Top Women (Non-Street) Photographers

Art & Portraiture, & Other

In making a selection of the “Best of” anything, two criteria come to mind. First, one should consider the longevity and consistency of the work. A hall of fame, so to speak, should examine whether the body of work produced was substantial enough to warrant such acclaim. Secondly, one must consider the “peak” of the output. For artists, this is, perhaps, the more important of the two, as one set of photos, like Anna Atkins’s supremely early photographic publications, can be momentous enough that the world begins to change behind it. Others, like Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, produce such an enormous body of work in their time as to be beyond reproach.

With that in mind, here are our 20 Women Non-Street Photographers you should know. Keep in mind, we purposely separated Street and Documentary Photographers in a separate article, since 1) it made the list too long, and 2) it’s really hard to compare street work to other photography.

Anna Atkins – 1799 – 1871

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Anna Atkins was an English botanist and photographer who is often considered the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images. Several historians credit her with being the first woman to create a photograph, learning directly from William Henry Fox Talbot in 1841. If not Atkins, then likely Talbot’s wife, Constance, was the first woman shooter.

Julia Margaret Cameron – 1815 – 1879

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Cameron was a British photographer who, during a brief, 11-year span, became known for her portraits of celebrities of the time and for photographs with Arthurian and other legendary or heroic themes. According to Wikipedia, “Her style was not widely appreciated in her own day: her choice to use a soft focus and to treat photography as an art as well as a science, by manipulating the wet collodion process, caused her works to be viewed as ‘slovenly’, ‘mistakes’ and bad photography. She found more acceptance among pre-Raphaelite artists than among photographers.” In 1875, she and her husband moved back to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and her career effectively ended. She died in Ceylon 4 years later.

Gertrude Käsebier – 1852 – 1934

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Gertrude Käsebier was known for her portraits of motherhood, Native Americans, and her being an advocate of photography as a career for women. When her husband became very ill, in 1895, she started running her own photography studio to  pay their expenses. From there, her reputation expanded, highlighted by the renown Alfred Stieglitz’s publishing some of her works. She later broke with him, as he advocated “photographic art,” while she pursued photographic money-making. Many female (and male) photographers owe Käsebier a debt of gratitude on that account.

Dora Kallmus “Madame D’Ora”– 1881 – 1963

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The Viennese-born Kalmus was the first woman to be admitted to theory courses at the Graphische Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt (Graphic Training Institute). She opened a photography studio in Vienna in 1907 and, after much success, a gallery in Paris in 1924. In Paris, she became known for her society and fashion photography during the 1930s and 1940s, with subjects including Josephine Baker and others.

Doris Ulmann – 1882 – 1934

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Doris Ulmann was an American photographer, best known for her portraits of the people of the U.S. South, Appalachian people, and the Gullahs of the Sea Islands. She placed particular emphasis on craftsmen and musicians, with her best work made between 1928 and 1934.

Imogen Cunningham – 1883 – 1976

PHOT-ImoCunningham-500-V-1Cunningham was born in Portland, Oregon, and grew up in Seattle, where she ultimately studied Chemistry at the University of Washington. After studying photographic chemistry in Germany, Cunningham opened a photography studio in Seattle. She frequently exhibited in Seattle, and like Käsebier, advocated women taking up photography as a career. She ultimately married, had 3 children, and divorced, settling California’s Bay Area. Imogen was published in periodicals such as Vanity Fair, and exhibited in the U.S. and in Germany, among others. After a stint traveling with Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor to shoot a lumber cooperative, Cunningham added street photography to her permanent repertoire. Imogen Cunningham was ultimately elected a Fellow of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences, awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an honorary doctorate of Fine Arts. Much of her work was purchased by the Smithsonian Institution.

Tina Modotti – 1896 – 1942

Tina Modotti, by Edward Weston

Tina Modotti, by Edward Weston

Tina Modotti, born Assunta Adelaide Luigia Modotti Mondini in Italy, was a model, actress, photographer, and activist for the Communist Komitern. At age 16, she moved to the U.S. to be with her father in San Francisco. There she took up acting and became an artist’s model. Often playing the femme fatale, Modotti’s movie career culminated in the 1920 film The Tiger’s Coat. While in L.A., she met Edward Weston, who helped her develop into a fine art photographer and documentarian. Modotti eventually started an affair with Weston, and upon the death of her own boyfriend, moved to Mexico City with Weston, who left behind his wife and children. In Mexico, Modotti and Weston ran a studio and took up with other bohemian artists, such as Frida Kahlo. Her photographic work was ultimately overtaken by her “revolutionary” endeavors, which, perhaps, led to her death under suspicious circumstances.

Germaine Krull – 1897 – 1985

Self-portrait with cigarette, Germaine Krull

Self-portrait with cigarette, Germaine Krull

Germaine Krull is one of the best-known figures in photography, owing to her role in avant-garde photography from 1920 to 1940, and for being a pioneer of modern photojournalism. Born in East Prussia (later Poland), Krull was home-schooled by her father, whom she called “a neer-do-well” who traveled the region in search of work. In 1925’s Netherlands, she embarked on a series of photographs that resulted in the portfolio Métal, one of the first series taken specifically for a book. Its publication h placed her at the forefront of the avant-garde photography. Man Ray would ultimately refer to her as his equal (which managed to be at once complementary and a condescending, sexist remark).

Krull’s photojournalism focused on Paris’s lower and working classes, its homeless, itinerant populous, and its markets.

Barbara Morgan – 1900 – 1992

Barbara Morgan

Morgan was an American known for her photos of modern dancers, including Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Erick Hawkins, Jose Limon, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and others. She was also successful in drawing, watercolors, and paintings, with works exhibited during the 1920s and 1930s. Morgan also experimented with photo montages and light painting, and had her photos published in numerous periodicals.

Leni Reifenstahl – 1902 – 2003

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Helene Bertha Amalie “Leni” Riefenstahl was a German film director, producer, screenwriter, editor, photographer, actress, dancer, and ultimately, propagandist for the Nazis. Her career as a performer, moving from dance to acting to movie director, led to her documentaries. Hitler saw in her an ability to make his shit-storm seem artistic, and hired Leni to create a short film, The Victory of Faith, and later, putting together  documentary films, Olympia and Triumph of the Will. These bits of Nazi propaganda effectively killed her career, despite their having been praised previously for their artistic merits.

Per the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s website: “After the war Riefenstahl attempted to separate herself from the criminal nature of the Nazi regime, suggesting her duty was to her craft and not necessarily to the Nazi authorities who commissioned her films. … In the postwar years, Leni Riefenstahl was the subject of four denazification proceedings, which finally declared her a Nazi sympathizer (Mitläufer). Although never a member of the Nazi Party, Riefenstahl found it difficult to overcome her association with the propaganda films she had made during the early Nazi period, and encountered difficulties in regaining her position in the German cinematic community.”

She managed a long career, but remained a controversial figure, one of immense talent but of even more immense stupidity and poor judgment. Riefenstahl never escaped her judgment as a Nazi sympathizer. The moral of this story: What you shoot matters. Art never exists apart from the world it encompasses.

Ruth Bernhard – 1905 – 2006

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Bernhard was a German-born American photographer “whose classical black-and-white photographs of the female nude and inanimate objects earned her a place of distinction among 20th-century photographers. (New York Times). In 1935, she met Edward Weston by chance, which changed her life. Becoming his protégée, Bernhard took up photographing nudes, doing so in such a way as to reveal the sculpture of the human form. According to the Times, “She was known to take a single picture from one specific angle after setting up a composition meticulously, sometimes over days.”

Bernhard spoke openly about her many affairs with men and women, including artist Evaline Phimster, whom she called “the love of my life” and who reinforced her artistic sense. Bernhard also photographed horses, shells, and still life work, along the lines of Georgia O’Keefe.

Homai Vyarawalla “Dalda 13” – 1913 – 2012

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Vyarawalla, commonly known by her pseudonym “Dalda 13”, was India’s first woman photojournalist, active from the late 1930s, to the early 1970s. In 1970, shortly after her husband’s death, Homai Vyarawalla  gave up photography owing to the “bad behaviour” of the new generation of photographers, who were “only interested in making a few quick bucks. I didn’t want to be part of the crowd anymore.” She never took another professional photograph.

In 2011, she was awarded Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award of the Republic of India.

Rosalind Fox Solomon – 1930 – present

After 9/11, Self with frozen turkey, Rosalind Solomon

After 9/11, Self with frozen turkey, Rosalind Solomon

Rosalind Solomon is a NYC-based freelance photographer who has photographed, among other things, hospital patients; life in Guatemala, Peru, India, Ireland, Zimbabwe, and the West Bank; and a study on AIDS victims and their loved ones.  Her work has been displayed in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Carol Beckwith – 1945 – present and Angela Fisher – 1947 – present

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Carol Beckwith (American) and Angela Fisher (Australian) have worked for over 30 years on the African continent, producing unparalleled photographic images of the life of rapidly disappearing, indigenous peoples. Through their 270,000 miles, they gained unseen access to the people, their ceremonies, and their lives. Their extraordinary photographs are recorded in fourteen best-selling books and in their films. Per their website:

“Their book Painted Bodies (2012) follows Maasai (1980), Nomads of Niger (1983), Africa Adorned (1984), African Ark (1990), African Ceremonies (1999), Passages (2000), Faces of Africa (2004), Lamu: Kenya’s Enchanted Island (2009), and Dinka” (2010). African Ceremonies, their defining body of work, is a double volume, pan-African study of rituals and rites of passage from birth to death, covering 93 ceremonies from 26 countries.”

Annie Liebovitz – 1949 – present

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Annie Liebovitz is perhaps today’s premiere photographic producer of celebrity portraits. Her long, storied career is noted by her distinctive style, extraordinary lighting, and ability to get her subjects to relax and reveal the essence of (at least their public) personas for the camera.

Nan Goldin – 1953 – present

Self-Portrait on the train, Germany 1992 Nan Goldin

Self-Portrait on the train, Germany 1992 Nan Goldin

Nan Goldin is an American photographer based in New York, Berlin, and Paris, known for her work, which usually features LGBT-related themes, images or public figures. She has pulled photographer closer to being a digital medium by way of her typical presentation method, slideshows, rather than the stodgy museum print method favored by MOMA and others. Per Wikipedia:

“Goldin’s work is most often presented in the form of a slideshow, and has been shown at film festivals; her most famous being a 45-minute show in which 800 pictures are displayed. The main themes of her early pictures are love, gender, domesticity, and sexuality; these frames are usually shot with available light. She has affectionately documented women looking in mirrors, girls in bathrooms and barrooms, drag queens, sexual acts, and the culture of obsession and dependency

One of her most famous images is “Nan One Month After Being Battered, 1984” which she used to reclaim her identity and her life.

Cynthia “Cindy” Sherman – 1954 – present

19SHERMAN1-popupCindy Sherman is an American best known for her conceptual portraits. Sherman works in series, typically photographing herself in a range of costumes. To create her photographs, Sherman usually shoots alone in her studio, assuming multiple roles as author, director, make-up artist, hairstylist, wardrobe mistress, and model.

Shirin Neshat – 1957 – present

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Shirin Neshat is an Iranian visual artist who lives in New York City, known primarily for her work in film, video and photography that centers around the contrasts between Islam and the West, femininity and masculinity, public life and private life, antiquity and modernity, and bridging the spaces between these subjects. She has been exhibited throughout the globe and participated in a number of film festivals. As an aside, Cindy Sherman was the first person to buy Neshat’s work, at Annina Nosei Gallery in 1995.

Jill Greenberg – 1967 – present

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Jill Greenberg’s stylized work is so well known, that imitators have created a number of Photoshop tools to (poorly) mirror it. She’s most famous for extraordinarily lit portraits of crying babies, monkeys, apes, animals, and the occasional adult human, often celebrities, which are smoothed, tone-mapped, and digitally enhanced to look like hyper-realistic paintings. Her work has been highly acclaimed, but not successfully imitated. One reason is that she applies brilliant studio techniques, including lighting, making only skin smoothing and other painterly adjustments, while imitators try to make bad photographs look like copies of her work. Greenberg also produces standard portraits, though her slightly tweaked work stands out.

Honorable Mentions

Below are names of other women photographers who deserve acclaim, but did not make our list (due as much to our personal tastes as anything else). Feel free to look them up as well.

  • Christina Broom – 1862 – 1939
  • Lee Miller – 1907 – 1977
  • Jane Hope Bown — 1925 — 2014
  • Cristina García Rodero – 1949 – present
  • Sally Mann – 1951 – present
  • Carrie Mae Weems – 1953 – present
  • Anne Geddes – 1956 – present
  • Francesca Stern Woodman – 1958 – 1981
  • Rineke Dijkstra – 1959 – present
  • Lorna Simpson – 1960 – present
  • Katy Grannan – 1969 – present
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