12 Women Who Made Photographic History

12 Women Who Made Photographic History

The first photograph appeared in 1826 and, although it’s not as well documented, women have played a part in photography from the beginning. For Women’s History Month, we’re taking a look at the women who have made history for their breathtaking photographs.

Cyanotype by Anna Atkins

Anna Atkins

In some articles, you’ll see Anna Atkins credited as the first woman to take a photo. (Although, I bet the ghost of Constance Fox Talbot will disagree with those accounts.) Even still, Atkins was the first to use this new technology for an educational purpose: botany. She documented her findings on cyanotypes, and published her photographs in a book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.

Self-portrait by Frances Benjamin Johnston

Frances Benjamin Johnston

Frances Benjamin Johnston, called Fannie by her friends, was one of America’s earliest photojournalists. Using her wealth and connections, she was able to photograph portraits of Mark Twain, Susan B. Anthony, Booker T. Washington plus many members of the Roosevelt family. She is most famous for Self Portrait (as New Woman). For 1896, a picture of a woman with her petticoat showing and holding a cigarette and a beer was quite shocking – and also an empowering display of feminism.

Suffragettes photographed by Christina Broom

Christina Bloom

Considered the UK’s first female press photographer, Christina Bloom originally took up photography to save her family from financial ruin. She started by selling postcards of her photographs in a local market, but soon her portraits of British soldiers heading off to World War I caught the attention of the Royal family. Later in her career, she photographed the Suffragettes’ protests as her contribution to the feminist movement.

Photograph by Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange

At the age of 12, Dorothea Lange contracted polio: “It formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me.” The illness, which left her with a permanent limp, most likely was her driving force behind photographing real life for Americans in the early 20th century. Her most iconic shot Migrant Mother – now hanging in the Library of Congress – is championed for bringing the Depression into the living rooms of Americans all across the country.

Photograph by Margaret Bourke White

Margaret Bourke-White

Margaret Bourke-White is a woman of many firsts. She’s the first American female war photojournalist. She’s the first Western photographer permitted to take pictures in Stalin’s Soviet Union. And, one of her photographs was on the very first issue of LIFE magazine.

Photograph by Berenice Abbott

Berenice Abbott

An American photographer who spent two formative years in Paris, Berenice Abbott is best known for work showcasing 1930s New York City. Her black-and-white images showed all of the oxymorons of the city – its extreme wealth and vast poverty, the simultaneous joy and sadness of its residents, and the huge skyscrapers and tight knit neighborhoods. Also, she was once quoted as saying, “The world doesn’t like independent women, why, I don’t know, but I don’t care,” which has become the mantra I say to myself every morning when I wake up.

Self-portrait by Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier photographed her entire adult life starting in the 1950s – but no one knew her name until 2009. Photo collector John Maloof bought her undeveloped film in an auction at a storage space in Chicago. The developed photos, which Maloof uploaded to his Flickr account, went viral and a spotlight was placed on Maier for her black-and-white street photography. The world soon discovered that, working as a nanny, Vivian Maier photographed moments on the street that may seem ordinary to most – taking more than 150,000 photos in her lifetime.

Photograph by Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus

Throughout her work, Diane Arbus was a champion for the weird. Nudists, circus performers, transgender people – these were the types of people that Arbus often captured. At a time when most Americans valued being clean-cut and family-friendly, Diane Arbus put a spotlight on the marginalized communities (called “freaks” by some) that also existed at the time. Her photography put imperfection and the obscure at the forefront.

Photograph by Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman catapulted into photography fame in the late 1970s for her series Untitled Film Stills. A collection of solely self-portraits, the series focuses on Sherman playing the “damsel in distress” in a classic noir film. The photos don’t directly reference any actual film yet carry a sense of familiarity – which is Sherman’s way of touching on female stereotypes in film.

Photograph by Carrie Mae Weems

Carrie Mae Weems

A theme that persists throughout photographer Carrie Mae Weems work the most is this: family, particularly black families. Her most well-known project, The Kitchen Table Series, puts Weems herself in the picture playing the role of the “traditional woman” and how those ideas pigeonhole many woman into one narrative throughout their lives.

Photograph of John Lennon and Yoko Ono by Annie Leibovitz

Annie Leibovitz

It’s highly likely that you’ve already seen one of Annie Leibovitz’s photos – as a staff photographer for Rolling Stone magazine and later Vanity Fair, she’s captured everyone from Fleetwood Mac to Demi Moore to Queen Elizabeth II. Most famously, she photographed the last image of John Lennon before his death. The picture, which appeared as the cover on Rolling Stone, was taken only five hours before his death on December 8, 1980.

Photograph by Carol Guzy

Carol Guzy

A staff photographer for The Washington Post since 1988, Carol Guzy is the only photojournalist to win the Pulitzer Prize four times. Guzy has photographed numerous tragedies, including Hurricane Katrina the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010. Often Guzy’s photographs are intimate to her subjects and compassionate to their flight. She credits this to her original pursuit of nursing as career in 1977, which she switched over to photography in 1980.

What photographers inspire you to take pictures?


  1. Richard Thomson

    This was a lovely article on women in photography. So many photographers want to know technical this and how to do that. They are oblivious to what is a good photograph. Thank you for sharing a bit of what great photographers are.

    Richard Thomson

  2. Bernie Marvin

    Magnificent stuff!
    I also enter the name of combat photographer Dickey Chappelle. I worked with her in Lebanon during US Marine landings there during their Civil War she photographed in 1958. I was a combat photog with the USMC and Leatherneck Magazine and remained friends with her until her death in Viet Nam. She came to see me in early 1959 with her photographs and slides of Fidel and his entry into Havana Cuba in January of that year. She was a wonderful woman and great photographer.

  3. What about Lee Miller ?

  4. Sandra D Ferland

    This article was inspiring to me in a strange, ethereal way that I really can’t describe, but left me feeling empowered. Thank you.

  5. Free Akins

    No mention of one of the first female photographers Julia Margaret Cameron?

  6. I would also include Sally Mann who is a very talented and influential photographer. Her portraits of her children are inspirational.

  7. Margaret King

    Catherine Weed Barnes Ward ( from Albany NY) was one of the early photographers. She and her husband, H. Snowden Ward, wrote several books- based in England. She was a champion of women photographers, and at the end of the 19th century -when male photographers were reluctant to allow women into their photography clubs -said …”photography should be judged by the quality of the work and not the gender of the photographer”. She died in 1913 at age 62.

  8. Check out Edith Irvine too. Her pictures of San Francisco just after the big earthquake show the city as the officials did not want anyone to see. https://alivingpencil.com/2014/01/31/edith-irvine-photographer-of-sf-earthquake/

    • Hy Money deserves a place in this list as she was the first woman member of the NUJ and the UK’s first woman sports photographer who has fought her way through racism (she is Anglo-Indian) and a male-dominated profession since 1971.

  9. My first inspiration for photography came from the book, “The Family of Man,’ which lay on our coffetable when I was a teenager. I loved that (I still have a copy of the original) and the national Geographic books we also had.

  10. Others to consider:
    Erika Stone
    Helen Levitt
    Imogen Cunningham
    Tina Modetti
    Mary Ellen Mark
    Ilse Bing
    Eve Arnold

  11. Lynn Sulackow

    Thank you so many inspiring women photographers!

  12. Lynn Sulackow

    Thank you, Amanda, for bringing to mind so many amazing women photographers!

  13. Norman Maynard

    Thanks for this. I am going to show my class of 6 high school girls all of these today. I will, however, highlight the sentence that made my day: “Also, she was once quoted as saying, “The world doesn’t like independent women, why, I don’t know, but I don’t care,” which has become the mantra I say to myself every morning when I wake up.”

  14. I tagged all my photographer friends on this article. Thank you SO MUCH for this article. Berenice Abbot, Vivian Maier were my inspirations in documentary photography, something I loved to do.

  15. Let’s add Marion Post Wolcott to the list.

  16. Wonderful! Thank you for helping me learn about amazing female photographers.

  17. Camille Fiorillo

    I think Alice Austin should be included on this list.

  18. frank vargas

    Fran Dwight, Kalamazoo, Michigan.

  19. Jim Wiltraut

    Amanda-A very good article and terrific additional suggestions by other readers. I’d throw out the name of contemporary photojournalist and former colleague Yunghi Kim. A wonderful, creative photographer with a broad range of subjects and experiences.

  20. Pingback: Female Photographers Timeline – 19 Women Photographers You Should Know – Information Visualization

  21. Another photographer you may not know about. Raquel Riley Thomas was the first and only female photographer shooting Jet magazine centerfolds from 2000-2009. You may want to look it up!

  22. Ellen Burke

    I’m going to make your mantra, my mantra.
    Thank you for a great article (and mantra)
    Ellen B

  23. A wonderful list. Impossible to mention everyone. However a great F64 advocate deserves inclusion. Imogen Cunningham!!


  24. I had the pleasure and honor of printing Carol’s images for a show at my studio. The show, “The Question of Why” was her work from Mosul, Iraq and the US Southern Boarder. Her images are so powerful, they brought many to tears and everyone did ask, Why? The show can be seen here https://bobkornimaging.com/carol-guzy-the-question-of-why/

  25. Someone I came across only fairly recently is Catherine LeRoy, who bought a one way ticket to Saigon aged 21 in 1966 and, with her Leica M3, went out on more combat missions than any other photographer as she was only paid by each photograph that she could sell. She did not promote her work like her male colleagues and is now largely forgotten, but her powerful images told the story and horror of Vietnam from a woman’s perspective.

  26. David Travis

    In my 11 years of teaching History of Photography 1 covering 1826-1945, I asked my students who was their favorite photographer, almost every year it was Julia Margaret Cameron. She forged a unique approach and style that the conventional portrait photographers ridiculed. We hardly celebrate any of them today. I know everyone will have their separate lists, but to have Anna Atkins and not Cameron represent the 19th century is odd to me. Cameron has always been known throughout the history of photography, even Alfred Stieglitz knew and collected her work. Atkins was earlier and perhaps the first, but she only applied cyanotype to the chore of detailed depiction of British algae and other plants. Cameron had creativity and soul to her pictures.

  27. I’m so glad Carol Guzy made this list. She was an inspiration to me.

  28. John Ziarko

    Nan Goldin. She turned the family post card into art.


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