The impact of the celebrity photographer.

Since its inception nearly two centuries ago, photography has proven to be the cornerstone technology behind the creation of visual celebrity news as a genre. Celebrity photography exists within the fields of photojournalism and portrait photography, placing emphasis on the chosen subjects – the iconic figures of leading people in music, sport, politics, fashion, and film.  Susan Sontag states that the photograph teaches us a new visual code which functions as an ethics of seeing, expanding out notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe (Sontag, 1977). Thus, celebrity photographs, with their ability to influence the ways in which the public comes to know details about celebrities, alters our notions of which persons are worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. In this way, celebrity photographers can be understood as authors whose artistic choices either reinforce celebrities’ public personas through carefully structured portraits or seek to uncover and capture something of the real person behind their public image. The following chronological list of influential western photographers will allow for the presentation of several visual examples demonstrating how these celebrity photographers have come to shape the public’s notions of celebrity culture based on the content and aesthetic devices employed within their bodies of work.

Elizabeth Thompson.1923. Photographed by the London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company

Elizabeth Thompson.1923. Photographed by the London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company


Elizabeth Thompson was a British painter who achieved fame for her historic war paintings, battle scenes which depict the common soldiers’ suffering and heroism. Inspired by the work of French painters while studying in Paris, her first military history painting, Missing, earned her admission to the Royal Academy in 1873. After The Roll Call was shown in 1874 at the Academy, the paintings’ immense popularity made Elizabeth a national celebrity. As the paintings toured Europe, along with cartes-de-visites of Elizabeth, she garnered even more notoriety as people found out that she was both young and beautiful, something normally not associated with painters of battle scenes (Usherwood & Smith, 1987). Photographers seized upon the public’s fascination with Miss Thompson as they realized that the cartes-de-visites of Elizabeth were marketable for sale (Di Bello, 2011). This ambivalent fascination with photographs of female celebrities as ‘professional beauties’, rather than simply ‘professionals’ is indicative of how it is not always clear to what extent a given portrait was a commercial success due to the fame of the subject, or whether that subject became famous due to the commercial success of the portrait itself (Di Bello, 2011). The lack of iconography present in the images of Thompson are indicative of the issues surrounding the commodification of women as cartes-de-visite celebrities (Di Bello, 2011). This early example of artist turned celebrity is indicative of how celebrity photographs can reshape the public’s ideas surrounding surveillance and privacy practices, perpetuating power relations between subject and audience in ways that continue to be accepted to this day (Rudd, 2017).

George Hurrell

Marlene Dietrich. 1938. Photographed by George Hurrell.

GEORGE HURRELL (1904-1992)

George Hurrell was an American photographer best known for his glamourous photographs of Hollywood movie stars. Born in Kentucky, Hurrell pursued an early interest in painting and photography, going on to study at the Art Institute of Chicago. Initially utilizing photography as a means of documenting his paintings, he soon came to adopt photography as a preferred medium. Hired by MGM in 1930, he became their primary portrait photographer, where he developed the lighting techniques and visual signifiers that defined the golden age of Hollywood (Willis-Tropea, 2011). The semiotics of glamour thus came to fruition through endless reproduction of a set of visual signs and technical qualities within his celebrity portraits. Elements such as lighting, retouching, and focus coupled with the poses, costumes, hair, and makeup of the subjects are all a part of this set of signifiers (Willis-Tropea, 2011). As a master of Hollywood glamour, Hurrell’s photographs of celebrities shaped the public image of many of films greatest actors, giving them an aura of grace and perfection. It was this new concept of artistry in photography that thus facilitated the emergence of George Hurrell as the principal auteur of the Hollywood glamour portrait (Willis-Tropea, 2011). His highly stylized compositions established the model for glamour photography and brought considerable celebrity to the photographer himself, with the concept of glamour evolving over time into a collection of visual signs applicable to beautiful women (Willis- Tropea, 2011). This concept of glamour has gone on to become a form of commodity for Hollywood through the evolving technologies of publicity photography thanks to the pioneering work of George Hurrell.

Richard Nixon Jumping , 1955, printed after 1965 Gelatin silver print

Philippe Halsman Richard Nixon Jumping , 1955, printed after 1965
Gelatin silver print


Halsman’s career in America included covers for every major American magazine during his time. Part of the great exodus of artists and intellectuals who fled the Nazis, Halsman arrived in the United States in 1940, having obtained an emergency visa through the intervention of Albert Einstein. Over the course of his career his assignments brought him face-to-face with many of the century’s leading scientists artists and entertainers. With his background in engineering, Halsman also made photographic inventions, including a twin-lens reflex camera that allowed the operator to see his sitter through a viewfinder (Edwards, 1979). However, it was Halsman’s definitive photographic style that stamped itself onto the collective memory of America. Halsman’s photographs engage the viewer in a way that gives us evidence for who the subjects really are. His searching portraits humanize his subjects, making them feel accessible to the viewer in a way that was rare for photography (Edwards, 1979). In 1950, NBC asked Halsman to photograph many of its popular comedians. Milton Berle, Groucho Marx, Bob Hope, and many others came to Halsman’s studio, where they performed while he photographed. When Halsman compared these comic images to more traditional portraits, he found that comedians often jumped and always stayed in character (Panzer, 2017). Over the next six years Halsman asked many clients to jump for him during their sessions, effectively adding an element of humour and fun to his work while humanizing otherwise serious subject. An iconic example of this transformation was exemplified in his photograph of the suddenly buoyant and likable Vice President Richard Nixon, who jumped for Halsman in the White House. Halsman claimed the jumps revealed character that was otherwise hidden (Panzer, 2017).  Halsman knew that the effort to establish one’s identity had significance far beyond the needs of the celebrity marketplace.

Helmut Newton Madonna. 1990. RC print

Helmut Newton
Madonna. 1990.
RC print

HELMUT NEWTON (1920-2004)

Helmut Newton was a German-Australian photographer whose prolific fashion photographs became recognized for their radical, edgy, and racy subject matter. Inspired by film noir, Expressionist cinema, S & M, and surrealism, Newton’s images are controversial, provocative, and heavily voyeuristic in nature (Kaplan, 2002). Like Richard Avedon, and Irving Penn, Newton became one of the most influential and talented photographers shooting for Vogue. Newton, best known for his stark black-and-white fashion photographs and nudes of women, was described by the German Minister of Culture as “the most important protagonist of modern photography (Bestler, 2004). His images were seen regularly throughout leading publications including Vogue, Elle, Playboy, Paris Match, and Jardin des Modes, as well as in photography magazines such as French Zoom and Photo. His photographs always captured the same erotic and sado-masochistic sensibilities. LaChapelle credits Newton with changing perceptions of fashion photography, allowing it to be taken seriously as an art form. “The crossover happened with Newton and [Robert] Mapplethorpe,” he said. “There was a time when you were either an artist or a commercial photographer. But then something interesting happened, and over the last few years we have started seeing lots of museum shows by fashion photographers” (McGuinness, 2006). It has been Helmut’s take on fashion and the world at large that has helped to create this bold new genre of art photography and influence perceptions around standards of beauty.

Irving Penn Salvador Dali, New York. 1947. Smithsonian American Art Museum

Irving Penn
Salvador Dali, New York.
1947. Smithsonian American Art Museum

IRVING PENN (1917-2009)

Irving Penn was an American photographer famous for his fashion photography and portraits. Known for his arresting images and masterful printmaking, he was celebrated as one of Vogue magazine’s top photographers for more than sixty years. He photographed a litany of important writers, visual artists, and cultural figures in his lifetime including Pablo Picasso, Truman Capote, and Louise Bourgeois. At a time when photography was primarily understood as a means of visual communication, Penn approached photography with an artist’s eye and expanded the creative potential of the medium through nineteenth-century methods which he found to offer greater control over the subtle variations and tonalities he sought in a print (Irving Penn Foundation, 2018). Penn eagerly embraced new ideas, experimenting with a moving band of light during long exposures, or with digital color printing (Muir, 2011). He often photographed his subjects in the natural light of the studio using minimal props; his fashion images were marked by their sophistication and subtleties of tone. Penn’s photographs could turn an everyday garment into a lasting image of the American century, an image which, even when far removed from its context and its time and place, will never lose its power (Muir, 2011). Penn also photographed workers his series “Small Trades” (1950–51), depicting laborers in New York, Paris, and London posed in work clothes and holding the tools of their trade. Caught in both black and white and in colour, Penn’s photographs are known for the honesty and humanity they brought to his subjects. As  a result of  his artistic approach, his work helped bridge the gap between commercial photography and fine art.

Peter Lindbergh 1990.

Peter Lindbergh


Peter Lindbergh has been recognised as one of the most influential contemporary photographers of the modern age, whose work redefined the standards of beauty with timeless images. His humanist approach and idealisation of women underscored the personality of the subject, shifting the standards of fashion photography in times of excessive retouching. His work emphasized the face with limited make-up as he worked to enhance the perceived authenticity and the natural beauty of his subjects. Lindbergh is the first photographer to include a narrative in his fashion series, in which his storytelling brought a new vision of art to fashion photography. His photos turned glamour inward and celebrated the subject rather than the traditional aesthetics of fashion, redefining the limits of fashion photography. Over the years he has created images that marked the history of photography, exemplified through his involvement in the initiation of the movement of the Supermodels in the late eighties. Back in 1988, Lindbergh garnered international acclaim by photographing a new generation of models that he had discovered, all dressed in white shirts in the images that would launch their careers. A year later, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington and Tatjana Patitz, were photographed together for the first time by him for British Vogue’s January 1990 cover, marking the beginning of the era of the celebrity-models, and redefining the idealized image of the new modern woman.

Richard Avedon Janis Joplin. 1969.

Richard Avedon
Janis Joplin. 1969.

RICHARD AVEDON (1923-2004)

Richard Avedon was an American fashion and celebrity portrait photographer best known for his minimalist, large scale, character-revealing portraits. Avedon’s meticulous approach and remarkable ability to capture the vulnerability of his subjects established him as one of the most talented young fashion photographers of his time. Along with his own acquaintances and various ordinary people, Avedon took photographs of celebrities, politicians, and other public figures ranging from Bertrand Russell to Marilyn Monroe. In both his commercial assignments and his portrait work, Avedon’s penetrating gaze captured the essence of each unique subject and moment in time. In addition to working in fashion and portraits, Avedon published over a dozen books, including Observations and Nothing Personal, which contain collections of his photographs with commentary and essays from noteworthy colleagues such as renowned author James Baldwin (Phillips, 2017).  His black-and-white portraits were remarkable for capturing the essential humanity of his subjects, while his controversial and provocative pictures challenged the traditional photographic techniques of his time, helping turn photography into a far more expressive art form. Avedon’s ability to humanize celebrities through photograph made even the most famous subjects appear anonymous, gentle, and real, successfully reshaping the way the public identified with celebrity culture.


Annie Leibovitz Susan Sontag.


Annie Leibovitz is an American portrait photographer whose bold use of colors and poses has become her trademark style. Her iconic pictures of celebrities first appeared in Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair in the 1970’s, where she also became the first woman to have a show at the National Portrait Gallery when her exhibition was shown in 1991. In 2006 the Brooklyn Museum was the first of many institutions to exhibit Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005; this exhibition, chronologically narrating her commercial and personal work side-by-side, toured museums around the world including The National Portrait Gallery, London in 2008. Leibovitz contends that the connection between the various works in the exhibition lies in the fact that she does not have two lives, and that her work demonstrates two aspects of a singular individual (Zuromskis, 2017). This autobiographical mixture of celebrity and intimacy thus provides a deeply personal glimpse into the life of Annie Leibovitz. Containing candid images of her deceased partner Susan Sontag, Leibovitz’s work offers a stripped-down view into the life of the photographer that is far too perfect to be real (Zuromskis, 2017). With the power to merge the authentic and the imagined elements, the images provide only a virtual intimacy, which has come to supplant the desire for any real intimacy in the public realm (Zuromskis, 2017).

Lindsay Lohan for Terry Richardson 2012

Lindsay Lohan for Terry Richardson


Terry Richardson is an American fashion and portrait photographer associated with the “heroin chic” movement in the 90s., operating at an intersection between high fashion and pseudo “trashy” subjects. Richardson’s work seems to capture the essence of the moment in which his photographs were taken, conveying a frenzied style in which composition and lighting were often secondary to the capture of a moment as it occurred (Halligan, 2017).  The unique production values, low humor, and sexual undertones tempt one to draw parallels between Richardson and Helmut Newton in terms of his relentless focus on the sexualized female form, often heavily fetishized within their respective bodies of work. Debates over exploitation and pornography, or exhibition and empowerment, in relation to nude or semi-clad models have followed Richard’s work since the late 90s. These debates have, however, have generally been in relation to his supposed working method rather than focused solely on the images he produced. Richardson’s adoption of the aesthetics of 1970s era amateur pornography signal how he was able to rework an older aesthetic tendency to new views of obscene truth, essentially creating a new commercial vista of obscenity (Halligan, 2017). Once celebrated by the biggest names in fashion for his edgy and daring campaign shoots, today photographer Terry Richardson’s career is now almost entirely overshadowed by the mounting sexual assault and harassment allegations against him. His career progression exemplifies the modern transition towards a greater focus on the ethics of production rather than focusing solely on the final product itself.

Martin Schoeller. Cate Blanchett 2006

Martin Schoeller.
Cate Blanchett 2006


Martin Schoeller is a German New York-based photographer whose style of hyper-detailed extreme close ups is distinguished by similar treatment of all subjects, wherein celebrity faces are treated with the same levels of scrutiny as the average person. The unknown and the celebrity meet, leveling them in a democratic fashion which enables comparison where a viewer’s existing notions of celebrity, value, and honesty are challenged. (Rodgers, 2013). When gazing upon his portraits, hanging roughly 5 feet by 4 feet, the onlooker receives a unique perspective that is otherwise impossible to reach. Every blemish and wrinkle appear in his massive portraits, whether discovering wrinkles in the beautiful and famously unblemished face of Cate Blanchett or capturing the buildup of the passage of time for Nobel Peace Prize Winner Henry Kissinger (Rodgers, 2013). Schoeller’s photographs challenge the viewer to identify the qualities that either distinguish individuals or link them together, demonstrating that the celebrities we think we know may not have anything in common with who they truly are.

Dave LaChapelle Michael Jackson

Dave LaChapelle
American Jesus: The Beatification: I’ll never let you part for you’re always in my heart


David LaChapelle is an American contemporary photographer and artist best known for his celebrity photographs, which often reference art history with implicit social messages. His photographs feature some of the world’s most recognized figures in the music, fashion, and film industries, forming a visual record of western society and culture expressed through his unconventional perspective of the world. LaChapelle’s fascination with contemporary society and culture is ever-present through his entire catalogue of work, occupying space simultaneously as an active participant and critic of society (McGuinness, 2006). LaChapelle draws inspiration from art historical references, current events, and pop-culture, with each of his compelling stills completely unique in their narrative and evocative context (McGuinness, 2006). Climate change, capitalism, instant gratification, and conspicuous consumption are all themes he explores in his work. Referencing his work in an interview, LaChapelle stated “I have this idea that you can use glamour and still have it represent something that matters. I believe in a visual language that should be as strong as the written word. It’s following the same idea as murals where you have a series of narrative pictures. They are telling stories and communicating with people, which is always what I have set out to do” (Sturges,2010). His impact on contemporary culture is evident through his chronicling of pop-culture over the last 30 years, where his lurid and dramatic style and attention to detail changed the size and scope of what a celebrity photoshoot could be; he elevated it to an art form that has been endlessly mimicked since.

Mario Testino. Diana, Princess of Wales for Vanity Fair. 1997.

Mario Testino.
Diana, Princess of Wales for Vanity Fair.


Mario Eduardo Testino Silva is a Peruvian fashion and portrait photographer. His photographs have been published internationally in magazines such as Vogue, V Magazine, Vanity Fair, and GQ. Testino’s artistry transgresses genders, mixes masculinity and femininity, and suggests sensuality rather than sexuality. Known for the way in which he captures a sense of intimacy in the most private of moments, Testino’s portraits offer the viewer new perspectives for famous faces, often establishing new fashion icons. He has documented subjects from A-list stars, muses, supermodels, and artists to mysterious landscapes and private soirees. One of Testino’s most memorable sittings is his series with Diana, Princess of Wales, commissioned for Vanity Fair in 1997. Testino’s skill is first and foremost, his ability to catch the moment and to bring out the humanity in his subjects. His ability to capture with natural simplicity, the “people’s princess”, resonated around the world (Menkes, 2011). After 30 years of fashion photography, he has captured the hectic glamour of beach life in Rio de Janeiro and the disciplined enthusiasm of the Horse Guards for the royal wedding. Testino brings a sense of glamour to otherwise ordinary subjects, while his celebrity portraits emphasize personality rather than fashion. It is this ability to humanize his famous subjects that has democratised the way in which the public has come to view celebrity culture.

Photography and celebrity have become so intertwined that our understanding of famous figures is largely shaped by the images we see of them. Celebrity photographers have influenced the public’s notion of celebrity culture in the content and aesthetic devices employed within their bodies of work. By humanizing their subjects, these photographers have allowed the public a means to feel connected to people who were previously only viewed through a narrow lens. Creating iconic portraits that bared the souls of some of the most opaque figures in the world, these photographers have all contributed to the establishment of commercial photography as an art form unto itself.




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