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Unforgettable Photography Portraits to Inspire and Inspirit

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May 5, 2016
Studied Photography at IED in Milan, Italy. Passionate about art, frequent visitor of exhibitions, Widewalls photography specialist and Editor-in-Chief.

Somewhere around that seminal year of 1839, with the advent of the first daguerreotype, painter Paul de la Roche famously said ”From today, painting is dead.” Although he was wrong, he probably referred to photography portraits taking over the role that’s been assigned to painting for so many centuries prior. What’s true, however, is that this new child of the industrial revolution completely changed the perception of reality by making it indisputable for the first time ever, and as such it became a true force to be reckoned with. What’s more, it simply made life easier for everyone: the models, for instance, did not have to sit around for days, waiting for the painter to finish depicting them. With the development of the photographic medium, these periods became shorter and shorter, eventually coming down to a snap of a shot that pretty much anybody could produce. Indeed, photography portraits are one of the most common genres out there mostly due to this very fact, and throughout the history of the art form, there have been many artists who helped expand its language of expression and contributed to its ever-changing style.

From portraiture pioneers like Felix Nadar and Julia Margaret Cameron, the experiments of Alfred Stieglitz and Man Ray, the documentary works of Dorothea Lange and Diane Arbus, to the iconic fashion photos of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, and the captivating faces of Steve McCurry, photography portraits have become an integral part of our history and culture, telling remarkable stories of our fellow man through intimate visual diaries that we will not forget anytime soon.

Here are some of the most memorable photography in portraiture in history of the medium!

   Editors’ Tip: Portraits

It’s not just about The Afghan Girl for Steve McCurry, but it surely all started with her. Portraits represents a comprehensive volume of this photographer’s remarkable faces he has encountered whilst travelling throughout the world, collected together in an engaging and strangely moving series of unique street portraits: unposed, unstylized images of people that reveal the true universality of the depths of human emotion, engaging colour portraits of people from all backgrounds and corners of the globe. First released in 1999, Steve McCurry Portraits has become a coveted and revered classic. This fresh new edition, expanded to feature more photographs than before, includes some never-previously-published photographs and creates an up-to-date and unrivalled collection of McCurry’s portraiture.

Steve McCurry - Afghan Girl

In 1984, photographer Steve McCurry visited the Nasir Bagh refugee camp as a commissioned work for the National Geographic. There, he encountered and photographed a girl, one of the students in an informal school, without ever writing down her name. Her picture, titled Afghan Girl, became the magazine’s most recognized photographs and one of the most famous photography portraits out there. After a decades-long, intense search, Steve McCurry was finally able to reunite with his subject: Sharbat Gula, who returned to her homeland Afghanistan shortly after her photo was taken. Her mesmerizing green eyes and freezing glaze remain iconic and a symbol of a charitable organisation that educates Afghan girls and women, set up by the National Geographic.

Man Ray - Le Violon d’Ingres

Found on the cover of quite a lot of books dedicated to photography portraiture, and beyond, this legendary Man Ray shot dates back to 1924, when the Surrealist artist asked Kiki de Montparnasse to be his model for an image inspired by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s painting La Grande Baigneuse. By painting sound holes of a stringed instrument onto the photograph of Kiki’s body, Man Ray imagined her naked body as an instrument, at the same time playing with words by adding the title Le Violon d’Ingres, a French idiom for “hobby”. The image follows closely the Surrealist idea of transforming human body, leaving us to wonder whether, as such, it was an appreciation of the objectification of the female body.

Paul Strand - Blind

One of the most important American photographers, Paul Strand, wandered the streets of New York in 1916, taking candid street portraits with a hand-held camera equipped with a special prismatic lens – meaning he could take pictures without his subjects knowing about it. In this photograph, we see a woman wearing a placard that pronounces her blindness and thus allowing her to beg for money, something people back then needed a license for. It is an awakening shot, a universal portrait of poverty and misfortune as ever-present in human history. It is also a fine example of Modernist photography, dedicated to social documentation. It was featured in Alfred Stieglitz’s famous Camera Work magazine in 1917 as the new icon of American image-making.

Dorothea Lange - Migrant Mother

In the 1930s, Dorothea Lange was one of the photographers employed by the FSA (Farm Security Administration) to document the effects of the Great Depression on the population of America. Migrant Mother practically became the ultimate photography portrait from the entire portfolio and the Depression era in general, as it depicts Florence Owens Thompson, who worked as a migrant pea picker in California. A mother of seven of her children, her worried glance became the symbol of resilience in the face of adversity. Dorothea Lange took a total of six picture of the family within ten minutes, although the other shots are not as nearly as famous as this one, and in fact don’t evoke the same gritty situation.

Philippe Halsman - Alfred Hitchcock

Perhaps he is best known for that surrealist composition of Salvador Dalì in his studio, but Philippe Halsman also photographed other well-known figures of his time, and Alfred Hitchcock is among them. Because the artist knew how to make his subjects feel “at home”, he placed the celebrated director in front of cloudy skies and made a little crow join him – a symbol of his movies. This particular photograph was shot for the promotion of the 1962 film The Birds. Philippe Halsman continued to follow Alfred Hitchcock for the next decade, something he also did with other famous people he photographed, including Audrey Hepburn, Marc Chagall, Le Corbusier and Alfred Einstein.

Diane Arbus - Identical Twins

Stanley Kubrick fans may recognize them from The Shining movie, but portrait photography fans will know that they were inspired by the notable image taken in 1967 by Diane Arbus. At this point, she was known for taking images of the “unusual”, marginalized people, while wandering around with her square-format reflex – dwarfs, transgenders, mentally ill, circus performers and random strangers. In this portrait, we see two identical twins, Cathleen and Colleen, in matching clothes, staring into the camera with a slightly puzzling glare. According to Diane Arbus’ biographer, Patricia Bosworth, ”Arbus’ inquiry into identity reaches a climax in this photograph with the noticeable tension between the girls’ being twins and individuals at the same time.”

Annie Leibovitz - Yoko and John

Among the many, and I mean MANY historic photography portraits that Annie Leibovitz has taken during her incredible career, or pretty much every celebrity out there, her 1980 portrait of John Lennon and Yoko Ono is perhaps the one that is still considered the most important. Working as Rolling Stone’s chief photographer at the time, she took a picture of the couple lying down on the bed, referencing the album cover of Double Fantasy. It was a spontaneous shot, with John Lennon being completely naked and Yoko Ono being completely dressed. Apart from being a powerful image, it also became the Beatle’s last professional photograph, as he was assassinated in front of his apartment just hours after the photoshoot took place.

Bert Stern - Marilyn Monroe, The Last Sitting

Bert Stern, one of the renowned portrait photographers, was commissioned by Vogue magazine to do a photoshoot with Marilyn Monro in mid-1962. it was a big one – full-day sessions over the course of three days, which resulted in over 2,500 images and contact sheets with images that the actress had disliked and crossed out. One such image is the one you’re looking at, taken just six weeks before the untimely death of the superstar. Bert Stern described her as ”deeply troubled” after their encounter, as she looks relaxed and glamorous as always, even though in the nude. His photographs were turned into a book, whose first edition was released in 1982, and it remains of the most influential photography portraits today.

Richard Avedon - Marilyn Monroe

Bert Stern’s image of Marilyn Monroe that we have just seen is exactly how most of us remember the late superstar – smiling, sexy, seductive, always ready for some shots to be taken. But one of my all-time personal favourites and perhaps one of the best photographs out there, period, is Richard Avedon’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe, taken in 1957. As someone who knew how to reveal the true personality of his subjects, the famed photographed managed to do just that with someone who was always doing her job – acting. Richard Avedon captured the moment when all of her acting was gone and there was Marilyn the person, Marilyn with actual feelings and troubles, with a genuine expression and no facade of any kind. Truly a powerful photograph.

Irving Penn - Pablo Picasso

Usually, when a wannabe photographer wants to learn the tips and tricks of portraiture, lighting, pose and composition, the first image they are shown is Irving Penn’s 1957 portrait of Pablo Picasso. Why? Because it is simply perfect. It incorporates all the above-mentioned elements of a good photo portrait, and it tells the story of the subject beyond technicalities. This is not one of Irving Penn’s “corner” shots – au contraire, it belongs to the head-and-shoulders close-ups he later adopted as primary, very minimalistic yet poignant. Picasso’s portrait is broken down into an assembly of shapes, just like in his Cubist works, exalting details like the embroidery on his bullfighter’s cape and, above all, his eye, his penetrating look. It is a seemingly simple photo you take using daylight, yet it takes a master to capture just the right moment in time, when everything simply falls in place the right way.

All images used for illustrative purposes only.