Portrait Photography Masters - a Very Subjective List

Photos in the image by Yousuf Karsh, Arnold Newman and Annie Leibovitz

As a follow up to a Quick Guide to Emotional Portraits, still in the topic of portraits, let me share with you my list of portrait photography masters. These are the icons of photography that at some point drew my attention and changed the way I think about portraits. Their photographs are not soulless images that make you click from one page to another in less than 2 seconds. These are truly powerful images that make you stop for a while.

Don’t let the numbers mislead you – this is not any kind of ranking. The numbers are random and the names listed here just follow my stream of thoughts about the photographers.

1. Richard Avedon ( 1923-2004 )

Also well known for fashion photography, but undoubtedly his portraiture is well worth your attention. These large scale black and white, images concentrate on capturing the humanity and frank intensity of the subject.

What I really like about Avedon is the fact that when photographing celebrities, he tried to get an image of the subject by stripping them of the Hollywood or media branding and strove to show basic human emotion. We may know little or nothing about the people on the photographs. Still, we get some idea about them, or at least we get a clear picture of what Avedon was trying to tell us.

The recipe seems to be: simple background and detailed close-ups. Hence you get very expressive faces. In his work with the model, he loved interaction and often through stories he evoked emotions and reactions just to get an intended expression.

See more of this photographer’s work:

Richard Avedon



2. Irving Penn ( 1917-2009 )

Another outstanding portrait artist who worked for Vogue for many years. His idea of portraiture was simplicity and directness. A figure was placed against a simple grey or white backdrop in the natural light (!) of the studio. Props were basic and were added so as to facilitate the composition.

He, as an artist saw beyond face and by subtle gesture or pose he was able to show the interior of the subject being photographed. Despite the somewhat “forced” poses, Penn was aware of limitations of photography in that respect. Yet, he had the knack for drawing out the personality of the models and capturing that in his images.

See more of this photographer’s work:

Irving Penn



3. Sally Mann ( 1951- )

This artist, having tried out lots of styles and kinds of photography, finally found her own path – very intimate portraits of her family capturing the essence of childhood and humanity. Her works evoked a lot of controversy at the beginning as lots of photographs may have pornographic connotations but soon got well-deserved appreciation.

Mann argues that intimate scenes and moments are exactly those ordinary things that every mother has seen. The debate over where the limits are of what can be photographed is still heated. Despite that, her photographs are undeniably beautiful – they are deep, detailed and well composed.

See more of this photographer’s work:

Sally Mann



4. Diane Arbus ( 1923-1971 )

An American artist who photographed people living on the margins of society. She focused on abnormality and the so-called “freaks”, outsiders. She took the photos in natural or existing light and concentrated on the unique mannerisms of the subject. What I really adore about her photographs is that when you look at them, the people there are not reserved; they are open, they are full of trust. This is exactly what Arbus achieved- she had interest and respect for the people and her photographs show.

See more of this photographer’s work:

Diane Arbus



5. Edouard Boubat ( 1923-1999 )

A photographer that was into a lot of genres such as e.g. street or documentary photography. But today, let me focus on portraiture. Boubat takes his camera and portraits people in contexts, in bad and good situations. One and single image tells a story. He takes out moments, positivity and celebration of life. In his portrait we can see a flair for capturing THAT moment, when people are true and full of dignity in their private worlds.

See more of this photographer’s work:

Edouard Boubat



6. Dorothea Lange ( 1895-1965 )

A photographer commissioned by the U.S. Agriculture Department to document the rural hardship Americans were experiencing. She photographed families migrating West to search for work. Her works were thoughtful as she had the ability to draw out all kinds of people- and it can be clearly seen in her portraits. What is stunning about the images is the feel of presence, being there. This is probably due to large negatives she used. You just get every detail, everything seems so perfectly clear.

See more of this photographer’s work:

Dorothea Lange



7. Yousuf Karsh ( 1908-2002 )

Karsh photographed lots of famous personalities from all over the world. As for the lighting, he often used studio lights. As he said, he likes to photograph “ the great in spirit, whether they be famous or humble” The subjects he photographed are set as if in an aura of light thus it works like illuminating their personalities and making them defined and unique.

Sometimes he uses props but only to define his model’s social position or activity. In such a way, the subjects become immortal. What’s more, he emphasized the idea of mutual relation between himself and the subject. Therefore, he could give a little more insight into the personalities he photographed.

See more of this photographer’s work:

Yousuf Karsh



8. August Sander ( 1876-1964 )

That is the master of social portrait. He photographed people of XX century. The subjects he photographed were the representations of all social backgrounds and occupations. He took the photos of people with their attributes, characteristic uniforms and gestures. The photographs were to present a clear, analytic and objective portrait of a generation. Thus, the formal aspect was also unified: all works seem to be documental, even anthropological. He photographed in natural light; he did not impose anything nor intervened.

See more of this photographer’s work:

August Sander



9. Arnold Newman ( 1918-2006 )

Now, another different approach to portraits. Arnold Newman worked with famous personalities from the world of culture and politics. In his portraits he paid attention to the surroundings. Usually, these were the places of work or places strictly connected with the models. In this way he wanted to depict the subject’s life and character rather than facial expression. He cleverly incorporated the subject’s occupation, mind and soul in his images by placing them in such and such lighting and environment.

See more of this photographer’s work:

Arnold Newman



10. Annie Leibovitz ( 1949- )

A photographer that became famous for her celebrity portraits. Her pictures are often provocative and thus eye-catching. She often sets subjects in their own environments but her photos are mostly posed, sometimes black and white, sometimes with colors, which are actually deep saturated. It is not the face that is vital; it is the whole situation the model finds themselves.

What really fascinates me about this artist is the fact that even if the surroundings and context are arranged, she hides the subject “in a costume or mask”. Thus she studies the personality that is revealed from behind. That is why in her photos we can find poses that are often peculiar or dramatic. And that really works.

See more of this photographer’s work:

Annie Leibovitz



11. Steve McCurry ( 1950- )

A photojournalist. He covered a lot of world’s conflicts but also had some peaceful travels. And that is when plenty of expressive and evocative pictures are from. He took pictures of people experienced and touched by the harshness of life. From their faces we can often read pain, exhaustion but dignity. And this is this dignity I love about McCurry’s style. He photographs people from different cultures with a great respect.

What also strikes about his portraits are the colors- that are vivid, tonal and rich. Lots of pictures are extremely moving and thought provoking. Some I would call irresistible, others even magical. And this is how McCurry photographs.

See more of this photographer’s work:

Steve McCurry