21 Female Photographers Who Made Significant Contributions To The Arts

21 Female Photographers Who Made Significant Contributions To The Arts

Nov 16, 2020By Alexandra Karg, BA Art History & Literature
diane arbus claude cahun dorothea lange
A Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th Street, New York by Diane Arbus, 1966; with Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange, 1936; and I am in training don’t kiss me by Claude Cahun, 1927


Photography would not be what it is today if it were not for these 21 women. Each in her own unique way, photographers such as Anna Atkins, Claude Cahun or Viviane Sassen have each shaped the medium of photography. From press photography to war reporting – the following selection of female photographers will show you that women have been and are active in all areas of photography from the 18th century to the present.


1. Anna Atkins: An Early Female Photographer

Part of illustrated book British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions by Anna Atkins, 1841, via Horniman Museum & Gardens, London


Anna Atkins is considered one of the first female photographers ever. She was an English botanist and illustrator. In 1841, at the age of 42, she published the first book illustrated exclusively using a photographic process. Anna Atkins learned the technique for this work from the pioneer of photography par excellence, William Henry Fox Talbot. He introduced Atkins to photogenetic drawing in 1839. From John Herschel, the early photographer learned about the cyanotype process. With this knowledge as a foundation, the illustrated book British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions was finally published in 1841. 


2. Julia Margaret Cameron: 19th-Century Portraitist 

Julia Jackson by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; with The Passing of King Arthur by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1874, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Julia Margaret Cameron led a bourgeois life as a housewife and mother for many years until she began taking photographs in the British colony of India and in England at the age of 48. With her portraits of the British upper class, Julia Margaret Cameron became one of the most important British photographers of the Victorian era. Influenced by Oscar G. Reijlander and pre-Raphaelite painting, Cameron created photographs that are always characterized by a soft focus. There is always a kind of mystical veil over the faces of those portrayed. The portraits, it seems, show more than just the surface – they also let the viewer see the inside of the persons. This you can also see in the photograph Julia Jackson that was taken by Julia Margaret Cameron in 1867.


3. Gertrude Käsebier: Notable American Pictorialist

The Manger by Gertrude Käsebier, 1899, via The Art Institute of Chicago


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The US-American photographer Gertrude Käsebier is one of the most important representatives of pictorialism. Growing up in Colorado, Käsebier moved to New York as a teenager, where she later took photography lessons and opened her own photo studio. In New York, the early photographer also became a founding member of Alfred Stieglitz’s pictorialist Photo-Secession Society. Gertrude Käsebier’s best-known photographs to this day include her romantic mother-and-child shots. 


One outstanding thing about Gertrude Käsebier is that she was economically remarkably successful for a woman during her lifetime. In 1899, her picture The Manger fetched 100 dollars, the highest selling price ever paid for an art photograph up to this time. With her photography but also with her economic success, Gertrude Käsebier was a role model for many other women.


4. Frances Benjamin Johnston: Early American Press Photographer

The Post-graduate class of 1900 by Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1900, via MoMA, New York


Frances Benjamin Johnston was one of the first female press photographers in the United States. In this role, she documented big and small events in Washington at the end of the 19th century with her camera and photographed the most important personalities of the city for about five decades. Unlike many other women at that time, Frances Benjamin Johnston was well aware of her role as a role model for other women. In an interview with a reporter in 1893, she explained: ‘It is another pet theory with me that there are great possibilities in photography as a profitable and pleasant occupation for women, and I feel that my success helps to demonstrate this, and it is for this reason that I am glad to have other women know of my work.’ (see Clarence Bloomfield Moore, Women Experts in Photography, p. 586)


5. Imogen Cunningham: Botanical And Nude Photographer

Triangles by Imogen Cunningham, 1928, via Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York; with Glacial Lily by Imogen Cunningham, 1927, via MoMA, New York


Imogen Cunningham is considered a fervent representative of her contemporary Gertrude Käsebier. Today Cunningham herself is one of the most important photographers of the 20th century. Initially, the young female photographer, who was initially very committed to the style of pictorialism (and therefore of Gertrude Käsebier), achieved a scandal in 1915 with the nude portrait of her husband called The Bather. While Imogen Cunningham did not allow herself to be distracted by this from the atmospheric photography of naked bodies, her style changed over time towards the new objectivity. Today, Cunningham is especially known for her flower motifs and close-ups of Lilies and other flowers.


6. Claude Cahun: Androgynous Portrait Artist

I am in training don’t kiss me by Claude Cahun, 1927, via Daily Art Magazine


French photographer Claude Cahun, whose civil name was Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwab, was an early photographer, sculptor and author of Surrealism. In her art photographs, Claude Cahun has mainly made herself a motif. For her self-portraits, she always slipped into new roles, portraying herself as an androgynous person and testing gender boundaries. In Claude Cahun’s autobiography titled Disavowals, Cahun explains: ‘Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.’ (see book Disavowals: or cancelled confessions) Cindy Sherman later used photography for her own purposes in a similarly subversive way. Sherman, too, explored the boundaries of the body, identity and gender in her photographs.


7. Germaine Krull: An International And Eclectic Female Photographer

Eiffel Tower, Métal by Germaine Krull, 1927, via The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles


A glance at the biography of Germaine Krull suggests that the German photographer would have had several lives at once. Krull Krill, a left-wing activist, portrayed Kurt Eisner at the time of the November Revolution and was expelled from Bavaria because of her left-wing commitment, she lived in Paris for a long time afterward. In close contact with Man Ray, Sonia and Robert Delaunay and others, she further developed her photography in nudes and advertising photography. In 1928, Krull’s photo book Métal was published, with avant-garde photographs of steel buildings such as the Eiffel Tower. An example of a page of this book can be seen above. As if all this were not enough for a lifetime, after the outbreak of World War II, the photographer pursued a career as one of the first female war correspondents in Indochina, and many years later owned her own hotel.


8. Ilse Bing: Avant-Garde And Early Fashion Photographer

Self-portrait with Leica by Ilse Bing, 1931, via Art Gallery NSW, Sydney; with Three Men Sitting at The Seine, Paris by Ilse Bing, 1931 via The Art Institute of Chicago


Unusual perspectives and harsh contrasts – these two features are what make the work of the German female photographer Ilse Bing so unconventional. She was part of the Parisian avant-garde and captured her motifs with a Leica camera, which she had bought while studying in Vienna. Shooting photographs from the hand was still completely unusual at that time, the beginning of the 20th century. Later, the photographs of the born Jewish woman Ilse Bing were published in fashion magazines such as Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar. That is why Ilse Bing today is known as a famous avant-garde photographer as well as an early part of the fashion photography industry.


9. Dorothea Lange: Depression-Era Photographer

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange, 1936, via MoMA, New York


America at the time of the Great Depression is also the time of Dorothea Lange. Today, the photographer is an icon of the history of photography and her picture called The Migrant Mother (1936) is one of the most famous images of the 20th century. The portrait of a migrant worker and her children was part of a documentary series printed in the San Francisco News in 1936. The picture even became a stamp motif in the USA in 1998. With photographs like this one, Dorothea Lange has shaped an entire style: Along with famous photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, she is considered a co-founder of documentary photography and until today has been a role-model to a lot of contemporary artists.


10. Berenice Abbott: Photography Between The Wars

Canyon, Broadway and Exchange Place by Berenice Abbot, 1936, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Today Berenice Abbott is one of the most important photographers of the 20th century. It was a position as assistant to Man Ray in Paris in the years 1923-25 that is said to have brought the studied sculptor from Ohio to photography. Berenice Abbott first became known for her portraits of famous artists, including the writer James Joyce. However, it was an encounter with the work of the French photographer Eugène Atget that has had a decisive influence on Abbott. Like Atget did in the city Paris, Berenice Abbott later documented the city of New York. It is these black and white photographs of the architecture and streets of New York City for which the photographer is still revered today.

11. Barbara Morgan: Modern Dance Photographer

Untitled [Humphrey Weidman Group, Lynchtown] by Barbara Morgan, 1938, via Wall Street International Magazine

At the beginning of the 20th century, Barbara Morgan concentrated on motifs that still make her a very unique photographer of that time. Morgan was interested in the visual power of gesture and portrayed dancers in movement. For her expressive photographs, Barbara Morgan used the so-called “synchroflash” technique, which was only developed in 1930. With this technique, it was possible for the first time to illuminate a room and thus also a photograph from several directions and thus make the pictures appear more dramatic. Today, Barbara Morgan’s works are held in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., The Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, among others.


12. Lee Miller

Self-Portrait by Lee Miller, 1932, via National Galleries Scotland, Edinburgh; with Lee Miller in Hitler’s Bathtub by Lee Miller, 1949, via the Albertina Museum, Vienna

The American female photographer Lee Miller was initially successful as a model for the fashion magazine Vogue before moving to Paris, where she joined the Surrealists and developed new photographic techniques with Man Ray. Today, Lee Miller is best known for her work as a photojournalist and war photographer during World War II. With her camera, Lee Miller captured historical moments in a sensitive way and documented, among other things, the liberation of the Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps. Miller was one of only a few women accredited by the U.S. Army as a military correspondent. A staged photograph of Miller, which shows her sitting in Adolf Hitler’s bathtub, shows that Lee Miller did not lack humor as well.

13. Gerda Taro: Female Photographer Of War

Republican militiawomen in Plaça Catalunya by Gerda Taro, 1963, via Daily Art Magazine


The German photographer Gerda Taro is a true pioneer of war photography. Together with her partner, the war photographer Robert Capa, she documented the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Her work as a female war reporter is so outstanding because no woman before her had photographed so directly at the front. Her work as a war reporter for various newspapers finally became Gerda Taro’s end: she died on the front line of the Spanish Civil War in 1937.


14. Diane Arbus: New York Photographer

A Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th Street, New York by Diane Arbus, 1966, via National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; with Identical Twins by Diane Arbus, 1967, via The Art Institute of Chicago


Diane Arbus was an American photographic artist. With her camera, she took portraits of people in New York society, who tended to be on the fringes of society and thus represented a rather untypical motif for their time. Photographer Diane Arbus documented eccentrics, people like twins and transvestites who were thought to be different or people with disabilities. Arbus’ photographs are revealing and sensitive at the same time. Unlike many other female artists, Diane Arbus became famous for her photographs early on. The photo artist’s pictures were exhibited in 1967 together with those of Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. In 1972, Arbus represented the USA at the Venice Biennale – the first photo artist ever to do so. This was one year after Diane Arbus committed suicide at the age of 48.


15. Vivian Maier: Posthumous Recognition

Self-Portrait by Vivian Maier, 1954, via Vivian Maier’s Website

Vivian Maier is a controversial person on this list. While some people want to elevate her more and more to a legend of street photography in recent years, critics criticize the posthumous commercialization of her person. The question is: Is Vivian Maier one of the many (female) figures in art history whose work remained (unjustifiably) undiscovered during her lifetime – or is she nothing more than a conventional leisure photographer? Vivian Maier earned her money during her lifetime as a nanny. Almost daily she documented her life with a camera and produced a huge number of black and white photographs. Maier became famous when her remains were discovered by chance after her death and were auctioned off. The documentary Finding Vivian Maier (2013) tells the story of Vivian Maier’s discovery.


16. Annie Leibovitz: Celebrity Portrait Artist

Yoko Ono and John Lennon, New York by Annie Leibovitz, 1980, via Sotheby’s

Annie Leibovitz is the first still living and contemporary artist on this list. Annie Leibovitz is one of the most renowned and best-paid photographers today. In the 1970s, she made a name for herself as chief photographer for the music magazine Rolling Stone. Later, she became known above all for her expressive portraits of famous people. Whether artist, musician or actor – Annie Leibovitz has had them all before her lens. One of the most famous pictures of the US-American photographer is the last joint picture of Yoko Ono and John Lennon, which you can see above.

17. Nan Goldin: Photography And LBGTQ+ Activism

Nan One Month After Being Battered by Nan Goldin, 1984, via Tate, London

Nan Goldin, who was born in Washington D.C. in 1953, began taking photographs as a teenager. Initially fascinated by fashion photography, she later became interested in the photography of Diane Arbus, Larry Clark and August Sander. All three can still be seen and felt today as references in Nan Goldin’s work. Goldin’s photographs, mostly personal, honest and blunt portraits, show parts of the New York subculture and depict Nan Goldin’s environment of transsexuals, gays, lesbians and other people in 1980s New York.

18. Cindy Sherman: Womanhood And Identity In Photography

Untitled Film Still #21 by Cindy Sherman, 1978, via MoMA, New York; Untitled Film Still #48 by Cindy Sherman, 1979, via Tate, London

The US-American photographer Cindy Sherman, who lives in New York, negotiates gender roles and questions of identity in her works. Sherman always moves in a field of tension between self-dramatization and photography. For more than 30 years, Cindy Sherman has been staging herself in her pictures, using lots of make-up and disguise to slip into the most diverse roles. The series Untitled Film Stills (1977 – 80) is still one of Cindy Sherman’s most famous series today. In this series, the photo artist presents female stereotypes from TV, film, and advertising.

19. Francesca Woodman: Female Bodies On Film

Photo from Angel Series by Francesca Woodman, 1977, via Victoria Miro, London

Francesca Woodman is often associated with Cindy Sherman and also with the conceptual artist Barbara Kruger. Her works also stand for the feminist discourse of the 1970s and 1980s. Francesca Woodman was a photographic artist who shaped her very own style. In her self-portraits, it seems, she reclaims her own body and her right to her own female eroticism. Francesca Woodman had a short life. She committed suicide when she was only 22 years old. Until then she is said to have been restless, working day and night, arranging herself and other female bodies.

20. Rineke Dijkstra: Contemporary Portrait Artist

Photo in Kolobrzeg, Poland by Rineke Dijkstra, 1992, via Christie’s; with Julie, Den Haag, Netherlands, February 29 1994 by Rineke Dijkstra, 1994, via Tate, London

Rineke Dijkstra‘s motif is people. The female photographer portrays people in her immediate surroundings. Whether young people on the beach in swimwear, as soldiers in uniform or naked mothers with their newborn babies – Rieke Dijkstra’s photographs are simple and unadorned without having anything voyeuristic about them. The Dutch artist, who studied at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam, became known to a wider public in the 1990s with her series Beach (1992 – 1996).


21. Viviane Sassen: Female Photographer Of Fashion And Fine Art 

Belladonna from Series Parasomnia by Viviane Sassen, 2010, via Elephant Art

Viviane Sassen is a Dutch photographer who is known for her work in both fashion and art photography. Her photographs are famous for containing geometric shapes and often deforming or twisting the bodies of the people depicted. In Viviane Sassen’s work, individual body parts such as legs or arms regularly become absurd forms and objects that can often only be recognized at second glance. In addition, Sassen’s photographs – and this is certainly worth mentioning in this list – are characterized by a special richness of color and by particularly vibrant colors.


Untitled No. 86 from series Roxanne II by Viviane Sassen, 2017, via Musée des Beaux-Arts Le Locle

This selection of 21 female photographers, who have significantly influenced the history of photography, not only shows the special impact of their work. The selection also makes it clear what emancipatory potential photography had for women in particular, in contrast to earlier, traditional art forms. It is particularly noticeable that in photography it is easy to find famous women who are known to have influenced the genre. What you will find in this list is a selection and by no means includes every famous and important female photographer.


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By Alexandra KargBA Art History & LiteratureHey! I am Alexandra Karg. I am researching, writing and lecturing on topics in the field of art and culture. In my hometown of Berlin I completed my studies in literature and art history. Since then I have been working as a journalist and writer. Besides writing, it is my passion to read, travel and visit museums and galleries. On TheCollector.com you will find articles by me about art and culture, especially about topics referring to the 20th century and the present.