10 Inspiring female photographers

Anna Walker

Discover ten women artists who used their photographic talents to change the world.

1. Dorothea Lange
New Jersey, US, 1895-1965

a migrant woman stares into the distance with her children on her lap
Lange's iconic 1936 photograph, Migrant Mother. Image: Public domain

Our collective cultural memory of America's Depression-era would look entirely different were it not for the work of Dorothea Lange, who captured the human-impact of the financial hardships like no other photographer. 

It has been said that she was able to connect with those suffering the hardships of the Depression so well because she had encountered suffering herself, the result of childhood polio and the absence of her father, who left the family when she was just 12. 

Her focus on humanitarian photography and dedication to documenting the human impact of poverty earned her a Guggenheim Fellowship and has influenced generations of photographers and photojournalists in her wake. 

Read more: 10 Things you didn't know about Dorothea Lange

 

2. Lola Álvarez Bravo
Lagos de Moreno, Mexico, 1903-1993

Lola Alvarez Bravo photograph of people climbing outdoor staircase
"
Unos suben y otros bajan", 1940. Image via Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

Lola Álvarez Bravo was a highly visionary and successful, photographer. “If my photos have any value,” she once said, “it's because they show a Mexico that no longer exists.” 

Standing camera in hand at the dusk of the Mexican revolution, with a passion for capturing the intimate lives of women so casually dismissed by politicians and “serious” male artists, she was an unrelenting free-spirit. She photographed poverty, prostitution, her friends, strangers—sides to Mexico never before documented.

"I was the only woman fooling around with a camera in the streets,” she reflected years later. “All the reporters laughed at me. So, I became a fighter."

 

3. Shadi Ghadirian
Tehran, Iran, 1974-present

A woman wearing a headscarf poses with a boombox on her shoulder
Untitled from the Ghajar Series © All rights reserved: Saatchi Gallery

Tehrani photographer Shadi Ghadirian's work explores the pressures and freedoms inherent for women in Iran's cultural tensions between tradition and modernity. 

In her "Ghajar Series", she created traditional portraits of her friends and family with the defiant addition of contemporary props including Pepsi cans, vacuum cleaners and boomboxes. Ghadirian's works challenge the international perception of women's roles within the Islamic state as well as examining the tensions inherent in living as a modern woman under ancient Shariah law. 

Speaking about that particular series, the photographer said, "I'm not a sociologist, but I hope that when people see my photographs, they'll understand the reality for women in Iran then and now."

 

4. Martine Franck
Antwerp, Belgium, 1938-2012

Martine Franck beach chairs black and white
"
Beach laid out by the Club Méditerranée, Agadir, Morocco", 1976. Image via CEA+

In 1963, the Belgian art history student Martine Franck set out on a trip across Asia with her cousin’s 35mm camera in hand. She returned a photographer.

Shooting primarily in black and white, Franck’s work documented both famous figures (including Marc Chagall and Seamus Heaney) and more marginalised members of society, as in this image, which captures a playful moment with an elder woman she met in a French hospice.

In 2010, she explained to The New York Times that photography “suits my curiosity about people and human situations.” She died from Leukaemia in 2012, aged 74.

 

5. Diane Arbus
New York City, US, 1923-1971

Diane Arbus gallery
"Arbus@MOMA" by PHOTO/arts Magazine is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Those familiar with the latter work of Diane Arbus may be surprised to learn that she began her career directing photoshoots for her then-husband, which graced the pages of women's magazines such as Glamour and Vogue. This is because the majority of her celebrated work explores far less mainstream subjects. Arbus was fascinated with the uncanny, and subjects whose lifestyles diverged from the beaten track. 

During her career, she captured portraits of then-subversive sitters, including strippers, transvestites, circus "freaks" and identical twins. Arbus was determined to use her talents to uplift those who were suffering, relegated to the margins of society. 

Writing in the New York Times, journalist Arthur Lubow said that Arbus "was fascinated by people who were visibly creating their own identities—cross-dressers, nudists, sideshow performers, tattooed men, the nouveau riche, the movie-star fans—and by those who were trapped in a uniform that no longer provided any security or comfort."

 

6. Sarah Lucas
London, England, 1962-present day

Self-portrait with Fried Eggs on chest
"Self-portrait with Fried Eggs" by Sarah Lucas. Image via Saatchi Gallery

Part of the generation of "young British artists" to emerge during the 1990s, Sarah Lucas works in many mediums, most notably photography, collage and found objects. 

Her work is often provocative, usually very funny and frequently deploys bawdy puns. Through her work, she dissects gendered expectations and closely examines the female body, voyeurism and the male gaze. 

Lucas is particularly known for her self portraits. Perhaps her most famous, Self Portrait With Fried Eggs, disrupts the power of the patriarchal male gaze with her androgynous clothing, power stance and defiant glare down the camera lens. 

 

7. Lorna Simpson
Brooklyn, US, 1960-present day

Lorna Simpson black and white chess game
"IMG_20150621_130642" by trevor.patt is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Brooklyn-born Lorna Simpson disrupted everything viewers expected from photographic art. Creating disorientating collages that leave the viewer questioning the boundaries of fact and fiction, she weaves text into her photographs to explore themes of identity, race, gender and difference. 

Simpson's work is particularly preoccupied with representations of black women and their experiences, and therefore many of her collages utilise imagery from vintage magazines such as Ebony and Jet. 

Speaking about her work to Bomb magazine in 1997, she said "I've always done exactly what I wanted to do, regardless of what was out there. I just stuck to that principle and I'm a much happier person as a result. And I can't imagine trying to satisfy any particular audience"

 

8. Gerda Taro
Stuttgart, Germany, 1910-1937

Gerda Taro photograph of a russian woman with a gun crounching to shoot
A 1936 photograph by Taro showing a woman training for the Republican militia. Image public domain

The German-Jewish photojournalist Gerda Taro is considered the first female photojournalist to have died on the front line of a war. Her short life—Taro died aged just 26—was an eventful one. She was arrested aged 23 for protesting against the Nazis and her entire family was forced to leave Germany—she would never see them again. 

In 1934, Taro fled to Paris where she met and fell in love with the photojournalist Endre Friedmann. Together they worked under the alias "Robert Capa", which allowed them to overcome the political biases that were beginning to build up across Europe and sell their work more widely. 

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Taro travelled to Barcelona where she covered the conflict and gained the nickname, "La pequeña rubia (The little blonde)". She was covering the Battle of Brunete when she jumped on board the running board of a car carrying injured soldiers. A tank crashed into the car's side and she died from her critical injuries. 

On what would have been Taro's 27th birthday, she was given a huge funeral in Paris by the French Communist Party as she was by then a respected anti-fascist figure. Tens of thousands of mourners attend to pay their respects. 

 

9. Claude Cahun
Nantes, France, 1894-1954

claude cahun looks to camera with shaved head
"Claude Cahun" by Confetta is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Claude Cahun chose her own name. Deliberately androgynous, it was a statement of intent that flowed through her subsequent artwork. Cahun challenged—playfully—the gender conformities and confines of the age, as well as many other established doctrines. Along with her lover, fellow artist Suzanne Malherbe (then going as Marcel Moore), she was sentenced to death for protesting against the Nazis, a fate the pair escaped only because the war ended. 

Cahun's self-portraits are perhaps her most revealing—defiant, fully self-possessed and confrontational, asking the viewer what it is to be feminine, to be masculine, to be neither or to be both all at once. 

The musician David Bowie was a huge fan of Cahun, and speaking at the multi-media exhibition of her work that he curated in New York in 2007, he said: "You could call her transgressive or you could call her a cross dressing Man Ray with surrealist tendencies. I find this work really quite mad, in the nicest way. Outside of France and now the UK she has not had the kind of recognition that, as a founding follower, friend and worker of the original surrealist movement, she surely deserves."

 

10. Michelle V Agins
Chicago, US, 1960s-present day

The career of Michelle Agins truly shows the power of local-born photojournalism given time and space to thrive. Born in the south side of Chicago, Agins first explored photography with a camera gifted to her by her grandmother, capturing everyone she could, from her family to strangers on the street and members of local gangs. She honed her craft at The Chicago Daily News before advancing to sports photography and a role as the mayor of Chicago's official photographer. 

Agins' work is astounding in its immediacy. Her photographs of the Bensonhurst, Brooklyn protests during the nineties were so evocative, that they won her a Pulitzer Prize nomination, an accolade she has received twice so far in her career. During those same protests she was hospitalised, having been struck in the chest, a marker of the lengths she went to portray what was real. 

Speaking about the barriers she had to overcome as a black woman in a white, male-dominated industry, Agins said, "The deal is, I refuse to be defeated."

 

Read more: 7 Incredible works by Dora Maar

Read more: 10 Things you didn't know about Georgia O'Keeffe

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter