Though it was invented in the 19th century, photography didn't come into its own as a fine art form until the 20th century, which may explain why women have enjoyed a relatively higher profile in that field, than they do in, say, painting. Still, male photographers have been far more widely exhibited in galleries and museums than their female counterparts, though over the last 30 years or so, that has started to change. Meanwhile, over that same period, historians of the medium have started to re-establish the reputations of women behind the lens who were previously under-known. You can familiarize yourself with those names and others in our list of the top women photographers of all time.
Top women photographers of all time
Perhaps the earliest female photographer of note, Cameron captured members of her British upper-class milieu in portraits and staged, storybook-like ensembles that helped to define the gauzy Victorian aesthetic.
Julia Jackson, 1867
A writer as well as an artist, Cahun (née Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob) was part of the Surrealist circle surrounding André Breton, an association which accounts for the dreamlike quality of her best-known works: A series of stagey photographic self-portraits in which the artists presents herself as an androgynous, almost extraterrestrial presence. Her photos foreshadowed the work of Cindy Sherman by a half-century.
Though remembered primarily for her New York street photography from the 1930s, Abbott got her start as part of the Parisian avant-garde milieu that included Man Ray and Djuna Barnes.
This photo, taken at a migrant-worker camp in California, is arguably the iconic image of the Great Depression. It’s one of many similarly indelible photographs taken by Lange over the course of a career that included work for President Franklin Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration and for Life magazine.
Few photographers have channeled our inner freak as directly as Diane Arbus, with her gallery of misfits. But while her subjects often seem grotesque at first glance, they’re really not. They’re not exactly conventional, either; but then, What is normal? is the question her photos always seem to ask.
One of the world’s foremost documentarians, Mary Ellen Mark immerses herself in the lives of her subjects, at times devoting weeks on end to getting the perfect shot. Her captivating, intimate portraits have included a destitute family living out of a beat-up car, sedated patients in a psychiatric ward and Bombay prostitutes confined to cages.
Famous for her “Untitled Film Stills,” in which she portrays various waifs, bombshells, film-noir dames and other female denizens of the cinematic imagination, Cindy Sherman is one of the few women artists to have become a household name. She uses glamour and horror to send up and celebrate the feminine mystique, including her own, but her real subjects, arguably, have been our desires, delusions and fear of death.
No other images sum up boho life in 1980s New York better, perhaps, than Goldin’s, largely because she erases the distance between subject and photographer. That’s especially true of this self-portrait, which captures the injuries inflicted upon the artist by an abusive boyfriend.
Sally Mann first came to public attention in the early 1990s with large black-and-white photographs of her three young children, taken in and around her rural Virginia home. Partly constructed under Mann’s direction, the images powerfully evoked the beauty and otherworldliness of both childhood and the Southern landscape, but also caused controversy due to the ambiguous nature of the nudity in some of the photographs.
Over the past 20-odd years, Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra has elevated adolescence to a status approaching the heroic, even the mythic. In a string of luminous color prints and highly watchable videos, she has repeatedly focused on teens, detailing their unsettling transitional beauty.