10 Historic Women Photographers You Should Know

Let's get our art history on.

Next month, Sotheby's will bring a broad array of photography to the auction block, illuminating the impressive range of the medium through a survey of Modern and Post-War image makers. While audiences will get their fair share of the men who helped changed the history of photos -- think Bill Brandt, Robert Frank, Weegee, Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams -- some of the most impressive names in the bunch belong to the 20th and 21st century women who have brought the art of photography to new heights.

Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin and Annie Leibovitz are indelible icons in the photography canon, having created works that art history students will be studying for centuries to come. Below is a primer on 10 of the historic women included in the upcoming photography sale at Sotheby's. Add these ladies to your list of art world saints, pronto.

Beyond the list below, works by photographers like Doris Ulmann, Imogen Cunningham, Alma Lavenson, Consuelo Kanaga, Dorothea Lange, Ruth Bernhard, Berenice Abbott, Lisette Model and Lynn Davis will also be up for sale at Sotheby's next month. However, there are, of course, many more woman photographers you should know outside of this sale, particularly the work of Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Graciela Iturbide and, of course, Cindy Sherman

While Sotheby's survey stands to correct the long male-dominated realm of photography by including many of the women who helped shape the medium, there still remains a lack of American women of color in the sale. This is yet another reason why we need curators to readdress the annals of art history to rediscover the artists mainstream institutions have ignored. These 10 women deserve every bit of recognition next month, but there's no harm in pushing auctioneers to bring a more diverse lot of artworks to the table.

In that spirit, let us know which photographers you'd add to the sale in the comments.

Sotheby's "Photographs" sale will take place on Oct. 7 at 10 a.m. in New York City.

Ruth Orkin, "An American Girl in Italy," 1951, printed later (Est. $10/15,000)
Ruth Orkin, "An American Girl in Italy," 1951, printed later (Est. $10/15,000)

1. Ruth Orkin

The late Ruth Orkin, born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1921, captured an image that has since served as a bold reminder of what it was like to travel as a single woman in post-WWII Europe. The photo above, shot in 1951, is not staged. Rather, it shows Orkin's friend Ninalee Craig walking along a Florence street amidst a crowd of Italian strangers all too eager to take notice of a lone woman (they were aware of a camera, but not instructed to gawk). Craig and Orkin's daughter Mary Engel have insisted that the image is not about harassment or the male gaze; instead it's meant to highlight the resilience of a woman intent on experiencing the world on her own.

Orkin worked steadily from the 1940s to the 1980s, shooting for publications like The New York Times and Life, co-directing an Oscar-nominated film, and showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art before she died in New York City in 1985.

Nan Goldin, "Valerie Floating," Meyreux Island, Antilles, 2001 (Est. $7/10,000)
Nan Goldin, "Valerie Floating," Meyreux Island, Antilles, 2001 (Est. $7/10,000)

2. Nan Goldin

American photographer Nan Goldin was born in Washington, D.C., in 1953. She presented her first show at a New York nightclub in 1979, her images distinct for their treatment of intimacy, sexuality, abuse and transgression in the drug-heavy years of NYC. These works eventually transformed into "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency," originally imagined as a slideshow of photos of Goldin's friends and herself set to music by artists like Nina Simone and The Velvet Underground.

Goldin's work has evolved greatly since the 1980s, including the 2004 series "Sisters, Saints & Sybils" which explores the photographer's sister Barbara's suicide at the age of 18. The above photo, "Valerie Floating," proves Goldin's ability to invoke pure emotions and memories in her framing, translating her subjects' elation, hesitation, anger or content into frozen moments in time.

Diane Arbus, "National Junior Interstate Dance Champions," 1963 (Est. $250/350,000)
Diane Arbus, "National Junior Interstate Dance Champions," 1963 (Est. $250/350,000)

3. Diane Arbus

New York-born Diane Arbus, who lived from 1923 to 1981, is known for her black and white images that capture the faces of largely underrepresented or marginalized people -- including trans models, nudists, and senior citizens. In the 1960s, her editorial work for publications like Harper's Bazaar, Sunday Times Magazine and Esquire revealed conventional subjects like writers and actors in their own familiar settings, often shown staring directly into the camera with an expression of intrigue or nonchalance. 

"[Arbus'] work implicates you and the ethics of vision itself," Jeff Rosenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's curator of photography, explained to the Smithsonian. "Our license to have that experience of viewing another person is changed and challenged, supported and enriched. I firmly believe this might be the most important single-artist photography exhibition our museum will ever do."

Annie Leibovitz, "John Lennon and Yoko Ono, The Dakota, New York," 1980 (Est. $15/25,000)
Annie Leibovitz, "John Lennon and Yoko Ono, The Dakota, New York," 1980 (Est. $15/25,000)

4. Annie Leibovitz

Annie Leibovitz, born in Connecticut in 1949, might be the most well-known woman photographer working today. Leibovitz's first photography assignment, courtesy of Rolling Stone, was shooting John Lennon in 1970, and thus a career was born -- two years later she was named the chief photographer of the publication. In 1980, she once again set off to photograph Lennon, this time with his partner Yoko Ono. "We took one Polaroid,” Leibovitz recalled of the shoot, shown above, "and the three of us knew it was profound right away."

Leibovitz eventually joined Vanity Affair in 1983, which would play host to her portraits of everyone from Demi Moore to Barack Obama. Since then, she has published A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005, which encapsulates her near-constant output in the years following.

Helen Levitt, "Girls Dancing Above 96th Street Near 1st Avenue A," suite of 5 photographs circa 1940 (Est. $5/7,000)
Helen Levitt, "Girls Dancing Above 96th Street Near 1st Avenue A," suite of 5 photographs circa 1940 (Est. $5/7,000)

5. Helen Levitt

The late New York-based photographer Helen Levitt, born in 1913, is known for her stirring take on street photography, first in black and white and later in gripping color. Under the patronage of a Guggenheim grant in the late 1950s and early 1960s, she captured hundreds of color negatives of New York City that were tragically stolen by a burglar a decade later. Thankfully, she continued to take photographs up until her death in 2009, many of which are memorialized in a book of her work titled Here and There.

In an obituary published on March 30, 2009, Margaret Loke noted that "the masterpieces in Ms. Levitt’s oeuvre are her photographs of children living their zesty, improvised lives." One such example is the photo above.

6. Shirin Neshat

Shirin Neshat, an Iranian artist born in 1958, is known primarily for her video and photography works that explore ideas of femininity in her home country. For example, Neshat's photograph, "I Am Its Secret," on sale at Sotheby's next month, shows the face of a veiled Muslim woman (who happens to be Neshat herself), covered in a blanket of black and read Farsi writing.

Neshat explained the photo in accompanying text for The New York Times: "Although the Farsi words written on the works’ surfaces may seem like a decorative device," Neshat wrote, "they contribute significant meaning. The texts are amalgams of poems and prose works mostly by contemporary women writers in Iran. These writings embody sometimes diametrically opposing political and ideological views, from the entirely secular to fanatic Islamic slogans of martyrdom and self-sacrifice to poetic, sensual and even sexual meditations."

7. Lalla Essaydi

Born in Morocco in 1956, Lalla Essaydi creates staged photographs of Arab women, investigating the way power and gender manifest in the ways her subjects pose their bodies in negative space. Many of her images, like Neshat's, involve text -- namely Arabic calligraphy, which is a traditionally male practice in her country. Her image, "Converging Territories #13," on sale at Sotheby's, is one such image.

"My work is really autobiographical," she told PBS, "it’s about my own experiences growing up in Morocco and living as an adult in Saudi Arabia for many years. It’s obviously infused in my work, but my work really goes beyond the Arab world or Arab culture. It really engages Western art and the role in which Arab women are used that I find problematic."

Sally Mann, "Long Braid," 1992, printed in 2000 (Est. $5/7,000)
Sally Mann, "Long Braid," 1992, printed in 2000 (Est. $5/7,000)

8. Sally Mann

Born in Virginia in 1964, Sally Mann's series "At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women" attempts to capture moments in adolescent girls' lives that neither glamorize nor darken a period marked by constant change and a desire for independence. Throughout her career, Mann has also employed her children as models, further exploring the relationship -- or, perhaps, distance -- between kids and adults, always a camera in between.

While her art has garnered the attention of critics who find her treatment of young girls too controversial, Edward de Grazia, a professor at Benjamin Cardoza School of Law in New York who's focused on censorship of art and literature, says: "What makes Sally such a good case is that right now her work deals squarely with this taboo subject of nude children. There isn’t the slightest question that what she’s doing is art, so her motives and the artistic value would be unmistakable to the Supreme Court. Her work would highlight the vagueness and overbreadth of the child pornography laws. Isn’t work like this entitled to be protected under the First Amendment?"

Tina Modotti, "Geranio," Circa 1924-25 (Est. $70/100,000)
Tina Modotti, "Geranio," Circa 1924-25 (Est. $70/100,000)

9. Tina Modotti

Born in Italy in 1896, Assunta Adelaide Luigia Modotti Mondini (also known as Tina) was an actress, activist and artist who before, during and after her marriage to fellow photography Edward Weston managed to create a breathtaking collection of images, mainly in Mexico, before her death in 1942. Most of her work was not fully recognized until a trove of her unseen images was found in a trunk belonging to one of her former lover Roubaix de l’Abrie Richey's descendants.

The image above, taken in 1924-25, could fetch up to $100,000 alone.

Francesca Woodman, Untitled, Providence Rhode Island (Liza with Bird), 1970s (Est. $20/30,000)
Francesca Woodman, Untitled, Providence Rhode Island (Liza with Bird), 1970s (Est. $20/30,000)

10. Francesca Woodman

Born in 1958 in Colorado, Francesca Woodman tended to depict nude women in her photographs, many of whom were captured in ethereal poses and settings, such as the untitled picture of a naked woman and a bird shown above. She was prone to putting herself in front of her camera, positioned in sparse domestic settings that made her body take on a ghostly presence. As many critics have noted, Woodman seemed to have a particular talent in using photography to play with the ways we perceive time.

"Unlike the photographs we take of ourselves today ... time itself went into Francesca Woodman’s pictures," Ariana Reines wrote for The Los Angeles Review of Books. "The 'timeless time,' to borrow a phrase from her contemporary Nico, inside Woodman’s photographs, was the time it took to select the elements for their semi-improvisatory making, plus the time it took to take them, behind which was, of course, each contour of every single thing she ever saw or did in her life, as is true for all artists."

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