• Photo by famous portrait photographer Alec Soth.

4 Famous Portrait Photographers to Inspire Your Next Portrait Project

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Find out how this list of famous portrait photographers influenced our understanding of the genre and learn more about some of the stories behind their iconic portraits.

Words by Aaron Chapman

An intimate exchange of energy occurs in portraiture. Something about the person before the camera is revealed, not just how they appear, but how they feel at a given moment. This moment, this inimitable act of voyeurism, can prove historically important and can reveal great truths about the subject and their social context. 

Let’s take a look at a number of famous portrait photographers and how their handling of a camera and a documentary approach has become socially important.

1. Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange is best known for her famous black and white portrait titled, ‘Migrant Mother, 1936’. The portrait was so powerful that it came to represent the Great Depression and of a nation suffering. The portrait has been widely attributed to influencing approaches in documentary photography and remains a common source of discussion in contemporary photography discourse.

'Migrant Mother, 1936' (Dorothea Lange)

Lange elaborates on the making of ‘Migrant Mother, 1936’ in an essay penned to Popular Photography in February of 1960 which can be read in its entirety here.

“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.”

When we think about images with lasting impact, and when we think about photography and its journalistic ability to affect change, Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother, 1936’ is always mentioned in the same breath.

Lange’s famous portrait photo and its resulting widespread dissemination, led to the American Government rushing aid to these settlement camps where starvation threatened the lives of families such as those pictured in ‘Migrant Mother, 1936’.

2. Alec Soth

Alec Soth might be the youngest name in this list of famous portrait photographers. Soth’s meteoric rise followed his selection as the winner of the 2003 Santa Fe Prize for Photography.

Natalia (Alec Soth, 2007)Keni (Alec Soth, 2018)

The body of work that sent Soth to such great heights was Sleeping by the Mississippi, a timeless portrayal of America that follows a similar drifting narrative as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Photobook readers of Sleeping by the Mississippi are carried on a journey down the Mississippi River to encounter the intricacies of life between the west and east coast of America. 

In this diaristic project, Soth’s brave approach in portraiture allowed him to author some of contemporary photography’s defining moments, including ‘Charles, Vasa, Minnesota, 2002’.

Charles, Vasa, Minnesota (Alec Soth, 2002)

Soth’s sophomore project, Niagara intimately documents the town of Niagara Falls (another body of water). Niagara Falls is a place visited for marriage, and a common location for suicide jumpers. Soth captures this dichotomy with great austere, photographing couples in love, nude at times, and the eerie interiors and locations that allude to the more sinister nature of the place.

Soth’s perhaps most iconic portrait is ‘Melissa, Flamingo Inn, 2005’, a bride on her wedding day with a dress that seems to billow and emulate the nearby waterfall.

Read what Soth thinks about this portrait here.

Melissa, Flamingo Inn (Alec Soth, 2005)

3. Richard Avedon

Richard Avedon was an incredibly successful photographer who worked predominantly in advertising and fashion for the likes of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. His impact in the fashion world was so immense that The New York Times claimed Avedon’s responsibility in “helping to define America’s image of style, beauty and culture…”

Marilyn Monroe (Richard Avedon, 1957)

Despite his commercial success, Avedon maintained a personal practice and worked on regular projects including In the American West, which was first published in 1985. The body of work was the result of five years spent making portraits throughout the American West, in order to create an overall depiction of time and place through people.

Avedon’s working-class subjects were typically emotionless, without smile and with blank stare. In the American West became Avedon’s magnum opus and is remembered, much like his fashion work, for defining another and entirely different image of America.

See more of Avedon’s iconic portraits from In the American West here.

Boyd Fortin, Thirteen Year Old Rattlesnake Skinner (Richard Avedon, 1979)Roberto Lopez, Oil Field Worker (Richard Avedon, 1980)

4. Diane Arbus

American photographer, Diane Arbus had a long, steady career in New York City in the late 1950s and 60s. Her lens was often trained on minority groups and is remembered for strongly advocating equal representation, which remains an urgent concern of the field of photography today.

Arbus is best known for her black and white portraits that largely examined identity. She roamed the busy streets and documented those otherwise socially marginalised. From Latin-Americans to transgender people, Arbus was prolific in her efforts to define a city through its citizens and began to achieve the success we associate with her name only a few years prior to her death in 1971.

Although exhibiting alongside other photography stalwarts Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander in 1967, Arbus’ retrospective exhibitions and the widespread collection of her work by nationwide museums largely occurred posthumously.

It was incredibly difficult to reduce this list to just four names. To find out more about other influential portrait photographers who have blessed us with their vision in the medium’s relatively short history, be sure to check out 5 Famous Female Photographers That Changed Photography For the Better.

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Aaron Chapman

Aaron Chapman is a visual artist and writer based on the Gold Coast, Australia. Chapman’s poetry and prose has appeared in international publications while his photography has been widely exhibited on Australian shores at venues including Head On Photo Festival and the Centre for Contemporary Photography, and during Bleach Festival as part of Super Souvenir. In 2019, Chapman was a Moran Contemporary Photographic Prize semi-finalist, and a finalist in the Australian Life Photography Competition at Art & About Sydney.

2021-04-27T23:06:38+00:00Categories: Photography|Tags: |