Photography

12 Women Photographers Who Changed the World

Ruxi Rusu 19 August 2021 min Read

Quick, how many women photographers can you name? From fashion photography to photojournalism in times of war, women photographers have covered it all, capturing sensitive and creative images worthy of praise and recognition. Some of them were interested in accurately documenting reality, while others photographed with their hearts, driven by artistic expression and the need for intimacy. They led captivating lives full of adventure and passion. Here are some of the greatest women photographers of all time. 

Julia Margaret Cameron – It Started with a Gift

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) was a British photographer considered one the most important portraitists of the 19th century.

Henry Herschel Hay Cameron, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1870, The Metropolitan Museum, New York, NY, USA. women photographers
Women Photographers: Henry Herschel Hay Cameron, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1870, The Metropolitan Museum, New York, NY, USA.

She started her journey in photography relatively late in life, at the age of 48, after receiving a camera as a gift from one of her children. Cameron established herself in the Isle of Wight where she created the portraits of several notable figures, such as the naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and the philosopher Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). Actually, many of them were her neighbors! Nonetheless, she was also interested in photographing her family, servants, and the locals.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Charles Darwin, 1868, MoMA, New York City, USA.
Women Photographers: Julia Margaret Cameron, Charles Darwin, 1868, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, USA.

Cameron is famous for her ethereal, sensitive portraits that adopted religious, historical, and allegorical themes often met in literature, mythology, and Christianity. Many times she asked her subjects to dress as historical or Biblical figures (children were usually dressed as angels). Cameron used a soft focus and long exposure to obtain the dream-like effect characteristic of her work. As it happens, the Pre-Raphaelites liked her more than the other Victorian photographers.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Mary Mother, 1867.
Women Photographers: Julia Margaret Cameron, Mary Mother, 1867. Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Julia Margaret Cameron, I Wait, 1872.
Women Photographers: Julia Margaret Cameron, I Wait, 1872. Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Imogen Cunningham – Attention to Detail

Famous for her nudes, botanical photographs, and industrial landscapes, Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976) was an American photographer. In her work, she is preoccupied with attention to detail and the contrast between light and shadow.

Imogen Cunningham, Self Portrait, 1933. women photographers
Women Photographers: Imogen Cunningham, Self Portrait, 1933. Artist’s website.

Cunningham studied chemistry in the US and fine arts in Germany before she returned to Seattle, US. Moving to San Francisco, she worked with photographers like Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) and Edward Weston (1889-1958). Cunningham explored many techniques in the photographic medium, including double exposure and montage printing. Her evocative images that capture succulent botanical still lives share certain similarities to Georgia’s O’Keeffe’s (1887-1986) paintings. Cunningham’s pictures were so highly detailed that many scientists used them for their studies. In the 1920s, she spent two years diligently studying the magnolia flower.

Imogen Cunningham, Magnolia Blossom, 1925. women photographers
Women Photographers: Imogen Cunningham, Magnolia Blossom, 1925. Artist’s website.

Cunningham was a member of the notable Group f/64, created in 1932 by an association of Californian photographers. They promoted a new direction in photography that focused on sharp and clear images, opposite to Pictorialism.

In the 1940s, Cunningham developed a passion for street photography and was offered a position in the department of art photography at the California School of Fine Arts by her friend, American photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1984).

Imogen Cunningham, Boy Selling Newspapers, c. 1950, San Francisco, USA. women photographers
Women Photographers: Imogen Cunningham, Boy Selling Newspapers, c. 1950, San Francisco, CA, USA. Artist’s website.

Claude Cahun – Under This Mask, is Another Mask

Famous for her compelling self-portraits, Claude Cahun (1894-1954) was a French Surrealist photographer, writer, and sculptor. The nonconformist photographer often addressed through her art issues concerning self-identity, gender, and the subconscious mind.

Claude Cahun, Que me veux-tu? [What do you want from me?], 1928, Musée d'Art Moderne de Paris, Paris, France.
Women Photographers: Claude Cahun, Que me veux-tu? [What do you want from me?], 1928, Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, Paris, France.

Born Lucy Schowb to a prominent Jewish family, Cahun adopted her gender-neutral pseudonym in her early adulthood. She settled in Paris together with her lover—and step-sister— French artist Marcel Moore (1892-1972). There she collaborated with famous names in the surrealist art scene, such as one of the founders of the movement, André Breton (1896-1966).

Claude Cahun, I Extend My Arms, 1931 or 1932, Tate Modern, London, UK. women photographers
Women Photographers: Claude Cahun, I Extend My Arms, 1931 or 1932, Tate Modern, London, UK.

The couple moved to Jersey in 1937, near the coast of France. Here, the artist worked actively as an activist and propagandist but had very little contact with the outside world. During WW2, Cahun and Moore designed anti-German fliers containing criticism of the crimes of Nazism. They placed the pamphlets strategically at German events organized on their island, where the soldiers could easily find them. In 1944, both women were imprisoned and sentenced to death while most of their work was destroyed. Fortunately, the island was liberated by the Allies a year later and they managed to escape their sentence.

Claude Cahun, untitled self-portrait from Le Mystere d’Adam, 1929, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, USA. women photographers
Women Photographers: Claude Cahun, untitled self-portrait from Le Mystere d’Adam, 1929, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA, USA.

Cahun used techniques of doubling and reflection in her work. In most of her self-portraits she calls into question the standards of beauty and gender by posing with a shaved head, staring unapologetically, directly into the camera. Cahun’s epicene appearance transpires through her work, generally regarded as her intimate form of expression. Several principal motifs emerge in the artist’s photographs, such as hair, hands, and later in her life, organic elements. This goes unrecognized most of the time but Cahun and Moore collaborated frequently on their projects.

Dorothea Lange – Documenting the Great Depression

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) is considered to be among the most significant documentary photographers and photojournalists of the 20th century. She is best known for her work during the Great Depression (1929-1933), which stressed the importance of the social consequences of the economic crisis.

Rondal Partridge, Dorothea Lange, Resettlement Administration photographer, in California, 1936. women photographers
Women Photographers: Rondal Partridge, Dorothea Lange, Resettlement Administration photographer, California, 1936. Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Lange started as a portrait photographer in San Francisco. By the 1930s, she developed an interest in documenting rural California, the Southwest, and the South, for the Resettlement Administration in the US (created during the Depression-era to raise awareness about the struggling farmers).

Her photograph of 32-year-old Florence Owens Thompson with her children, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936), was widely circulated in magazines and newspapers, becoming an icon of the period. The photographer used to portray the plight of her subjects in an emotive light.

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936, MoMA, New York City, USA. women photographers
Women Photographers: Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, USA.

In 1941 Lange was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship for photography. A year later, mid-WW2, the US Office of War Information, a propaganda agency, assigned her to photograph and document the internment of Japanese Americans. She created pictures that condemned the US authorities for the unfair conditions the migrants were exposed to. The photographs were thus impounded by the government during the war.
Towards the end of her life, Lange traveled with her husband to Asia and took photographs for LIFE magazine in the US and Europe.

Dorothea Lange, Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California., 1942. women photographers
Women Photographers: Dorothea Lange, Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California., 1942. Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Tina Modotti – In Love with Mexico

Tina Modotti (1896-1942) was an Italian-born photographer, model, actor, and political activist. Preferring high-quality images and impressive close-ups, she wasn’t afraid to experiment with different techniques in her work.

Edward Weston, photography of Tina Modotti, 1921. women photographers
Women Photographers: Edward Weston, photography of Tina Modotti, 1921. Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

After emigrating to the US, in 1923 Modotti moved with her lover, photographer Edward Weston (1886-1958), to Mexico City. There she opened a studio and joined the Communist Party. Speaking of which, she was romantically involved with some of its leaders!

Modotti worked on capturing the city and its people in all their splendor. She took the portraits of many notable figures, including the Mexican artist Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and Surrealist painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). Her photographs bring attention to the working class and indigenous culture. Seven years later, Modotti was exiled from Mexico for her left-leaning political beliefs.

Tina Modotti, Frida Kahlo, and Chavela Vargas, date unknown, Reinhard Schultz’s Bilderwelt Gallery, Berlin, Germany. women photographers
Women Photographers: Tina Modotti, Frida Kahlo, and Chavela Vargas. Reinhard Schultz’s Bilderwelt Gallery, Berlin, Germany.

Tina Modotti, Workers’ Parade (Woman from Tehuantepec), 1926, MoMA, New York City, USA. women photographers
Women Photographers: Tina Modotti, Workers’ Parade (Woman from Tehuantepec), 1926, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, USA.

Modotti eventually joined the Soviet Communist Party in Moscow and gave up photography altogether in 1931. Unlike other artists, she was more concerned with her political struggle, which ultimately prevailed over her artistic interests.

Germaine Krull – A Big Appetite for Controversy

Born in Wilda-Poznań, East Prussia, Germaine Krull (1897-1985) was a Dutch avant-garde photographer, a pioneer in photojournalism, and a political activist.

Germaine Krull, Autoportrait, Paris, 1927, Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany. women photographers
Women Photographers: Germaine Krull, Autoportrait, Paris, 1927, Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany.

In 1928, the French VU magazine hired Krull. She collaborated with contemporaries like André Kertész (1894-1985) and Eli Lotar (1905-1969) in creating a more intimate form of reportage, defined by powerful close-ups. During this period, she developed her published books and solo portfolios, including the Études de nu (1930) and the Metal (1928) collection, compiling various mighty iron objects, such as railways, the Eiffel Tower, and power generators. Three years later, Krull developed the first photo novel together with the Belgian writer Georges Simenon (1903-1989), titled La Folle d’Itteville (1931).

Germaine Krull, Untitled, 1926–1928, Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany. women photographers
Women Photographers: Germaine Krull, Untitled, 1926–1928, Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany.

Additionally, she experimented with double exposure, photomontage. She was also part of the Neues Sehen or Neue Optik (New Vision) photography, a different direction in photography based on discovering the possibilities of unconventional techniques in the medium.

Germaine Krull, Pol Rab (illustrator), 1930, Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany. women photographers
Women Photographers: Germaine Krull, Pol Rab (illustrator), 1930, Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany.

In 1941, Krull joined the Free France cause. After the end of WW2, she moved to Southeast Asia and became the director of Oriental Hotel Bangkok. Eventually, she converted to Buddhism and lived a secluded life among Tibetan monks in India.

Ilse Bing – Queen of the Leica

Ilse Bing (1899-1998) was born in Frankfurt, Germany. She started as a photojournalist for a German magazine and, in 1930, moved to Paris to concentrate full-time on photography after giving up her studies in Art History.

Ilse Bing, Self-Portrait in Mirrors, 1931, MoMA, New York City, USA. women photographers
Women Photographers: Ilse Bing, Self-Portrait in Mirrors, 1931, Museum of Modern Aart, New York, NY, USA.

Bing focused on her career as a freelancer for publications such as Le monde illustre, Paris Vogue, VU, and the American Harper’s Bazaar. Nevertheless, besides her commercial work, she established herself as an avant-gardist, and was heavily influenced by the Bauhaus style, which directed her towards modernist photography.

Incidentally, her camera was a 35mm hand-held Leica camera. Thus, within a few years, Bing earned her reputation as the “Queen of the Leica.”

Ilse Bing, Shoes for Harper's Bazaar, 1935, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK. women photographers
Women Photographers: Ilse Bing, Shoes for Harper’s Bazaar, 1935, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK.

When WW2 broke out, as Jews, Bing and her husband were sent to separate internment camps in the south of France. They rejoined in Marseilles and, with the help of a fashion editor from the US that Bing collaborated with, the couple was able to leave Europe in 1941 for New York City. Some of her most important prints were lost because she couldn’t afford the customs duty for all of them when they finally arrived from France. She returned to Paris a couple of times after the war but decided to end her work as a photographer and dedicated herself to poetry, line drawings, and collages.

Bing oftentimes chose urban subjects, capturing them at vertiginous angles. She always developed the negatives herself and worked without additional lighting. All her photographs conveying an intuitive and spontaneous dynamism. Bing favored simplicity and worked graciously with light and shadow in various enticing environments, representative of the cities and era she lived in. Even though her work was influenced by the leading artistic voices of her time, she brought many innovations to the photography sphere, being among the first to use techniques such as solarization, electronic flash, or taking nighttime photographs. Her work was present at many significant exhibitions of the 20th century, including MoMA’s first survey exhibition of photography, Photography 1839–1937.

Ilse Bing, Three Men Sitting on the Steps by the Seine, 1931, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK.
Women Photographers: Ilse Bing, Three Men Sitting on the Steps by the Seine, 1931, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK.

Margaret Bourke-White – Some Pictures are Worth More Than a Thousand Words

Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) was the first female American photojournalist. She traveled around the world and immortalized some of the biggest and most important historical events of her time.

Oscar Graubner, Margaret Bourke-White making a precarious photo from the Chrysler Building, 1934. The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images.
Women Photographers: Oscar Graubner, Margaret Bourke-White making a precarious photo from the Chrysler Building, 1934. The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images.

Bourke-White opened her first studio in Cleveland, OH, where she experimented with industrial photography. In 1929, Bourke-White was hired for Fortune as their first staff photographer. Working there, she was allowed to document the Soviet industry.

Moreover, like her contemporaries, she created work regarding the human side of the Great Depression. Some of it made it into the book You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), with text by the novelist Erskine Caldwell (1903-1987). At the time, LIFE magazine was only being conceived – and, of course, she was offered a position among the first four photographers hired. She covered the Korean War (1950-1953) for the publication.

Margaret Bourke-White, a view of an airplane flying over Manhattan, 1939. The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images.
Women Photographers: Margaret Bourke-White, a view of an airplane flying over Manhattan, 1939. The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images.

In 1941, Bourke-White was the only Western photographer in Moscow to photograph Josef Stalin (1878-1953), leader of the Communist Party,  during the German invasion of the Soviet Union. A year later, she witnessed the Air Corps bombing missions. At the end of the war, assisting Gen. S. Patton (1885-1945) of the US forces, she covered the liberation of the Erla and Buchenwald concentration camps in Germany.

Margaret White-Bourke, two fliers of the 8th Bomber Command clad in high altitude flying clothes, 1942. The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images.
Women Photographers: Margaret White-Bourke, two fliers of the 8th Bomber Command clad in high altitude flying clothes, 1942. The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images.

However, she did not stop there. Bourke-White traveled to Asia to record the Partition of India, photographing Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948).

Margaret Bourke-White, Mohandas Gandhi reads as he sits cross-legged on the floor next to a spinning wheel at home, 1946. The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images.
Women Photographers: Margaret Bourke-White, Mohandas Gandhi reads as he sits cross-legged on the floor next to a spinning wheel at home, 1946. The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images.

Bourke-White is one of the most accomplished and outstanding photojournalists, being in the right place at the right time, all the time!

Lee Miller – From Fashion Covers to the Battlefield

Elizabeth “Lee” Miller (1907-1977) was an American model and photographer, recognized for her work at Vogue and during WW2.

Lee Miller, Self Portrait, 1932, New York Studio, New York, USA. women photographers
Women Photographers: Lee Miller, Self Portrait, 1932. New York Studio, New York, NY, USA.

In the 1920s, Miller achieved a successful career as a model in New York City, before moving to Paris where she became Man Ray’s (1890-1976) assistant, muse, and lover. Soon, she would open her own studio and collaborate with Ray on his projects. Being exposed to Surrealism, Miller embraced many of her lover’s methods, such as solarization (the effect of tone reversal in photographs).

Lee Miller, Nude Bent Forward, 1930. women photographers
Women Photographers: Lee Miller, Nude Bent Forward, 1930. Twitter.

Miller returned to New York City in 1932 and opened her second studio, earning a living from advertising photography and portraits. She contributed to Vogue, both as a model and a photographer.

In the following years, Miller traveled across Europe and lived in Cairo and London. As a war correspondent, she photographed field hospitals in Normandy, the Liberation of Paris, the death camps of Dachau and Buchenwald, and even Hitler’s apartment in Munich.

Lee Miller, Irmgard Seefried, Opera Singer, Singing An Aria from Madame Butterfly, Vienna Opera House, Vienna, Austria, 1945.
Women Photographers: Lee Miller, Irmgard Seefried, Opera Singer, Singing An Aria from Madame Butterfly, 1945, Vienna State Opera, Vienna, Austria. Photofusion.

After the war, Miller suffered from depressive episodes and was diagnosed with PTSD. In 1947, she married her second husband, British Surrealist painter Roland Penrose (1900-1984). Miller helped him write biographies on Man Ray and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), one of her friends. Incidentally, during the 1940s and 1950s, MI5 investigated her for being a Soviet spy.

Diane Arbus – Appreciation for the Freaks

Diane Arbus (1923-1971) was a photographer born in the US, known for her black-and-white portraits and pictures of New York City with its unique citizens.

Diane Arbus, self portrait, c. 1968. Photo by Roz Kelly/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images. women photographers
Women Photographers: Diane Arbus, Self-Portrait, c. 1968. Roz Kelly/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

Arbus was born into a wealthy family that allowed her to develop her artistic talents, shielded from the impacts of the Great Depression. Together with her husband, actor Allan Arbus (1918-2013), she worked in fashion and advertising photography for magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

By the 1950s, Arbus decided to focus on her own projects. She subsequently took her camera around the streets of New York City to capture the intimate lives of its people in various locations, such as bars, hotels, or even the morgue!

Diane Arbus, Three Female Impersonators, 1962, Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada. women photographers
Women Photographers: Diane Arbus, Three Female Impersonators, 1962, Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada.

Typically, Arbus rarely cropped her photographs; thus leaving some irregular borders surrounding the pictures. She allowed her subjects to be themselves in front of her medium-format camera, admiring their sincerity and confidence. Arbus was featured at MoMA together with other famous artists of her time in the influential exhibition New Documents (1967). At the age of 48, after dealing with depression throughout her life, she committed suicide.

Diane Arbus, The queen and king of seniors citizens' dance, N.Y.C. 1970. Copyright © Estate of Diane Arbus
Diane Arbus, The queen and king of seniors citizens’ dance, N.Y.C. 1970. Estate of Diane Arbus.

Vivian Maier – Nanny with a Secret

Believed to be only a nanny for almost 40 years, Vivian Maier (1926-2009) was in fact one of the greatest American street photographers. Her work, consisting of over 150,000 images produced during her lifetime, was discovered at an auction in 2007.

Vivian Maier, Self-portrait, 1957. women photographers
Women Photographers: Vivian Maier, Self-Portrait, 1957. Artist’s website.

Maier was fascinated by the architecture and people of the cities she spent her time in. She is most famous for her pictures of the streets of New York City and Chicago. Sometimes compared to Diane Arbus for her spontaneity, Maier took photographs of the seemingly most banal subjects and transformed them into artworks, compelling moments stopped forever in time.

Vivian Maier, Chicago, 1979. women photographers
Women Photographers: Vivian Maier, Chicago, 1979. Artist’s website.

Vivian Maier, New York, NY, date unknown. women photographers
Women Photographers: Vivian Maier, New York. Artist’s website.

John Maloof, Ron Slattery, and Randy Prow acquired some of Maier’s photographs in 2007. Many of her negatives were never developed. In 2009, Maloof shared Maier’s images in one of his blog posts, and soon after her work gained a reputation at art museums all over the world.
Currently, Maier’s story is presented in the documentary Finding Vivian Maier (2013). Also, at the Chicago History Museum, you can see her work in the multimedia exhibition Vivian Maier: In Color until May 8, 2023.

Nan Goldin – Slice of life

Nan Goldin (1953-present) is a contemporary American photographer acclaimed for her intimate, authentic photographs documenting her life and her dear ones. In her work she tackles sensitive issues of our times, such as the opioids epidemic, the HIV crisis, and the LGBTQ+ community.

Nan Goldin, Nan one month after being battered, 1984, Tate Modern, London, UK. women photographers
Women Photographers: Nan Goldin, Nan one month after being battered, 1984, Tate Modern, London, UK.

In her late teens, Goldin moved to Boston to live with her friend David Armstrong (1954-2014), an American photographer. There she experienced the gay and transgender community of the city. In her photographs, she is heavily influenced by Diane Arbus (1923-1971) who adopted similar motifs and themes. Goldin used to take her camera everywhere with her and captured the so-called “slices of life” and underground culture.

In Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1980-1986), a 40-minute slideshow of 700 photographs set up on a musical background, Goldin encapsulated her life in the 1980s in New York City. The timeless, deeply personal record preserves her friends and lovers, many of whom were taken away by the AIDS crisis.

Nan Goldin, Rise and Monty Kissing, New York City, 1980, MoMA, New York City, USA. women photographers
Women Photographers: Nan Goldin, Rise and Monty Kissing, New York City, 1980, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, USA.

Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City, 1983, MoMA, New York City, USA. women photographers
Women Photographers: Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City, 1983, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, USA.

Her photographs are enticing, challenging, and raw. Goldin doesn’t shy away from the hard truths of life but faces them courageously by exposing the vulnerability that lies behind the acts of love, violence, and hardship she chooses to capture.

Nan Goldin, Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a taxi, NYC, 1991, Tate Modern, London, UK. women photographers
Women Photographers: Nan Goldin, Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a taxi, NYC, 1991, Tate Modern, London, UK.

A few years ago, Goldin admitted she was recovering from an opioid addiction after being prescribed OxyContin for wrist pain. In 2019, she organized a series of global protests at art museums against the Sackler family, associated with Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of the opioid OxyContin.

Final thoughts

These women shaped photography as we see it today, leaving their mark on the world. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy to mention that this list doesn’t include all the talented women photographers that should receive recognition as well for their efforts, such as Francesca Woodman, Annie Leibowitz, Helen Levitt, Tsuneko Sasamoto, Gerda Taro, Berenice Abbott, Homai Vyarawalla, and Lola Álvarez Bravo. On that note, you can check out until October 3, 2021, The New Woman Behind the Camera exhibition on view at The Met Fifth Avenue, featuring 120 women photographers from over 20 countries between the 1920s and 1950s.