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7 portrait photographers you need to know

Published 26 Apr 2016 at 13:31 by Daphne Prochowski

From glamour photographers to studio photographers: you can’t miss out on these seven portrait photographers, according to our film & photography curator Basje Boer.

Seated man (Daulton Hartsfield) 1940 C Mike Disfarmer courtesy of the Edwynn Houk Gallery New York Louie and Alma Ramer with their daughters Lucille Avonell and Faye 1945 C Mike Disfarmer courtesy of the Edwynn Houk Gallery New York

What makes a portrait good? It’s a question that doesn’t dawn on me when I see a bad portrait, but does when I see a good one. Or, in the case of the exhibition Disfarmer: The Vintage Prints, occurs to me continuously through halls full of portraits. Such great photography makes for a fantastic exhibition. Disfarmer (born Mike Meyer) photographed farmers, housewives, students, couples, friends and families. Between 1915 and 1959, the entire village of Heber Spring crossed paths with his lens. In those days the man, who drank too much and lived at home with his mother his entire life, was shrugged off as an eccentric. It wasn’t until long after his death that the quality of his work was recognised.

Disfarmer places his subject crookedly in his frame. He lets friends intertwine their legs. He has families huddle together. He makes his models crass, vulnerable, endearing, tough. He makes them hilariously clumsy, or as charismatic as film stars. What is it, I ask myself, that makes a portrait good? Rather than answer the question with words, I decided to take it on with images and searched for photographs whose portraits move me, intrigue me, excite me. The search turns out to be a deeply personal one, and unearths both famed and more unknown photography talent, ranging from all forms of photography. Notable, but not shocking: many photographers became famous in the ‘90s, the decade that I started to study Photography and the Rietveld Academy.

Paul Huf

Paul Huf

It felt like a dirty word, and I had already established a hatred for him: Paul Huf, who I can best describe as a ‘glamour photographer’. He specialised in fashion photos, the glossy portraits, the world of advertising: photos that hide more than they reveal. I – just started at Rietveld, not even twenty years old and already full of opinions – liked raw photography. Raw was the only authentic form of photography. Of course, my views changed. I saw how effortless Paul Huf’s portraits were, how nonchalantly chic. His most famous work is undoubtedly the portrait he made of four Ajax players in 1967. Every detail is in the right place: Cruijff’s fingers, Nuninga’s shoulders, Swart’s hand, the look in all of their eyes. Huf’s sense for iconic images is impeccable.

August Sander

august sander

August Sander didn’t photograph people, he photographed professions. As of 1911, he captured the most diverse possible image of the German population: farmers, artists, workers, intellectuals. He did that in a businesslike manner that you could typify as typically German: devoid of emotion, rigid, dry. The way Sander captured more than just his models in his portraits was – in retrospect – innovative.

Thomas Ruff

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You don’t need a lot of fantasy to recognise August Sander’s legacy in Thomas Ruff’s conceptual portraits. In the early ‘80s, the German artist shot a series of portraits not far off from the passport photo. The models are photographed against a plain background, from just above the head to their chest, extremely sharply. They look right through you, expressionlessly. Ruff didn’t want to capture their personalities, but investigated the core of (portrait) photography: a conceptual approach.

Bertien van Manen

Since the ‘90s, former fashion photographer Bertien van Manen travelled to all the places that intrigued her: Russia, China, the American Appalachians. She lived amongst the local population, and captured their existence. Her photographs, which can best be described as snapshots, demonstrate a genuine interest in their subject. They are intimate, tender, and despite the often unpleasant existence they bear witness to, full of life. The photographs come into their own in the books published by Van Manen; they seem like diaries, that’s how close you come to the lives of these people.

Dana Lixenberg

dana lixenberg

Dana Lixenberg also lived amongst her subjects, giving her portraits an unparalleled nuance. The Dutch-born photographer dedicated herself to her multidisciplinary project Imperial Courts since 1993 – the project focussed on the new housing development of the same name, the poverty and gang-ridden residences in Watts, South Central L.A. Lixenberg kept returning there, and captured the residents as they grew up, fell under, outlived their own children. Nonetheless, Lixenberg found unexpected tenderness in her subject.

Rineke Dijkstra

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On beaches all over the world, she photographed teenagers drifting along the coastlines. Rineke Dijkstra became world famous for it: the series Beach Portraits became iconic. In the portraits, Dijkstra captured the insecurity of children on the verge of adulthood, uncomfortable in their changing bodies. Just as August Sander not only captured the people, Dijkstra recorded her subjects and their condition. She photographed bullfighters just after their performance, just after they slaughtered the animal, and woman just after giving birth, grasping their vulnerable baby in their arms with a bewildered look in their eyes.

Studio To Sang

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He’s retired by now: Lee To Sang, the Hong Kong-born and Amsterdam-based portrait photographer who had a photo studio on the Albert Cuypstraat since 1979. Publisher, designer, and gallery holder Willem van Zoetendaal discovered To Sang’s unique and diverse portraits of the divergent populations living in De Pijp – taken against brightly coloured backdrops and alienating decors. He published the best portraits in a book, and two years later Johan van de Keuken made his photo studio the subject of a short documentary. In the late ‘90s, Van Zoetendaal gave me lessons during my first year studying Photography. His first assignment: get your photo taken by To Sang.


From 2 May to 10 May, it’s Disfarmer week, meaning We Are Public members can visit Disfarmer: The Vintage Prints in Foam for an entire week!

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