10 Most Controversial Photographers in Art History

Many artists have become renowned for the controversial nature of their work and the subjects they choose to portray and the 10 photographers collected here are arguably the most controversial in art history.

Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus’ photographs attracted attention for its focus on marginalised peoples such as dwarfs, giants, transgender people, nudits, circus performers, and those with birth eccentricities, and she received much criticism over suspicions of the exploitation of her subjects. Arbus committed suicide on 26th July 1971, aged 48.

Joel-Peter Witkin

Known for his use of corpses and their often dismembered parts in intricate, classically influenced tableaus, Joel-Peter Witkin focuses on uncomfortable subjects such as death and outsiders, often incorporating the use of dwarves, transsexual and intersex people, as well as physically deformed people.

Irina Ionesco

Irina Ionesco attracted much negative attention for the use of her young daughter Eva as her muse. Starting when Eva was just 5 years old, Ionesco spent years photographing her daughter, guiding her in posed precociousness and in-turn Eva has sued her mother 3 times for emotional distress.

Jan Saudek

Saudek began his career working out of a cellar hiding from the Communist Secret Police and this has heavily influenced the nature and style of this photographic works. Characterised by surrealist symbolism, political metaphors, and sex, Saudek has often been criticised for the salaciousness of his work.

Robert Mapplethorpe

Mapplethorpe has photographed cultural icons such as Andy Warhol, Deborah Harry, and Patti Smith, contributing immensely to visual legacy – not unlike pokies online – with stylised and expressive portraiture –. However, with additional themes of homoeroticism and sadomasochism, Mapplethorpe’s work has also been described as obscene.

Andres Serrano

Serrano is no stranger to controversy thanks to works such as Piss Christ and The Morgue Series inspired by the work of Theodore Gericault.

The Morgue Series is a collection of explicit yet beautiful, classically composed photographs of corpses in the morgue.

Gottfried Helnwein

Famously known to be a good friend of Marilyn Manson, Helnwein’s work contains certain elements of kitsch but is characterised by theatrical violence, subverted innocence, Nazism, and consumerist culture, all bathed in divine light with undeniable eloquence.

Steven Meisel

As the photographer of Madonna’s book Sex, Meisel is one of the most acclaimed fashion photographers renowned for his juxtaposition of socio-politics and couture.

Shoots inspired by the post-9/11 police hysteria and Iraq war have certainly raised eyebrows.

Bill Henson

With an almost singular focus on young people being initiated into adolescence, Henson’s exquisite works heavily feature young, nude bodies seemingly floating through dark landscapes.

Owing to the questionable age of many of the models, Henson has been labelled controversial, which even led to the cancelation of an exhibit in Sydney.

Nan Goldin

Goldin’s intimate, often biographical work focuses on controversial issues such as LGBT people, domestic violence, the HIV crisis, and the opioid epidemic.

Her most notable work is The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986) which chronicles post-Stonewall gay subculture and her own family and friends.

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