portrait photographers of the 20th century.

8. Richard Avedon

Richard Avedon exhibition in Berlin. Credit: Shervin Afshar (Flickr), CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Richard Avedon was an American fashion photographer who revolutionized the field. Instead of models as a mannequin, they became persons with emotions in Avedon’s portraits.

Aside from the fashion world, Richard Avedon applied his talent and photography skills to make socially and politically charged black and white portraits.

He photographed activists and civil rights workers in his studio and went out in the streets to capture protesters of the Vietnam War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, etc.

Another project that became iconic was American West, where he exhibited large-format portraits of miners, cowboys, etc. – these were later published as a best-selling book.

9. Gustave Le Gray

Gustave Le Gray, Selfportrait, Daguerreotype, 1848, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Le Gray was a 19th-century French photographer trained initially as a painter. He got interested in photography in 1847, doing his first daguerrotypes.

His portraits of Giuseppe Garibaldi gave him fame throughout Europe.

Le Gray also taught photography and made some technical innovations such as adding wax to paper negatives, doing combined printing and collaborating to invent the wet collodion method.

10. Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus is one of the most famous American portrait photographers, and she was the first photographer to be included in the Venice Biennale in 1972.

Her work has a signature style even though she made noticeable technical changes throughout her career, which reflected a shift in concept and vision.

Her choice of subjects is also a point of recognition of her work as she did portraits of marginalized groups as well as men and women who would partially or totally cover their identity with the use of make-up and masks.

Many photographers in the world credit some degree of influence from the work of Diane Arbus – she is recognized as a ‘seminal figure’ of modern photography.

11. Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Dorothea Lange was a famous portrait photographer with a documentary and photojournalist approach. She’s mainly known for her famous portrait Migrant Mother.

This portrait and a large portion of her work were done while she travelled the midwest and southwest to document the effects of the Great Depression.

These trips were funded by the Roosevelt administration, who hired various artists, amongst which Dorothea Lange, to document the people who were supposed to receive help with the New Deal.

Lange also co-founded the magazine Aperture in 1952 – a quarterly journal specialized in photography as fine art that’s still running.

In 1945 she started teaching fine art photography at the California School of Fine Arts by invitation of Ansel Adams.

12. Phil Borges

Phil Borges is a great photographer and documentary filmmaker who uses storytelling to raise awareness and create social change.

Within portrait photography, he stands out for his images of indigenous people. Borges is a multiple award winner, and his work has been exhibited throughout the world.

He runs many non-profit programs to help make a positive cultural change. The project Women Empowered highlights extraordinary women that thrive despite gender inequality, and his recent program Crazywise aims to bring awareness and respect to mental illness and Shamanic practices.

13. Brandon Stanton

 

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Stanton is a professional portrait photographer who gains fame by photographing people of New York City for his project Humans of New York.

He started in 2010 photographing 10,000 New Yorkers living out of unemployment checks. The project moved to a Facebook page where he started adding quotes and later interviews with his subjects.

By 2013, the project became a popular photography book, and over 30,000 copies were pre-ordered.

The book ranked #1 on the New York Times Non-Fiction Best Sellers; Stanton was named in Time’s “30 Under 30 People Changing the World”, and now he is one of the most famous portrait photographers in the world.

14. Stephan Gladieu

Stephan Gladieu is a famous portrait photographer who’s been covering war and social issues since 1989. For one of his most noted projects, he documented the people of North Korea.

Despite the constraints and limitations, he captured portraits that reflect his point of view and illustrate the human condition.

According to the bio on his website, he’s currently more dedicated to his personal research and projects: a “human story throughout colourfully portrait collection”. He’s also still doing some international portraits for magazines and journalistic activities.

15. Lee Jeffries

 

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Traditionally speaking, Lee Jeffries is a portrait photographer – however, he describes himself as a spiritual photographer.

He started taking photographs of bicycles for his own business at 35 years of age. To fight his loneliness, he started going out and photographing homeless people.

He doesn’t just photograph them; he talks to them and creates a connection – that’s why they are such powerful images.

16. David Lachapelle

David Lachapelle is an American portrait photographer famous for his iconic portraits packed with symbolism, references to art history and saturated colors.

His signature style separates him from other photographers in the field and puts him in the realm of fine art photography. For this reason, multiple museums and galleries around the world have exhibited his work.

17. Cindy Sherman

 

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Cindy Sherman is an artist best known for the social commentary made through portrait photography using herself as the model.

She doesn’t consider them self-portraits because she transforms herself into different personas – the fact that it’s her body is simply a practical matter.

With her works, Sherman has reflected upon identity construction, gender stereotypes, and other cultural codes. Most recently, she’s using Instagram to explore visual representation using filters, photo editing apps and social media.

18. Michael Coyne

Michael Coyne is one of the famous photographers that work on assignment for publications as important as National Geographic and Lonely Planet.

His best portraits come from documentary photography and photojournalism projects done around the world and have been compiled in different books.

He also has a how-to book called Lonely Planet – People Photography, where he shares his 25 years of experience to guide you and help you take better photos.

19. Ken Reagan

Ken Reagan was one of the great portrait photographers in history. He had the talent to capture the moment and tell a story through his portraits.

He was published by many magazines, including Rolling Stone, who named him one of their Seven Masters in Photography.

He also won multiple awards, and his work has been exhibited in museums and galleries all over the globe, including Washington’s National Portrait Gallery – whose collection holds five of Reagan’s works.

20. Bruce Gilden

 

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Gilden is an American photographer who’s most famous because he photographed people in the streets using a flash.

Most photographers try to pass unnoticed when doing street photography, but not Bruce Gilden – that’s why his close-up portraits make him one of the best-known portrait photographers of our generation.

21. Helmut Newton

Helmut Newton, Portrait of Laurel Martyn, 1952, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Helmut Newton is considered one of the best portrait photographers in the world. He started as a fashion photographer – where he immediately stood out with his provocative and innovative style.

In the 1980s, he started working with Vanity Fair and became more interested in making portraits of the powerful and famous.

22. Alec Soth

 

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Soth is a documentary photographer who’s made stunning portraits “concerned with the mythologies and oddities that proliferate America’s disconnected communities”.

He’s been a Magnum member since 2008 and has been awarded multiple fellowships and exhibited in museums and public collections around the world. He also has a publishing company called Little Brown Mushroom.

23. Nick Knight

 

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Nick Knight is one of the most famous portrait photographers in the fashion industry as well as a video and film director. In 2000 he founded SHOWstudio.

Since 2001 he started doing music videos collaborating with Bjork, Lady Gaga, amongst others. Knight’s search for innovation ranges from lighting techniques to the use of multimedia.

Nonetheless, he’s never given up portrait photography – for example, in 2016, he was called to photograph the royal family on the Queen’s 90th birthday.

24. Mario Testino

 

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Mario Testino is one of the most famous portrait photographers in the fashion industry. Outside of the fashion world, he’s very interested in exploring and documenting cultural heritage.

With his project Alta Moda, he focused on his native Peruvian culture, while he dedicated the series A Beautiful World to other cultures.

25. Manfred Baumann

While Baumann is known as one of the best portrait photographers, he’s also very talented in landscape photography – most recently using drones.

His work has been published and exhibited multiple times and has received many awards. He also teaches for the Leica Academy worldwide.

26. Philippe Halsman

Dali Atomicus, Philippe Halsman, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Halsman became one of the most famous portrait photographers in the world thanks to his surreal collaborations with Salvador Dali.

He’s also known for photographing most of his subjects jumping. This way, he could capture an ‘unguarded moment’. Amongst some of the most famous, you can find Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot and Edward Steichen.

27. Jonathan Mannion

Mannion started as the assistant of Richard Avedon and later spread his wings as one of the most famous portrait photographers in the music business.

He’s done over 300 album covers, and he shares many behind-the-scenes moments in his Instagram feed.

Final Words

Out of all the most famous portrait photographers in the world, this list includes many of my favourites – I hope you enjoyed it.

I’d love to know which portrait photographers you include on your list of ‘the best’ – please let us know in the comments below!

Ana Mireles is a Mexican researcher that specializes in photography and communications for the arts and culture sector.

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