Famous Portrait Photographers

Michele Wanke
photographer
Get inspired by famous photographers

The world's most famous portrait photographers will tell you that the key to snapping a memorable shot is to allow your subjects to shine. A good portrait photographer makes his subjects feel comfortable. At the right moment, he captures the essence of their character on film.

About Famous Portrait Photographers

Reviewing the work of famous portrait photographers can go a long way to aid amateurs searching for inspiration. The men and women listed below personify the ideals of an outstanding portrait photographer. Their ability to bring out different facets of their subjects' personalities is a lesson all photographers can learn from. What's more, they illustrate that to succeed in the field of portrait photography, you can't get by with above average camera skills alone. You also need to understand human nature.

Famous Female Portrait Photographers

Gertrude Kasebier (1852-1934)

Gertrude Kasebier was one of the most sought after and influential American portrait photographers of the early 20th century. Her focus was to capture a subject's expression in the most natural setting possible. She is known for stripping her subjects down to the bare minimum to better concentrate on their face or stature. Kasebier also made a name for herself by capturing evocative portraits of mothers, especially those of Native American descent. In addition, she is credited for promoting photography as a legitimate profession for women.

Diane Arbus (1923-1971)

Documenting society's rejects was a passion of American photographer Diane Arbus. She is best known for her portraits of individuals, who lived on the fringes of society, including dwarfs, giants, prostitutes and transvestites. Arbus also won accolades for capturing ordinary people in extraordinary poses and settings. To this day, historians credit Arbus for pushing the boundaries of "tasteful" portrait photography.

Elsa Dorfman

American portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman possesses a skill invaluable to her profession-she can connect with a subject in record time. Dorfman stands out in the world of portrait photography because she uses a 20 by 24-inch Polaroid camera, rather than a sophisticated digital device. Film costs about $50 per exposure, so she limits herself to two exposures per subject. This means that Dorfman must work twice as hard to capture the essence of a subject's expression. Dorfman's artistic success as a portrait photographer has been displayed in major museums around the world.

Famous Male Portrait Photographers

Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002)

Yousuf Karsh is considered one of the most famous portrait photographers of all time. The Canadian photographer of Armenian descent is best known for his portrait work of dignitaries, politicians and celebrities. Some of his most famous subjects include:

  • Muhammad Ali
  • Humphrey Bogart
  • Fidel Castro
  • Albert Einstein
  • Dwight Eisenhower
  • Robert Frost
  • Clark Gable
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • Audrey Hepburn
  • Pope John Paul II
  • Helen Keller
  • Grace Kelly
  • Jacqueline Kennedy
  • John F. Kennedy
  • Laurence Olivier

Despite his work with the aforementioned celebrated personalities, Karsh's most famous portrait subject was Winston Churchill. Karsh cemented his place in portrait photography history on December 30, 1941 when he snapped the now famous shot of a scowling Churchill following a World War II briefing. The photo of Churchill brought Karsh international prominence, and is regarded as the most reproduced photographic portrait in history.

Sir Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton (1904-1980)

Sir Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton was an English fashion and portrait photographer best known for his work documenting the British Royal Family for official publication. Queen Elizabeth routinely applauded Beaton's skills as a master photographer and once presented him with a scented hankie as a keepsake from a highly successful shoot. In addition to the countless portrait sittings Beaton completed with the queen, he also snapped the famous wedding pictures of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

Francesco Scavullo (1921-2004)

American fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo is best known for his portrait work of Hollywood's elite. One of his most celebrated and controversial shots was a Comospolitan centerfold of a nude Burt Reynolds. Scavullo also made headlines early in his career for taking provocative portaits of a young Brooke Shields, which were considered by many as inappropriate. Scavullo's portrait work lives on in movie posters, album covers and Broadway programs, including the famous shot taken of actress Julie Andrews for Victor/Victoria.

Herb Ritts (1952-2002)

Herb Ritts is considered one of the most influential portrait photographers of the 21st century. Ritts worked with a virtual who's who of celebrities the world over and is celebrated for his black-and-white portraits taken in the style of classical Greek sculpture. Consequently, many consider him the grandfather of glamour photography. During the 1980s and 1990s, Ritts became the world's leading celebrity portrait photographer. Some of his most famous work included the first pictures of a paralyzed Christopher Reeve and Elizabeth Taylor just days after she underwent brain surgery. Ritts' notoriety also gained him unprecedented access to subjects, including President Ronald Reagan, actor Jack Nicholson and singer Madonna, whose portraits have fetched millions of dollars.

Famous Portrait Photographers