When the medium of photography first appeared in 1839, it had changed the tradition of portraiture forever. This completely new language for capturing the human image has allowed anybody to have their portrait taken, the privilege that was previously reserved only for the wealthy. With early daguerreotypes and cartes-de-visite, photographic portraiture soon replaced a painted portrait and represented a powerful medium for self-presentation. Initially following the conventions of the painted portrait, photographic portrait soon evolved from a mere portrayal of a person’s social status to a more documentary form which eventually led to the photographic portrait and the photography itself to become a legitimate form of artistic expression.
Portrait photography has come a long way since, now becoming a more complex and diverse genre. A plethora of photographers are now experimenting with the genre, always finding new ways to interpret the portrayal of the human image and contribute to the exploration and transformation of the genre. With numerous opportunities for depth, empathy and experimentation, today’s photographic portraits depict the times and context we live in alongside the representation of the individual. Varying in form, from more traditional and documentary to more experimental or completely abstract, portraits capture people, their moments, expressions and state of mind.
Experimenting and playing with the idea of a human portrait, many contemporary photographers today continue to push the boundaries of this genre. Varying in style, approach, subject and understanding, their photographs transmit the beauty of this everlasting classic and communicate the plethora of emotions and different worlds. We present you the list of the best portrait photographers today!
Editors’ Tip: FACES: Photography and the Art of Portraiture by Steven Biver and Paul Fuqua
As Cicero once wrote, ‘The face is a picture of the mind as the eyes are its interpreter.’ There are so many things to consider when making a portrait and capturing one’s personality. The authors of Faces show us how to match up a personality with lighting, posing, and composition. This book dives deep in the art of portraiture, enriched with details that can help any photographer to create a powerful image. Being a comprehensive survey of the subject, it features stunning images paired with a lighting diagram and a description of why the type of image was chosen. The authors also take things a step further by showing you some of the most famous portraits taken and how the techniques of these portraits were obtained.
All images used for illustrative purposes only
Ari Marcopoulos is an Amsterdam-born photographer who has been capturing intimate lives of people living on the edge for 30 years. His subjects vary from artists and musicians to snowboarders and skateboarders. First starting as an assistant to Andy Warhol in New York, he has shot everyone from Jean-Michel Basquiat to Beastie Boys. His playful portraiture is a dramatic take on everyday life, and his chronicles of various subcultures have made him one of the key artistic documentarians of American life and culture. With the unique and raw style that carries the lo-fi aesthetic of the street, Marcopoulos’ work is gritty and graphically striking. His portraits show a sensitive approach to the culture he is trying to both depict and shape at the same time.
LaToya Ruby Frazier is a photographer who uses her photographs as autobiographies to capture social inequality and historical change. Exploring identities of place, race and family, her work is a combination of self-portraiture and social narrative. Her famous series The Notion of Family features herself and her mother and grandmother in her hometown Braddock that has suffered greatly from demographic decline. Juxtaposing consumer capitalism and challenges of working people, her work is an exploration of inequality, racism, deindustrialization and social injustice. Raw portraits of her family and friends in intimate moments reveal strength and vulnerability presented in an honest manner.
Featured images: LaToya Ruby Frazier - Ron Jude and Guillaume Simoneau, 2013, via mocp.org
Sally Mann is an American photographer best known for her intimate portraits of her family, her young children and her husband. Attracting controversy at the time, her work was highly influential for generations of younger photographers. The series touches on ordinary moments in their daily lives and explores various themes including death and cultural perceptions of sexuality. These intimate photographs taken in her woodland summer home in Virginia explore the struggle between child’s dependence and the need for autonomy. Her work has been the subject of numerous retrospectives and her photobook Immediate Family has been declared as one of the greatest photography books of our time.
Featured images: Sally Mann - Family Pictures, via sallymann.com
Hendrik Kerstens is a self-taught Dutch photographer whose main subject is his daughter Paula. With an initial idea to capture the moments of her childhood, Kerstens soon projected his interests of Dutch painters of the seventeenth century onto her. Soon he started doing more portraits referring to this era, fascinated by their portrayal of everyday life. Paula is often dressed anachronistically and photographed against a solid dark or light background. His photographs create a sense of stillness, poise and presence, recording Paula’s physical and psychological transitions over time. He often uses unusual domestic props and headdresses providing a visual twist and immersing the viewer in.
Danny Lyon is one of the most important American photographers of the last half-century who was immersed in the documented subject with social justice as his main concern. Driven by the passion for social change, he entirely immersed himself in the cultures he documented. His most famous series are Bikers that involved four years spent as a member of the Chicago Outlaw Motorcycle Club and Conversation with the Dead as a close survey of Texas prisons. His intimate portraits show men and women as individuals, candidly documenting their struggles and context they live in. He has produced seven photobooks featuring his photographic series, as well as texts from various sources such as interviews, letters or fiction.
Cindy Sherman is a photographer who plays with the idea of a portrait and whose work often engages in a social criticism. As a master of disguise, she is the star of her own photographs but claims they aren't autobiographical. She has first presented her new brand of self-portraiture with an Untitled Film Stills series where she has reenacted female clichés of 20th-century pop culture. Often examining women’s roles in history and society, her photographs portray a wide range of common female social roles or personas. The majority of her work is ‘untitled’, leaving the viewer a space to interpret the narrative and the message. In this game of role playing, she emphasizes the powerful machinery of make-up and costumes and explores sexual desire and domination, as well as the creation of self-identity as a mass deception.
Nan Golding is an American photographer whose work often features LGBT-related themes, images or public figures. She first emerged on the scene in 1986 with her famous series The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a powerful body of work that chronicled the hard-drugs subculture in New York she has been involved with. She is famous for her lush color photography that invites the viewer to scratch under the surface. Her photographs reflect her uncompromised manner and style and portray people and their lives in a candid way. She has been involved in numerous collaborative projects and her work has been a subject of several retrospectives.
Featured images: Nan Goldin - Dieter with the tulips, via yetang.com; Nan Goldin - French Chris at the drive-in, via clampart.com; Nan Goldin - Jimmy Paulette + Tabboo! in the bathroom, 1991, via sammulung-goetz.de
Rineke Dijkstra is a Duch photographer who has produced a complex body of work that presents a contemporary take on the genre of portraiture. Her work is usually produced in series, and her subjects are often shown facing the camera against a minimal background. After being commissioned by a Dutch newspaper to create a summertime series, this work resulted in her internationally acclaimed Beach Portraits series depicting full-length color photographs of teenagers on the beach. Her large-scale portraits recall 17th-century Dutch painting and are often capturing particular communities of people. Her subjects vary from adolescents and clubbers to soldiers and women who have recently given birth. Her work has been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions and she was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society in 2012.
Philip-Lorca diCorcia is an American photographer who uses both digital and Polaroid cameras to create a diverse range of portraits encompassing both documentary and staged form. Creating a narrative mixture of truth and fiction, his photographs have and ambiguous nature and are filled with psychological tension. In this way, he plays with the people’s idea of truth and the representation of reality. The cinematic feel of his photographs and the purposefully open-ended narratives make his photographs aesthetically seductive. Even though he often stages his scenes, the authenticity of his subjects refers to the documentarist portraiture approach. One of his most famous works is Hustler, a series created during the devastation and despair during the AIDS pandemic in the late 1980s and 90s.
Larry Fink is an American photographer who has been photographing people in social situations for over 45 years. A self-proclaimed Marxist, his most famous work is Social Graces, a series depicting wealthy Manhattanites and their social events in contrast with the world of the working-class people from rural Pennsylvania. This exploration of social class has provided an intimate glimpse of real people and their human lives. His photographs perfectly explore gestures, smiles, glances, wrinkles, troubles and worries of humans capturing the tension between public identities and inner emotional psyche. His works have been exhibited all around the world and are a part of various publications and photography history books.
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