Portraits have been so important in human history, that its plasticity has a very broad scope that includes Painting, Photography, and Sculpture as well. Basically a portrait is an artistic representation of a person, in which the face and its expression is predominant. The deep purpose behind portraits is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person. Portraits have been with us since 4000 years ago.
There is so much to learn from these portrait photographers, that is important to study and contemplate their work, even though we are not so into portraits. I’ve crafted this list of portrait photographers that any serious, passionate, and committed photographer, should know at some point in order to learn something from them, and also as the best seeds of inspiration.
Richard Avedon (1923-2004)
Richard Avedon was an important fashion and portrait photographer. His work helped the process of defining the style, beauty and culture of the United States during the twentieth century.
He reflected a great complexity behind the portraits he directed. I consider that he has an amazing portrait photographer, but more than that, he was an artist, that captured his directions through photography. He was in control of what the people in front of his lenses were portraying.
There are three portraits that he created that blow my mind away (but I love almost all of them, but those three are the top for me):
- Twiggy, 1968
Twiggy was photographed multiple times by Avedon, and it's no surprise since both were doing remarkable statements in the fashion industry in the field of expertise of each one. This particular image property of MoMA (MoMA | The Collection | Richard Avedon. Twiggy, hair by Ara Gallant, Paris. January 1968) is quite simple, but the dream quality of it, is amazing. A great example of the master of concepts Avedon was.
- Dovima with Elephants, 1955
Avedon was deeply influenced by Martin Munkácsi, and this image is a tangible evidence of that influence. Surreal, oneiric, and humorous fashion, that is how I could describe this image that juxtaposes the elegance and the freedom of a deliberately lean portrayed model Dovima, in contrast with the roughed and tamed elephants at the back.
The beautiful parallelism of the dripping cloth and the elephant's frontal foot, is a subtle reminder of the art direction behind this iconic image of the fashion world.
- Beekeeper, 1981
An extremely bold portrait of Ron Fischer, a beekeeper from Oak Park. Richard Avedon posted two ads in national beekeeper journals, and four months later, Ron appeared. Avedon had a concept in mind, sketched in paper, and the whole production lasted a couple of days. A masterpiece of portrait photography indeed.
Annie Leibovitz (1949- )
She is a very well-known Portrait Photographer that has been creating an amazing and consistent body of portraits. Her commercial work is very well known, but her more personal work is something that not all people have seen. I once had the opportunity to look through the pages of a photo book titled A photographer's life: 1990-2005 by Annie Leibovitz that has a lot of her non-commercial work, and I became a huge fan of her.
Her unique style was born with the inspiration and influence of the reportage style of Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
She is the author of the iconic photograph of John Lennon and Yoko Ono that we all have seen many times. The image was the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine issue of January 1981, and the last professional photograph somebody ever took of him, since he was murdered 5 hours later that same day.
Yoko Ono's hair floating in the clear background, firmly grabbed by John Lennon like avoiding her escape, the tangible difference between their looks, the contrast between her dark clothes and his nakedness, all these are elements that make the image a complete masterpiece in the world of portraiture.
Leibovitz was hired by The Walt Disney Company to portray several roles and scenes that are iconic Disney branded.
Helmut Newton (1920-2004)
He was born as Helmut Neustädter in Berlin. He was a notable fashion photographer known for his provocative photographs. He worked mainly in Black and White, and his most important publisher, was Vogue.
In front of his eyes and lens, notable portraits of iconic and famous were made. From David Bowie to Leonardo DiCaprio, from Sophia Loren to Margaret Thatcher. With such a vast array of celebs posing for him, it is no surprise that his work was published by Vanity Fair, Nova, Queen, Playboy, and of course, Vogue, which published 64 covers depicting Newton's art.
My favorite shot is this one, titled Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking Jacket, presenting a beautiful and androgynous portrait of a very elegant model in the middle of a street. A complete breakthrough for that time, an innovative perception of beauty indeed. His mastery is obvious here when presenting a vertical shot with so great composition and mood. This is another great treasure Newton gave to the fashion magazine Vogue, is this shot taken in London at 1967, where a model is running away from a stalking airplane that fits perfectly in the composition.
Martin Chambi (1891-1973)
While Europe and North America where debating and struggling between pictorialism and Straight Photography, in a small part of the world, locked down at Perú, Martin Chambi was creating stunning portraits of his social context.
Like many photographers, Chambi had two streams in his Photography repertoire, the commercial work, and the personal work, and both were amazing. There is so much to learn about the use of light, the contrast, and even the perfect sharpness of Chambi's portraits.
Víctor Mendívil and the Giant Paruro, is an evoking portrait that I personally think symbolizes Chambi's beliefs of rural people being greater than the people from the cities. Pequineque Friends is a relaxed portrait, very rare at that specific moments in time, where everything was pictorial and assembled. Queromarca rural woman with child is a strong portrait, which still has a very powerful message behind it.
Even his commercial work, like the Wedding of Don Julio Gadea, has a sublime quality that few photographers had. Even nowadays, with so many wedding photographers, there is a lot to learn from this single image with such an interesting composition of black and white arrangement in the crowd.
Martin Chambi's style is unique, and has distinguished him from a vast group of great masters in photography.
Daniel Mordzinski (1960- )
Photography is a vast world that requires specialization in order to achieve stunning work. These niches can be narrowed down to a sublime point, and that's exactly what Mordzinski did by narrowing his work so much, that became the Photographer of the Writers.
Before knowing about Daniel Mordzinski, I just have seen his images in several books, and websites, but a tragic happening to his work thanks to an irresponsible inventory maneuver over at Le Monde, resulted in the loss of many images created by him.
You can delight yourselves with his work at his website, and my personal favorite, is the portrait of Jorge Luis Borges, http://www.danielmordzinski.com/.
Arnold Newman (1918-2006)
An amazing portrait photographer also known by his academic role as a photography teacher and less known role in the news world. He created very notable environmental portraits that talked efficiently about the context, the professions, and the passions of the people he portrayed.
Environmental Portraiture is known for being a field of photography in which the photographer directs the subject in a carefully controlled setting inside the everyday ambiance of the person portrayed.
His signature picture was a minimalistic monochrome portrait of Igor Stravinsky taken in 1946 in his environment, ergo, close to his piano, and nothing more but a light colored wall. This contact sheet is a fascinating evidence that great work requires discipline and objective eyes. This fantastic portrait shows a serene Stravinsky lingering close to a beautiful open tailed piano in front of a two shaded wall. The portrait is bold, innovative, and even minimalistic as well. It is curious and beautiful how the shapes inside this composition depict a perfect triangle at the center of the image.
Another iconic picture he took, and a personal favorite of mine, is a portrait of Martha Graham in a very simple yet strong portrait with great basic composition tricks.
Philippe Halsman (1906-1979)
After a terrible experience in his early twenties he left his native Austria to find a new home at France. Here he began contributing to fashion magazines, and eventually stumbled into Vogue, and after that he gained the reputation of being the best portrait photographer in France.
You can look at his work thanks to the Philippe Halsman Foundation here. He portrayed several talented people like Louis Armstrong and Audrey Hepburn, and even Albert Einstein. But I think his most notable figure was Salvador Dalí, due to their accomplice in creating images out of this world like the famous Dali Atomicus.
In 1961 he publishes a book called Halsman on the Creation of Photographic Ideas, that stimulate photographers to pursue unusual images by following six rules that he stated as these:
- The rule of the direct approach
- The rule of the unusual technique
- The rule of the added unusual feature
- The rule of the missing feature
- The rule of compounded features
- The rule of the literal or ideographic method.
Diane Arbus (1923-1971)
Her subjects were different, her subjects were away from the standards of perfection fashion depicted. She presented the world with another face, with an unseen face that was in the shadows. Her most noted portraits had marginalized people such as dwarfs, giants, transgenders, nudists, circus performers as the most important subject.
She and Allan Arbus (her husband) contributed to several fashion magazines such as Glamour, Seventeen, Vogue and Harper's Bazaar even when they both had a clear vision that resulted in a shared hate for the fashion world.
She was able to get close into an intimate dimension with her subjects thanks to her camera, even if the social interaction lasted briefly, she achieved that parallel trust with her subjects that resulted in great portraits we no can contemplate.
Even her access was clearly trusted, she reflected a great level of respect and even fascination towards her subjects. This is really important to learn and never forget if we want to achieve meaningful portraits such as hers.
My favorite picture from all the great portraits Diane Arbus captured, is the Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967 photograph taken at a twins and triplets gathering for Christmas Eve. The image shows a slight contrast of a subtle smile and a subtle frown even both were stated as identical. I really want to believe that this image inspired Stanley Kubrick when seeking the performers of the twins that appeared at The Shining 1980.
Steve McCurry (1950- )
Everybody knows the image, but there is more behind McCurry's body of work. This outstanding and notable photojournalist has captured so many great portraits, that is hard to believe a single person has done so many amazing shots, but he has, and he still does.
His portraits have a hard to explain powerful quality, that exceeds my scope, and I just love to watch his work. His portraits have a consistent quality, and this is something we should study and learn. Consistency requires practice and discipline, and this both are ingredients that put us close to perfection and mastery.
The Afghan Girl is a portrait made to a girl named Sharbat Gula in December 1984 at a refugee camp, published later in the cover of National Geographic Magazine of June 1985. This image is so powerful, that has been considered one of the greatest portraits of all time. Her fully expressive eyes, the magnificent sharpness of the shot, the complementary colors of her clothes with the background and her eyes, and the almost moving expression of her face are just the most tangible elements of this magnificent portrait. Beyond Gula, you can see his amazing repertoire of journalistic portraits in his website http://stevemccurry.com/.
Jimmy Nelson (1967- )
Jimmy Nelson is a tough guy, no doubt about it, but with a hard sense of care for people, especially those whose culture is about to disappear. Just like Mordzinski’s angle of craft portraits of writers, Nelson's most notable work has the main goal of capturing and portraying the people and cultures that are about to be extinct for several anthropological reasons.
He is creating an important work for humanity, especially those generations that are about to come. His technical mastery is splendid, but beyond that, his mission to capture the time vulnerable cultures of the world, is at another dimension of importance.
The most important thing we can learn from him, is the care he has for the people. And that care, converts later in trust, which allows him to get close to the most intimate circles of these endangered cultures. This process requires patience, time, and above all, respect. We need to stop shooting just for the sake of it, we need to care about people in order to achieve the best portraits possible, period.
Valérie Jardin once said that it is important for us photographers to watch TED Talks on a regular basis, and here is one valuable Talk that I want to share with you, enjoy.
And the Easter egg of the evening is one of the best portraits I've seen ever, a completely natural and candid portrait of Frida Kahlo and Chavela Vargas taken by the outstanding photographer, Tina Modotti (1896-1942), cheers.