Portrait photography is in essence an expression of an individual’s self. It timelessly captures the mood or emotion of the person being photographed. “A portrait is a picture of someone who knows he is being photographed, and what he does with this knowledge is as much a part of the photograph as what he’s wearing or how he looks,” Richard Avedon – famous celebrity portrait photographer.
Here are 20 of the most famous black and white portraits throughout history. Feel free to add some of your favourite iconic portraits in our comments section below.
James Byron Dean was an American actor famous for his roles in Rebel without a Cause, East of Eden, and Giant. Known as the “rebellious actor”, Dean made smoking and wearing jeans seem cool for generations to follow. When he wasn’t racing cars, Dean liked to practice magic tricks. He was only 24 when he died in a car accident, but images like the one here taken by Dennis Stock will carry his rebellious legacy forever.
Respected and feared in his time, Winston Churchill, also known as the “British Bulldog” was the first person to be made an honorary citizen of the United States. This photograph by Yousuf Karsh shows Churchill as a stern and uncompromising individual. This moment was captured when Karsh took away a cigar from a disgruntled Churchill.
The first actor to appear on the cover of Time magazine, UK born Charlie Chaplin was married four times in his life, and once came third in a Charlie Chaplin look-a-like contest. This portrait is iconic because it shows the humanity behind the silent man with many faces.
Constantly causing controversy in the Royal Family, Princess Diana was known for her ‘different’ approach to things. She had a real interest in helping charities – particularly AIDS organisations, which were not supported by the queen who once told Diana “be involved in something more pleasant”. This photograph captures Diana’s humility and gentle nature, while also giving us a glimpse into the hardship of what it was like to be a part of a demanding royal family.
This well-known strange but extremely inspiring scientist helped to revolutionise the world we live in today. Known for being somewhat off-beat, Einstein was not considered a good student by teachers, and failed an exam that would have led to him becoming an electrical engineer. He was also known as somewhat of a womaniser, who also hated wearing socks. Photographed in 1951 by Arthur Sasse, this image shows how strangely unique Einstein was.
Che Guevara was a major figure of the Cuban revolution. His style and visage became a symbol of rebellion, and is still part of modern popular culture. This photograph, which was taken by Alberto Korda on March 5, 1960, clearly shows his determination and strength.
American rock star Jimi Hendrix is known as one of the best guitar players and most celebrated musicians of the 20th century. He started playing the guitar at 15, and by 1969, Hendrix was the world’s highest paid rock musician. In true rock n roll fashion, Hendrix was involved in a myriad of drugs and alcohol, and apparently became very aggressive when he was intoxicated. This photograph, which was taken on stage in 1967, shows his “bad boy” rock n roll attitude, which is now an infamous mark of a true rock legend.
Only one name comes to mind when you think of a quirky, surrealist artist, and that name is Salvador Dali. Dali’s life started in a strange and interesting way. His brother died 9 months before Dali was born, and Dali grew up believing that he was the reincarnation of his brother. This photograph by Philippe Halsman shows Dali as the eccentric artist he was.
Trained as a dental assistant before making it as an actress, Audrey Hepburn is one of the most iconic beauties in history. An introvert, and a survivor of Nazi invasion, Hepburn was an agent of the Dutch resistance and would carry secret messages in her ballet slippers during performances organised by rebels. No one would applaud during the show as not to alarm the German soldiers. According to her son, Hepburn preferred the simpler things in life and never found herself beautiful. This photograph from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which was taken by John Kobal, proves her wrong and has been a source of inspiration to the fashion world.
Born in Zanzibar with the birth name Farrokh Bulsara, Freddie Mercury was known as a flamboyant and spectacular entertainer, who was apparently quite shy in his personal life. Lead singer for the group Queen, Mercury hardly ever granted interviews, but was known around the world for being one of the best stage performers in history. This photograph shows his passion for music and power on stage.
Michael Jackson boasts the world’s best-selling record of all time (Thriller), which sold 50 million copies worldwide. He popularised dance moves including the moon walk and robot, and was known as one of the best stage performers in history. His energy, stamina, and passion is perfectly captured in this photograph.
The world knows Steve Jobs as the innovative face of Apple, but you might not know that he was adopted, was bullied at school, a college dropout, and a practicing Zen Buddhist. This photograph however, shows Jobs as the stern and serious man that we all interpreted him to be. He wears his iconic rounded glasses and black turtleneck, which are symbols of quality and practicality – things Jobs always wanted to exude in his inventions.
Martin Luther King
This photograph taken by Warren K. Leffler shows Martin Luther King in the infamous setting where he delivered the revolutionary “I have a dream” speech. The speech positioned him at the forefront of civil rights leadership, and is known around the world for its powerful message of encouraging equality.
This photograph taken from the Michael Ochs archive shows martial arts star Bruce Lee in action. He was able to perform 50 reps of one-arm chin-ups and he was able to perform push ups with up to 125 lb of weight on his back. Stamina, determination and strength are obvious symbols in this iconic photograph.
Recognised for being part of the hugely successive and influential band The Beatles, John Lennon was known for a few other things too. One was being married to avant garde artist Yoko Ono, who was said to have been part of the reason The Beatles split up. The couple were famously filmed lying naked in bed as a form of a controversial peace protest. Lennon, a peace activist and hippie of sorts, is known for his iconic shaggy hair and circular tinted glasses – perfectly captured in this famous photograph.
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States who abolished slavery. He was also the first major leader in the US to feel that woman have the right to vote. Lincoln was described as a patient man, who would choose his words carefully. This photograph was taken by Alexander Gardner in 1863.
Famous reggae star, Bob Marley, was a singer, songwriter, and rhythm guitarist. He produced a number of politically influenced albums that reflected his social consciousness. Known for his care-free attitude (possibly induced by the daily intake of marijuana), Marley is still a world icon for peace, love, and care-free living, and has also become a symbol of “cool” in popular culture.
This publicity photograph, which was taken for the 1957 film Jailhouse Rock, shows Elvis Presley mid-swing. The hip-swiveling, lip-curling singer became the king of rock in the 50s, and is still a musical icon today.
This is one of the most widely produced photographs for posters in the world. Captured by Matty Zimmerman, this iconic photograph shows the blonde bombshell holding her white dress down against air from a street vent. Although she was typecast as a dumb blonde, Monroe had an IQ of 168.
Photographed by fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong, this picture was taken in 1969 the day the Eagle Lunar landed on the moon. For stunning photographs of Earth, visit our post about NASA’s Space Alphabet.