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22 pioneering women in photography you need to know about

women in photography
Margaret Bourke-White on top of Chrysler Building, New York, 1930 (Image credit: Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Throughout history, female photographers have generated an invaluable collection of images, enhancing the photographic record of places, people and events. 

Despite being an industry traditionally skewed towards men, some of the world’s most recognized images have been captured by women, working both in the field and operating their own successful photographic studios. 

Some of these women are household names in the industry, with the likes of Annie Leibovitz and Dorothea Lange having carved out their place among the best photographers ever. Other names, though, are less known to the masses – but their work and impacts are no less significant. 

In this feature, we take a look back at some (but obviously not all) of the most pioneering female photographers and the contributions that they've made to the art of photography. 

So, as we celebrate Women's History Month, here are the 22 female photographers that you need to know about…

(Image credit: Creative Commons)

Anna Atkins

1799-1871

A friend of Henry Fox Talbot, Atkins was an English botanist and photographer. She published Photographs Of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, the first book with photographic illustrations. 

Some sources claim that she was the first woman ever to create a photograph – though others suggest that it was Talbot's wife, Constance, who actually holds this distinction. 

(Image credit: Creative Commons)

Julia Margaret Cameron

1815-1879

With a position in Victorian England’s high society, Cameron captured many legendary figures in her short career, which started at the age of 48. She often posed her various sitters as characters from biblical or historical stories, copyrighting all of her photos.

Among her most famous subjects were Charles Darwin, Henry Taylor and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Ellen Terry and Alice Liddell. 

(Image credit: Creative Commons)

Bertha Beckmann

1815–1901

Beckmann was possibly the first professional female photographer in the world, opening a photographic studio in Leipzig, Germany in 1843 with her husband – a business that she continued to run by herself after his death in 1847.

She moved to the United States in 1949, and would open two studios in New York as well as receive a diploma for special services to portrait photography. An important figure in daguerreotype photography, The Leipzig Museum of City History maintains an exhibit of her work.

(Image credit: Creative Commons)

Mary Carnell

1861-1925

Based in Pennsylvania, USA, American photographer and clubwoman Mary Carnell ran her own photo studio in Philadelphia and in 1909 was the founder and first president of the Women’s Federation of the Photographers’ Association of America. 

A trailblazer of women's representation, Carnell also served as president of the Ladies' Auxiliary of the Old Guard State Fencibles, president of the Professional Women's Club and sat on the board of directors of The Plastic Club.

(Image credit: Creative Commons)

Signe Brander

1869-1942

Brander documented the city of Helsinki, Finland and the everyday lives of its inhabitants in the early 20th Century. She created 907 photos of the changing cityscape, often employing a horse-drawn carriage to transport the heavy equipment.

It has been noted that, while women working as photographers was not uncommon in this time period, Brander's position as a city photographer – and her technical acumen for doing so – was indeed rare.

‘Migrant Mother' by Dorothea Lange, 1936 (Image credit: Creative Commons)

Dorothea Lange

1895-1965

Co-founder of Aperture magazine, Lange is responsible for one of the most famous images in photographic history: the iconic ‘Migrant Mother’ shot of Florence Owens Thompson during the Great Depression, which would become the world's most reproduced photograph.

Beyond the sheer visual strength of her photographs, such was the power of her work that it prompted the government to intervene and provide aid to the camp depicted in this series of images. 

(Image credit: Creative Commons)

Tina Modotti

1896-1942

Italian photographer Modotti was a revolutionary activist for the Communist Party, as well as a model and actress. Much of her work involved highlighting Mexican culture, which she began shooting in 1922. 

In 1923 she would open a portrait studio in Mexico City, together with partner and noted photographer Edward Weston, cultivating a successful business. Among her circle of "avant-gardists" were figures like Frida Kahlo, Lupe Marín, Diego Rivera, and Jean Charlot.

(Image credit: Creative Commons)

Berenice Abbott

1898-1991

Abbott started as a darkroom assistant for Man Ray in Paris, but quickly established herself as a visual artist in her own right. She is best known for portraits of between-the-wars cultural figures, urban design and architectural photographs of 1930s New York, and scientific interpretation shots. 

Abbott subscribed to the principles of the 'straight photography movement', which placed great significance on photographs that were not manipulated in either their subject matter or development process.

(Image credit: Creative Commons)

Margaret Bourke-White

1904-1971

Bourke-White is best remembered for her iconic images of World War II and Gandhi at his spinning wheel. In 1941, she became the United States' first female war correspondent.

She holds a number of other distinctions, including being the first foreign photographer allowed to take images of Soviet industry, as well as having her photograph on the cover of Life magazine's first ever issue.

(Image credit: Creative Commons)

Helen Levitt

1913-2009

Levitt was a pioneer in street photography and captured subjects in New York City with her Leica. She has been called “the most celebrated and least-known photographer of her time.”

Such was the significance of her work that she received two grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, and she came to the attention of and worked with both Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans. She would later work in film, getting her first job with surrealist Luis Buñuel.  

(Image credit: Creative commons)

Gerda Taro

1910-1937

Holding the unfortunate distinction of being the first female photojournalist to have died while covering the frontline of conflict, Taro was a German-Jewish war photographer active during the Spanish Civil War.

Taro was the companion and partner of Robert Capa, actually born Endre Friedmann; "Robert Capa" started as a nom de plume for the work produced by both photographers (much of the early work credited to Friedmann / Capa is in fact believed to be Taro's).

(Image credit: Creative Commons)

Dorothy Norman

1905-1997

Norman was a writer, photographer and social activist who depicted the early 20th Century through sensitive portraits. She donated many photos by herself and husband Alfred Stieglitz.

Her activism and photography were motivated by "a desire to advance both art and action", leading her to take portraits of notable figures including Albert Einstein and Jawaharlal Nehru (who would become India's first Prime Minister).

(Image credit: Creative commons)

Marion Carpenter

1920-2002

Carpenter started working for the Washington Times-Herald at the age of 24. In 1945 she became the first woman member of the White House News Photographers Association, as well as the first female national press photographer to cover Washington, DC and the White House. 

Even more notably, she was the first woman press photographer permitted to travel with a US President on a daily basis. She developed a warm professional and personal relationship with Harry S Truman. 

(Image credit: Creative Commons)

Diane Arbus

1923-1971

New York-based Arbus documented minority groups who were subject to social prejudice. Her black-and-white portraits famously worked to normalize marginalized subjects including strippers, cross-dressers, carnival performers, tattooed men, nudists and dwarves.

She was awarded a Fellowship by the Guggenheim Foundation in 1963, and in 1972 (a year after she committed suicide) she became the first photographer to be included in the Venice Biennale.

(Image credit: Creative Commons/Flickr)

Vivian Maier

1926-2009

Maier generated an astounding body of work, consisting of over 150,000 images, but remained in obscurity until her images were distributed online after her death. Her photography encapsulated life in American cities, with a focus on the less fortunate members of society.

Her photographs languished in obscurity until they were purchased in a sale after she failed to make payments on her Chicago storage space. After being shared on Flickr in 2009, the photographs went viral. The story of Maier's work and its discovery was the subject of Oscar-nominate documentary, Finding Vivian Maier.

(Image credit: Creative Commons)

Sara Facio

1932-present

Facio co-founded La Azotea, the first publishing house in Latin America dedicated to photography. She also established the Fotogalería of the Teatro Municipal General San Martín, one of the most prominent exhibition spaces in Argentina.

Her subjects included prominent Argentinian cultural figures, writers and poets such as Julio Cortázar, María Elena Walsh and Alejandra Pizarnik, and her work sits in the collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art. 

(Image credit: Creative Commons)

Annie Leibovitz

1949-present

Arguably one of the most famous female photographers alive, Leibovitz is best known for her engaging and intimate portraits – particularly of celebrities. In 1991 she became the first woman to hold an exhibition at Washington’s National Portrait Gallery.

A photographer for Rolling Stone magazine, her cover shot of John Lennon and Yoko Ono – taken just hours before Lennon's assassination – has achieved iconic status. The Library of Congress declared her a Living Legend, a distinction she shares with the likes of Muhammad Ali, Walter Cronkite and Steven Spielberg. 

(Image credit: Creative Commons)

Nan Goldin

1953-present

Goldin’s work features and explores LGBT bodies, moments of intimacy, the HIV crisis, and the opioid epidemic. A recovering opioid addict, her intimate images often document her own life and those who are close to her.

Like Diane Arbus, her work focuses on celebrating marginalized lifestyles and groups, with her first solo show in 1973 dedicated to her time spent with the gay and transgender communities.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Cindy Sherman

1954-present

Sherman’s one of the most influential people in contemporary art. She has worked as her own model for more than 30 years, capturing herself in a range of personas and assuming multiple roles: photographer, model, makeup artist, hairdresser and stylist.

An inspiration to photographers such as Flora Borsi, Sherman was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship in 1995 and received an honorary doctorate from London's Royal College of Art in 2013.

(Image credit: Creative Commons)

Shirin Neshat

1957-present

Iranian-born Neshat has a collection of images with a strong commentary on cultural and gender inequality in her native country. The challenges of being a Muslim woman is a great motivation behind her images.

Her work has been honored at the highest level, including winning the International Award at the Venice Biennale and the Silver Lion for best director at the Venice Film Festival. In 2020 she was awarded an Honorary Fellowship by the Royal Photographic Society.

(Image credit: Creative Commons)

Francesca Woodman

1958-1981

Best known for her creative mono self-portraits, Francesca Woodman also shot women who were blurred (due to movement and long exposures), merged with their surroundings. At just 22, she committed suicide, leaving behind evocative images that influenced a generation of artists.

Most of her photographs were shot on 6x6 medium format cameras. She also worked in video, with her pieces being shown at the Helsinki City Art Museum in Finland, Miami's Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation, the Tate Modern in London, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim in New York. 

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Petra Collins

1992-present

Collins is an artist, model, photographer and one of the leading voices of the New-Wave Feminism movement. She has landed major campaigns at Adidas, Gucci and Nordstrom, and retains complete creative control over them.

In addition to her photographic output, she has also emerged as a director and filmmaker, with her work spanning documentaries to music videos for artists like Carly Rae Jepsen, Selena Gomez, and Cardi B.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Deana Lawson

1979-present

As an American artist, educator and photographer born and based in New York, Lawson’s work primarily focuses on issues of intimacy, family, spirituality, sexuality, and black aesthetics. 

She was awarded the Hugo Boss Prize 'for significant achievement in contemporary art' and her work has featured in museums and galleries such as New York's International Center for Photography, Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

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Lauren Scott

Lauren is the editor of Digital Photographer magazine, a practical-focused publication that inspires hobbyists and seasoned pros alike to take truly phenomenal shots and get the best results from their kit. 


An experienced photography journalist who has been covering the industry for over seven years, she has served as technique editor for both PhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine

PhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine and DCW's sister publication, Digital Camera Magazine


In addition to techniques and tutorials that enable you to achieve great results from your cameras, lenses, tripods and other photography equipment, Lauren can regularly be found interviewing some of the biggest names in the industry, sharing tips and guides on subjects like landscape and wildlife photography, and raising awareness for subjects such as mental health and women in photography.