5 Famous Women Photographers You Might Not Know

March 8th, 2021
Five famous women blog header

Almost everyone is familiar with the big names in photography like Dorothea Lange and Annie Leibovitz, but unless you studied a little bit of art history there may be many photographers you have not been exposed to. In honor of Women’s History Month, I’m taking the opportunity to shine a spotlight on some of the early pivotal women photographers who I find incredibly inspiring for their help in carving a path for women in photography. Why did I pick these photographers? These women not only broke barriers in photography, they used their art to make strong social commentaries and to document the world previously unseen.

Frances Benjamin Johnston

One of the earliest known famous women photographers is Frances Benjamin Johnston, a portraiture artist around the turn of the 20th century. She is especially well known for her photographic portraits of key historical figures such as Susan B. Anthony, Alice Roosevelt, Booker T. Washington and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). 

While her portraits are wonderful to look at, what’s entirely fascinating about Johnston was she openly worked as a freelance journalistic photographer for many U.S. publications and magazines at a time where men dominated the field. She also successfully ran her own studio out of Washington D.C. 1

One of my favorite photographs by Johnston is her self-portrait titled Self-Portrait (as “New Woman”). I find it particularly fascinating that Johnston chooses to take a less “lady-like” pose during an era where modesty and decorum was expected of women.

She was very much supportive of other women entering the field of photography and was once quoted, “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.” 2

I do believe Johnston has motivated future generations of women to pursue photography and hopefully you will find her work just as inspirational.

Berenice Abbott

When I was in college, one of the first women photographers that captivated my attention was Berenice Abbott, who is especially famous for her street photography.

Abbott started her photographic career as an assistant for Man Ray in France amid the 1920s. During her time as an assistant, Man Ray started experimenting with a technique of putting objects on photographic paper and exposing them to light. This technique was referred to as Rayograms by Man Ray, but is now more commonly referred to as photograms. 

Although Abbott trained under Man Ray, who is mostly known for his surrealist images and experimental techniques, she became immensely fascinated with the work of Eugène Atget, a French documentarian and street photographer. 

When Abbott moved back to the United States, she settled in New York and actively pursued street photography. Her mission was “to do for New York what Atget did for Paris.” 3

As a street photographer myself, I always immensely admired Bernice’s work since I first learned about her. I especially love her series on Changing New York, which documented the city’s rapid architectural growth.

Margaret Bourke-White

While many people may not be familiar with her name, Margaret Bourke-White has documented many moments in history such as the Great Depression, the liberation of concentration camps, and the Korean War. Her most iconic image is one of the last photos of Gandhi before his death. If you have an interest in photojournalism, then I highly recommend looking her up. 

Bourke-White got her start documenting the lives of workers in steel & iron manufacturing before eventually getting hired as a photographer for Fortune Magazine then later one of the inaugural photographers for Life Magazine. 

Not only was she one of very few women photojournalists during this time, she was also one of the first photojournalists allowed to cross the Soviet Union lines to document the lives of workers in 1930’s Russia.4 

One image I have always found fascinating is her image American Way of Life; this photo was photographed after the Ohio River Flood of 1937. The image is powerful, because she was not afraid to document the stark contrast of the ideals and inequality between a (white) middle class America to the struggles of displaced Americans by the flood.

Diane Arbus

Of the five women outlined in this post, I will say Diane Arbus is a name that many may recognize, even if they’re unfamiliar with her work.

She is considered very controversial in the art world in how people perceive her photos. Some believe she photographed marginalized society in a humane way that helped bring their existence and struggles to light. Conversely some of Arbus’ critics consider her images cynical, improper and viewed her as a “photographer of freaks.”5 

Whether you agree with the supporters or the critics on whether her art is compassionate and humanizing, Arbus herself was quoted to say: “I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.” 6 

Arbus in her apartment, surrounded by her work, 1971. (Photo Credit: Eva Rubinstein/The New York Times/Redux)

Due to some restrictions from Diane Arbus’ estate, it can be hard to find some of her images online. If you ever have a chance to catch a touring show at a local gallery or museum, it’s definitely worth checking out. Your local library may also carry at least one of the three posthumously published books of her work. For now, you can see a small sampling of her art work here

Though her work elicits strong reactions, both positive and negative, most are willing to recognize her technical contributions to photography. What I admire about her portrait work is how much the subject dominates the frame. Arbus pioneered the use of fill flash in daylight, as she found this technique useful in helping separate her portraiture subject away from the background.

Deborah Turbeville

Before there was Annie Leibovitz there was Deborah Turbeville. She is one of the first women photographers in the fashion industry; for many years fashion photography was dominated by male photographers like Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton and Helmut Newton. 

Turbeville is especially known for her dreamy fashion photography, which was a shift from many of her contemporaries that focused more on high contrast images. She was also extremely experimental with her artwork. She liked to manipulate photos through film overexposure and the defacing of her negatives to give them a rougher almost disintegrative quality.7

While I greatly admire most of her work, some of the most interesting images of hers are the collages she made by cutting and taping negatives together. One of my favorite pieces of hers is Untitled (Women in the Woods “Passport” collage), 1977, which I feel has such a unique and ethereal vibe to it. 

Plus 3 top contemporary women artists who might inspire you.

If you enjoyed the work of these inspiring women photographers from the past, here are a few contemporary artists who are currently producing work that I admire.

Carrie Mae Weems is a photographer known for tackling themes of racism, sexism and familial traditions. She has an extensive body of work documented on her website, but two of my favorite collections of hers are The Kitchen Table Series and Roaming

Shirin Neshat is a documentarian photographer exploring the traditions of femininity within the Muslim culture. She is most well known for her series Women of Allah and here is a highlight of one of her more recent exhibitions Shirin Neshat: I Will Greet the Sun Again. What I love the most about her images is how the blacks appear both contrasting and soft. I also feel her images have a poetic feel due to curves present in the images as well as the use of Farsi. 

Jenny Holzer is not a photographer in the traditional sense, but rather a mixed media artist mostly known for her photographic and typographic projections onto buildings. I remember the first time I saw a Jenny Holzer exhibition at the Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and being so awed by her artwork’s sheer grand scale. She can fill a room with her thoughts and you’re forced to reckon with the message she wants to get across to you as a viewer. You can see a highlight of some of her projections here

Citations are marked with superscript numbers in the text above. The numbers are linked, but here is a direct list of the links referenced.

  1. https://www.loc.gov/rr/print/coll/fbjchron.html
  2. https://www.moma.org/artists/7851#fn:1
  3. https://www.featureshoot.com/2019/01/from-paris-to-new-york-the-story-of-eugene-atget-berenice-abbott/
  4. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Margaret-Bourke-White
  5. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-fresh-look-at-diane-arbus-99861134/
  6. Diane Arbus, Diane Arbus : An Aperture Monograph by Diane Arbus, Stan Grossfeld , ISBN: 0893816949
  7. https://www.anatomyfilms.com/deborah-turbeville-lingering-memories/

Taylor, a native of Silicon Valley, is a Sr. Technical Support Specialist at Zenfolio. She has a BFA in photography and graphic design. Her passions are photography, running, and exploring the great outdoors.