Finding Faces in the Infinite Crowd


Pushing the boundaries of portrait photography

Since the middle of the 19th century – where photographic techniques became cost-effective enough to compete with painting – portrait photography has been a mainstay of the photographic world. From Yousuf Karsh’s iconic black and white images of the world’s most recognised figures (Winston Churchill, Salvador Dali, Albert Einstein, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King to name a few), via Steve McCurry’s faces of people encountered on assignment around the globe (his remarkable ‘Afghan Girl’ being the most recognisable), to Mario Testino’s faces of fashion, the best portraits can reveal something of that individual, and explore the depths of human emotion.

Of course with portrait photography being so ubiquitous, it is also riddled with cliché (“The eyes are the window to the soul” and suchlike). It takes something special to transcend these well-worn tropes, and to show the viewer something new and resonant.

This list explores a few of my favourite photographers who pushed or are pushing portrait photography in interesting, unprecedented directions. It’s deliberately provocative, and a few of the most likely candidates are missing – Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Mary Ellen Mark and names above to mention a few – but the list isn’t meant to be exhaustive, and these artists are already well-documented in lists online. I hope you find a wealth of inspiration, and a few surprises among these names.

(Banner image © Brent Stirton)

Katy Grannan (United States)


Images © Katy Grannan

Portrait photography is about finding a connection between subject or viewer, or perhaps in other words, about bring their world into ours for however brief a moment of time.

Katy Grannan’s Boulevard Series is this, and so much more. Photographed on the sun-bleached streets of Los Angeles and San Francisco, she would approach passers-by, and photograph them against stark white walls, compensating them for their time – a short-lived, on-the-spot collaboration. Her images offer a fleeting glimpse into their lives, but more than being about the individual, they’re about the individuality of us as human beings, with that white wall symbolising the common fate that awaits us all.

As she explains it, they describe that moment of “strangers meeting for the first time, each taking a leap of faith by trusting an unfamiliar person and an unexpected encounter”. Perhaps this is why she titles each image ‘Anonymous’. Only a moment after the click of the shutter, that person is gone forever – swept back up into the tumult off the world.

See also: Bruce Gilden

Brent Stirton (South Africa)


Images © Brent Stirton

Stirton is one of the most prolific documentary and photojournalistic photographers in the business, travelling on average for 9 months of the year covering conflict, health and environmental issues.

Throughout the years he has taken hundreds of portraits in the field, often of life’s displaced, disaffected and ignored characters (wounded war veterans, sex workers, cancer sufferers and Indian albinos to name a few), and they never fail to have deep emotional resonance. He treats his subjects with dignity, and plays subtle games with light, colour, placement and setting to bring out the most powerful stories and sentiments. Looking through his body of work, you realise that he is drawn to life’s survivors, and their defiance fills every frame.

JR (France)


Image © JR

If the remit for this post is one of photographers pushing portraiture in new directions, then JR certainly fits the bill – although his multi-media work goes well beyond pure photography.

JR is known for his distinctive large-scale photographic works that he flyposts in urban environments or on the exteriors of buildings – in his words the “largest gallery in the world”. From his beginnings as a teenage graffiti artists, he now describes himself as a ‘photograffeur’ – combining photography with the raw artistic expression and cheap scaling techniques (black and white photocopies) of the graffiti and street art scene.

His work goes way beyond aesthetic expression though, shedding a light on global issues of migration, racism, freedom and sexism – in a style that’s truly his own. His huge-scale canvasses can often only be interpreted from a distance – for example his ‘Women are Heroes’ piece where he pasted the faces and eyes of local women onto the roofs of favela buildings in Rio de Janeiro, only visible from above by satellite or helicopter. I’ve always seen this as a metaphor for our global problems. We suffer from not being able to ‘see the wood for trees’, needing to step back and see the wider perspective, in a way that we as humans struggle to do.

Phillip Kremer (United States)