Since the 19th century, the medium of photography has been heavily shaped and advanced by women creatives. In fact, it was botanist and photographer Anna Atkins who first had the idea of publishing a photograph within a book, inspiring the world to imagine what else could be done with the artform. From Vivian Maier’s era-defining street photography to Cindy Sherman’s stereotype-smashing self-portraits, here are five famous women photographers who have changed how we see and understand the world around us.
1. Lynsey Addario’s hard-hitting photojournalism
Pulitzer-prize winner Lynsey Addario is a contemporary American photojournalist. Her confrontational and often-shocking images shine a light on conflict, humanitarian crises, and women’s issues in the Middle East and Africa. Even though Addario had no formal education in photography, her dedication and determination saw her become a leader within her field. In 2015, she was listed as one of the five most influential photographers of the past 25 years by American Photo Magazine. For a taste of Addario’s creative approach to photojournalism, check out her beautiful yet impactful 2006 photo, ‘Conflict on the Border of Chad and Sudan (Darfur)’, which depicts the challenges that Sudanese refugees had to overcome in order to secure everyday essentials like water and firewood. Looking to learn more about her creative process? Her New York Times best-selling memoir, ‘It’s What I Do’, lets you in on how she approaches each and every photograph.
2. Annie Leibovitz’s pioneering portraiture
No list of famous women photographers would be complete without Annie Leibovitz. Her trailblazing career began in 1970 when she was asked to photograph John Lennon for Rolling Stone magazine. After just three years, she became the magazine’s chief photographer thanks to her hard work and strong creative vision. And the rest, as they say, is history. Leibovitz has shot some of the most iconic portraits of all time, ranging from Miley Cyrus to Queen Elizabeth II. While these photos are already impressive as they are, what makes these portraits so engaging is her ability to capture her subjects’ personality and character in her shots. If you’re interested in Leibovitz’s work, her 1999 collaboration with Susan Sontag, ‘Women’, is a great place to start — it’s a perfect example of why she’s celebrated as a photographer and feminist icon.
3. Dorothea Lange’s groundbreaking documentary photography
Dorothea Lange’s iconic photos of displaced farmers during the Great Depression made her one of the most famous female photographers of all time. Interestingly, however, Lange never considered her photographs as art, and instead thought of them as tools for inspiring social change. Lange’s body of work is celebrated for encapsulating American life during the 1930s and demonstrates just how powerful photography can be as a force for change. Lange was known to talk candidly with her subjects to put them at ease, and she often took extensive notes that added more context to the photographs she shot. For an example of her powerful visual storytelling, see her 1938 “Daily Lineup” image above , which helped raise awareness of how African Americans were discriminated against at the time, particularly in the segregated South.
4. Cindy Sherman’s stereotype-smashing self-portraits
Known for her bold and playful self-portraits, Cindy Sherman creates quirky characters that embody and challenge prevalent stereotypes. Whether it’s of a “lonely housewife” or “jilted lover”, each of her photos and characters acts as a visual prompt to encourage us to think and talk more deeply about gender, identity, and social norms. Don’t know where to start? Her most famous project, ‘Untitled Film Stills’, gives you a good overview of her work as an artist. Coloured by her unique sense of humour, nostalgia and subtle provocation, these images invite you to ask questions and come up with your own interpretations.
5. Vivian Maier’s genre-defining street photography
Widely respected as one of the great pioneers of street photography, Vivian Maier secretly shot over 100,000 photos during her 40-year career as a nanny. In fact, Maier never shared her work during her lifetime — it was only after her death in 2009, when her works were discovered and recognised. Maier’s iconic black and white images depict scenes of everyday life and creative self-portraits, transporting you back to Chicago and New York in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Find inspiration for your own street photography by diving into Maier’s striking candid street portraits, where she uses light and shadow to add drama and atmosphere to her pictures, elevating daily life to something worthy of an art gallery.
Feeling inspired and raring to go? Grab your camera and follow in these famous women’s footsteps! Check out this introduction to photography basics for more tips.