History has given us a wealth of incredibly talented female photographers who continue to inspire new generations with their visionary, boundary-pushing work.
What’s more, they span all genres, from photojournalism to street photography and everything in between.
In this article, we’ll look at some of the most famous female photographers from throughout the years, as well as introduce some amazing contemporary ones as well.
We’ve looked at famous photographers before, but now it’s time to focus solely on the ladies.
So, if you’re ready to be inspired, let’s jump in!
Famous Female Photographers in History to Know About
1. Annie Leibovitz (1949-)
If you’ve ever wondered, “Who is the most famous female photographer?”, Annie Leibovitz is likely to be the answer.
Over an illustrious career spanning more than five decades, Leibovitz has photographed everyone from Leonardo DiCaprio to Queen Elizabeth II.
Even if you don’t know her by name, you’ve undoubtedly seen her work. Think Demi Moore, very pregnant and very nude, in her then-controversial, now iconic cover for Vanity Fair.
Or that unforgettable image of a naked John Lennon wrapped around Yoko Ono, taken on the very day he was shot down and killed.
And that’s just to name a few.
Besides her captivating celebrity portraits, Leibovitz has photographed countless fashion editorials for magazines like Vogue. In these, Leibovitz turns supermodels into fantasy figures, often borrowing from fairytales, historical stories and classic paintings to bring her photographic vision to life.
Leibovitz was born in 1949 in Connecticut, USA, and got her big start in 1970 when she landed a job as a portrait photographer for Rolling Stone magazine.
2. Vivian Maier (1926-2009)
Vivian Maier’s incredible street photography gives us a detailed glimpse into the life that was buzzing around her. Most famously, she captured street scenes in Chicago and New York during the 1950s and ’60s.
One of the unique things about Maier’s incredible story is that her thousands of images went unpublished and unknown during her lifetime.
Photography was a passion for Maier, who worked for around 40 years as a nanny while shooting pictures as a side project.
It was only in 2009, just after her death, that digitized photos shared on Flickr went viral and Maier became a certifiable street photography sensation.
3. Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976)
This American female photographer is best known for three things: her detailed and sharply-focused botanical photographs, her intimate nudes, and her industrial landscapes.
Cunningham also took many well-known portraits of celebrities and artists, especially during the 1930s when she worked for Vanity Fair. Her portraiture is prized for its intimacy and intensity.
I turn people into human beings by not making them into gods. — Imogen Cunningham
Cunningham was an influential member of the f/64 photography group, alongside the likes of Ansel Adams – a group known for its attention to detail and sharp focusing on simple subjects.
She continued shooting until shortly before her death at age 93, leaving behind a large and striking body of work that continues to be widely appreciated.
4. Nan Goldin (1953-)
Nan Goldin is one of the most famous female photographers to tackle difficult themes like the HIV crisis and the opioid epidemic.
She’s also known for exploring, in a raw and intimate way, sexual moments and LGBT bodies. These themes are encapsulated by her most important body of work, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, shot between 1979 and 1986.
As she once said, “I knew from a very early age that what I saw on TV had nothing to do with real life. So I wanted to make a record of real life. That included having a camera with me at all times.”
5. Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)
Dorothea Lange was an American documentary photographer and photojournalist.
During the Great Depression, she worked for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) capturing the trials and hardships of working-class people as they went about daily life.
What makes her such an icon among women photographers is that her images are so etched with emotion. In a single frame, Lange could tell a heart-rending story about the life of her subjects.
Her most famous work, Migrant Mother, which shows a downtrodden mother and her two young children, is a perfect example of this.
6. Diane Arbus (1923-1971)
Diane Arbus isn’t just an important female photographer – she’s one of the most important Post-Modern American photographers full stop.
Arbus’ images are credited with helping to normalize those at the fringes of society. She often focused on marginalized subjects like circus performers, transgender people, dwarfs, and the mentally ill.
A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know. – Diane Arbus
This talented female photographer sadly took her own life at the age of 48, but not before leaving an indelible mark on the photography world.
7. Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971)
In the world of documentary photography, Margaret Bourke-White is certainly a female photographer that stands out.
She was the first woman photographer to work for LIFE Magazine, and the first known female war correspondent allowed to work in combat zones during World War II.
In 1946, LIFE Magazine commissioned her to cover the liberation of the Hindus, during which time she shot her famous image of Gandhi at the spinning wheel.
Photography is a very subtle thing. You must let the camera take you by the hand, as it were, and lead you into your subject. — Margaret Bourke-White
Margaret Bourke-White will long be remembered as a pioneering American photographer and the first photojournalist to open doors for women photographers to enter the field.
8. Gerda Taro (1910-1937)
Gerda Taro also sits among the world’s famous female photographers for her contribution to photojournalism.
This brave female photographer has an unfortunate yet highly dignified claim to fame: she’s known as the first woman photojournalist to have died while covering the frontline in a war.
Taro learned her craft from her lover and professional partner, renowned photographer Robert Capa.
Though Taro’s career was sadly cut short, her black and white photographs depicting the difficult, fleeting moments of war continue to inspire new generations of women photographers today.
9. Lee Miller (1907-1977)
American photographer Lee Miller was known for being a fashion model and the lover of artist Man Ray.
Nonetheless, it was her documentary images of a war-ravaged Europe after World War II that earned her a strong reputation and a place among the world’s famous female photographers.
Miller’s photos of the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps formed some of the first photographic evidence of the horrors of the holocaust.
She’s also known for her intimate artistic relationship with Pablo Picasso: she photographed him more than 1,000 times and he, in turn, painted her portrait six times.
10. Sally Mann (1951-)
Sally Mann can easily be counted among the most famous female photographers who are still alive today.
Mann is known for centering on her own family as primary subjects. In the 1990s, she released a series of images featuring her own young children in intimate, often vulnerable poses.
The series became highly controversial, yet their evocative beauty and unique perspective on childhood are undeniable.
I think truth is a layered phenomenon. There are many truths that accumulate and build up. I am trying to peel back and explore these rich layers of truth. All truths are difficult to reach. — Sally Mann
Best known for her large-format black and white portrait photographs, Mann has also produced many landscape photography works.
11. Corinne Day (1962-2010)
When Corrine Day photographed a completely unknown freckle-faced teen from Croydon, England, no one could have anticipated just how iconic the images would become.
The model was Kate Moss, and it was Day’s portraits of her that would pioneer a new kind of beauty and shift the fashion world’s focus away from the glossy and glamorous to something more gritty and real.
It was also the moment that cemented Day’s future as one of the most respected and famous female photographers.
Day later moved on from fashion and turned her hand to documentary photography. A prime example is her book “Diary”, which features candid, intimate portraiture of her friends that show the reality of drug-taking.
Corrine Day sadly died at age 48 from a brain tumour.
12. Martine Franck (1938-2012)
Belgian-born Martine Franck was a female photographer who worked mostly as a portrait and documentary photographer. She created striking and emotive compositions that strongly focused on shape and form.
Throughout her career, Franck worked for major publications like LIFE, Vogue and Fortune.
The second wife of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Franck was a member of Magnum Photos for over 32 years and one of the few female photographers to be represented by the agency at the time.
Franck preferenced a 35-millimetre Leica camera with black and white film for her elegant and memorable photographs.
13. Gisèle Freund (1908-2000)
Born in Berlin in 1908, Gisèle Freund would go on to become one of the most prominent female photographers in Europe.
Throughout her career, she embarked on around 80 photographic assignments around the world – mostly for LIFE and Time magazine – and earned her living as a highly successful photojournalist.
She was the only female founding member of the Magnum photo agency.
Despite her photojournalistic prowess, it was Freund’s portrait photography that would cement her as one of the most famous female photographers in the world.
Freund captured portraits of the giants of the art and literary world, including James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Evita Perón, Frida Kahlo and Aldous Huxley.
She also shot the first colour portraits of Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, André Breton and others.
Freund’s portraits are deeply inspiring because they often defy convention, focusing on revealing the essence of the subject. She also took some unique self-portraits.
Living for almost a century, Freund created an impressive body of work and witnessed the development of photography as an art.
14. Tina Mondotti (1896-1942)
Italian photographer Tina Mondotti wore many hats: she was also a model, actress and revolutionary political activist.
After relocating to Mexico in 1922, she became deeply immersed in Mexican culture and politics, and the evolution of her political ideas made a strong impression on her photographs.
Some of Mondotti’s recurring subjects were people of the working class, scenes depicting indigenous culture, folk art and landscapes.
She also took photographs of well-known intellectuals and artists, most notably Frida Kahlo.
Modotti was exiled from Mexico in 1930 due to her prominence in the communist movement and her work in photography soon after ceased.
Throughout her somewhat short but vibrant life, Mondotti left a strong imprint as an influential female photographer.
15. Eve Arnold (1912-2012)
American photographer Eve Arnold is known for capturing images of some of the most famous and glamorous subjects in the world – Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe among them.
However, she didn’t only photograph portraits of the rich and famous, despite the success this brought her. She also took incredible photos of the poor, the old, the commonplace, the unglamorous… and did so in a way that not many photographers have been able to replicate.
“It’s the hardest thing in the world to take the mundane and try to show how special it is.” — Eve Arnold
Arnold is known for becoming the first woman to join the Magnum Photo Agency, and for being one of the female photographers of her time to really explore ideas and issues about women in her work.
She died in 2012 at age 99.
Famous Contemporary Female Photographers to Follow
1. Ellen von Unwerth
German-born Ellen von Unwerth is arguably the most famous female photographer in the field of fashion (say that five times fast!).
As an editorial photographer, she’s produced countless shoots for magazines like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Interview.
Von Unwerth’s style is distinct: her glamorous, colorful images highlight the female form in playful and erotic ways.
I’ve always loved to portray women who are strong, who are playful, who are self-assured, and who really own their sexuality. — Ellen von Unwerth
While not all female photographers would approach capturing images of women in an overtly sexualised way, von Unwerth’s perspective as a woman shines through and her models often say they feel empowered rather than exploited.
Ellen von Unwerth’s career took off after she took photographs of supermodel Claudia Schiffer in 1989.
Since then she’s photographed countless celebrities and models, many of them notable women: Britney Spears, Rihanna, Kate Moss, Madonna, Drew Barrymore and Gisele Bundchen among them.
2. Ming Smith
Born in Detroit in 1947, Ming Smith rose to prominence in the 1970s for being part of the influential Kamoinge collective of black photographers.
Throughout her career, she’s photographed a number of important black cultural figures, including women like Nina Simone, Grace Jones and Tina Turner.
In 1978, she became the first-ever female African American photographer to have her work acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Smith’s style, largely black and white, is candid, unassuming and undeniably beautiful.
She works with various techniques – both in-camera techniques like slow shutter speeds and deliberate plays with focus, and darkroom techniques like double exposure. She’s also known for mixing mediums, adding to her images with hand-tinting, painting and collage.
Still active and with new books and exhibitions on the horizon, Ming Smith is definitely one female photographer to check out.
3. Lynsey Addario
This Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist is a female force to be reckoned with, throughout her career taking on the brave task of covering conflicts from the front line.
Often commissioned to shoot in places that are particularly risky for a woman, Addario hasn’t put down her camera despite being kidnapped twice.
Even while taking on one of the photography world’s most dangerous jobs, Addario is known for her ability to find beauty in the harshest of places.
Her images of war often juxtapose a harrowing subject matter with a considered and aesthetically-pleasing style of composition. Addario says this is her way of getting people to engage with the photos rather than turning away from difficult subjects.
If you want to be inspired by female photographers working in the field of photojournalism, Lynsey Addario is definitely one to follow.
4. Hoda Afshar
Iranian-born Hoda Afshar is a well-known female photographer now working out of Melbourne, Australia.
In 2006, the prestigious World Press Photo named her as one of the top ten young photographers in Iran.
She went on to win the 2015 National Portrait Prize and the 2018 Bowness Photography Prize. In 2021, her photo series on Australian whistleblowers won the People’s Choice Award at the Ramsay Art Awards.
Her photos have been shown in numerous exhibitions and are held in various permanent collections across Australia.
Works created by Afshar often blur the line between what’s real and conceptual – a method she calls “staged documentary”, and her work is known for challenging assumptions, exploring difficult topics, and bringing hard truths to light in a creative and often beautiful way.
5. Cindy Sherman
Cindy Sherman is considered one of the most renowned and important female photographers working today.
She’s known for using her art as a form of social criticism and for challenging notions of identity through her many self-portraits.
In her self-portraits, Sherman often uses obvious prosthetics and visible makeup to transform herself into a variety of different characters. In doing this, she prompts the viewer to question our process of building an identity.
I am trying to make other people recognize something of themselves rather than me. — Cindy Sherman
As the Museum of Modern Art puts it, “Sherman subverts the visual shorthand we use to classify the world around us, drawing attention to the artificiality and ambiguity of these stereotypes.”
While some of Sherman’s invented characters and scenes are glamorous and beautiful, she’s also well known for exploring, through her portraits, subjects that are uncomfortable and grotesque.
Her highly unique style, thought-provoking images, and ability to perform both behind and in front of the camera, make Cindy Sherman a true game-changer of the photography world.
6. Bella Kotak
One look at Bella Kotak’s work and you’ll immediately see why she’s social media famous. Her images are rich, fantastical, dream-inducing; each one a work of art in its own right.
Kotak is known for creating lush fantasy worlds within her works, where models are transformed into strong female characters – goddesses, witches, queens and warrior women – using a combination of impeccable styling and artistic post-production.
She started her career journey in arts and architecture before falling into fine art photography. She now lives and works between the US and UK.
If you want to be consistently inspired by some of the most ravishing fantasy photography around, be sure to follow her.
7. Pamela Hanson
With more than 30 years of experience in the fashion industry, photographer Pamela Hanson is regularly featured in magazines like Vogue, Elle, GQ and Harper’s Bazaar.
She’s also photographed many advertising campaigns for major fashion and beauty brands.
Some of her most well-known images are of famous women like Naomi Campbell and Carla Bruni, whom she has masterfully captured in spontaneous and candid moments.
There are so many very talented female photographers today with so many points of view. I think it’s wonderful. The more, the better. — Pamela Hanson
Hanson has released several highly successful photography books, including Girls – a 200+ page photo book filled with personal and professional work – and the follow-up book Boys.
It goes without saying that there are many incredible female photographers – some who helped shape history, and some who are creating it as we speak – who are not represented here. There are simply too many to include in one article!
Which famous female photographers most inspire you? Which not-yet-famous female photographers do you think are worth keeping an eye on?
Leave a comment below and help others discover female photographers they might not yet know about! We’d love your input.