​The Fashion Photographers Who Have Empowered Women Throughout History

Features. Posted 3 years ago

Rosie Dalton
Photograph by Ellen von Unwerth. Image source.Photograph by Ellen von Unwerth. Image source.

Over the past couple of years we’ve seen a real resurgence in photographers rejecting the male gaze. But in the hype of the ‘new’ it is sometimes easy to forget about the influential photographers whose work has paved the way for this modern movement. And, as the likes of Petra Collins and co. continue to become so readily replicated today, I think that it pays to remember why this approach to photographing women is so important. What better way to do that than to pay tribute to those that came before? This is partly an exercise in nostalgia, but it also serves to sheds some serious light on how representations of women have changed throughout the decades.

Most of the photographers on this list are, in fact, women but don’t be too quick to assume that it is only the lens of a female that can effectively challenge the patriarchy. One only has to look so far as the brilliant work of Helmut Newton in this regard. His women were strong and sexy, ushering in a new perspective in the midst of 1950s housewifery. So without further ado, here’s a look back through the archives. A history of progressive female representations, if you will.

1) Diane Arbus


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Born in New York during the 1920s, Diane Arbus was a photographer known for her images of marginalised groups, including transgender people, nudists and circus performers. A lot of her images focused on women in marginalised positions. For example, an exhibition held at the V&A in 2005 featured photographs that she took of women at a hospital for mentally disabled people, as well as at a circus. She portrayed these women as happy in their own skin, which was very progressive at the time and served to challenge ideas about what constitutes ‘normal’.


2) Helmut Newton


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Helmut Newton is the only man on this particular list and that’s because this German fashion photographer was responsible for revolutionising the representation of women in the media. Gaining recognition in the 1950s, his provocative imagery was in stark contrast to the proliferation of images featuring women in aprons performing mundane household tasks. Newton’s women were depicted outside of the home, usually scantily clad and always with a certain sense of strength. The message at the heart of these was that feminine power comes not from men, but from within and it was a perspective very radical for its time. Matthias Harder, the Curator of the Helmut Newton Foundation told Catalogue Magazine that: “in his fashion and nude photography, he paid tribute to the outer beauty and inner strength of women.” This is because “the women in front of his camera are themselves, and very aware of their impact and their desire.” In many of his photographs, women were portrayed quite literally above men and when his subjects were depicted in the home, it was in order to poke fun at the oppressive imagery in circulation at the time. Even today, his work is undeniably emblematic of empowered femininity.


3) Cindy Sherman


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New Jersey-born photographer Cindy Sherman was particularly interested in the themes of gender, identity and social class issues throughout her career, which began in the 1970s. In an era pre the Photoshop phenomenon, her photographs challenged the notion of fixed identity, instead exploring just how malleable and fluid it can really be. She employed a great deal of self-portraiture in order to enact a role play of sorts, something that served to expose the seductive nature of mass-media over women in particular. Mimicking a number of stereotypically ‘female’ roles, she highlighted the fact that we are all so much more than just the categories society wishes to pin us in. There was a sinister look in the eyes of her ‘housewives’ for example and a sense of ridiculousness about the woman who preened herself indulgently in front of the mirror.

4) Annie Leibovitz

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Renowned portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz launched her career in the 1970s and has since become one of the most well known female photographers of all time. This year, Leibovitz announced that she would be extending her landmark ‘Women’ project, which is all about breaking down traditional gender roles. These new portraits that the photographer is currently working on will build upon the project that she created with Susan Sontag in the late 90s. The original portraits featured the likes of Hillary Clinton and Gloria Steinem and now this time around she will include portraits of Venus and Serena Williams, as well as Amy Schumer. “I said I’d really like to extend or update the women’s project,” Leibovitz has explained. Which seems appropriate, given that a lot has changed for women over the past 25 years. And it is for this reason that Leibovitz’ vision still remains so powerful today.


5) Ellen von Unwerth


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Evocative imagery is what comes to mind when I think of Ellen von Unwerth, whose work pushes the limits of female sexuality in a way that is both challenging and provocative. Her photographs are not about the male gaze, but about empowering women by way of their own sexuality. Some of the most iconic images of all time have been lensed by von Unwerth and she is undeniably a force to be reckoned with. Importantly, though, there is always a sense of fun to her photographs. “I don’t necessarily think of my work as erotic,” Unwerth has told Business of Fashion. “People say that, but I just like to shoot girls having fun, girls who want to be beautiful and sexy… I consider myself a feminist; I was always a strong woman, always standing up for women’s rights. I like women who look like they have their life under control.”


6) Carrie Mae Weems

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Carrie Mae Weems is an American photographer whose work has focused especially on subject matter surrounding the African American experience. Her themes included racism, personal identity and gender relations, for example. In a time when this side of the female experience was still very underrepresented, her unique angle was vastly significant in terms of broadening people’s perspective of female beauty ideals. Unfortunately, this is an area that still remains largely brushed over today, which only further highlights the progressive nature of Weems’ photography back then. Now in 2015, I believe that we are in desperate need of a new Carrie Mae Weems.

7) Collier Schorr


Image: Jodie Foster by Collier Schorr. Image source.

Collier Schorr was born in 1960s New York and went from objectifying white boys, to disrupting the status quo in contemporary fashion photography. “I was coming from S.V.A. in the ’80s,” Schorr told 032c. “Don’t objectify women or put them in front of the gaze.” So, instead, she photographed white boys because “Nobody minded oppressing them.” But as her career progressed, Schorr began to realise that, ultimately, gender strictures were limiting. “It was repressing, I needed to set myself free,” she said. And it was fortunate that she came to this realisation because, today, Schorr’s work really leads the pack in terms of photographing women for the female gaze. Her work has inspired that of many millennials and it is through her unique perspective that we are exposed to the raw strength of female personalities. We are able to see them in a light that we may never have been able to without the likes of Schorr and her contemporaries. And that is, without question, something to be celebrated.

Liked this? Read these articles about representations of women:

1) Why Photographing Women’s Bodies As They Are is So Important

2) The Best Documentaries About the Fight For Women’s Rights

2) Why Women Should Talk About Sex And Our Bodies All the Time

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