10 of Art History's Most Controversial Photographers [NSFW]


In 1971 Norman Mailer said that “giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child.” Lo and behold: Child With Hand Grenade . Even before her suicide that year, Arbus’ magnificent body of work evoked criticism and suspicion of exploitation. She was drawn to the so-called deviants, outsiders, marginalized people, glamorous transvestites, graceful giants, disturbed-looking children, circus performers and of course, twins and subjects with other birth eccentricities. Had she lived, Arbus would have been 89 years old today. In tribute, we’d like to present you with this brief survey of some of the most controversial photographers, contemporary and of recent yesteryear.

Diane Arbus

Arbus was a curious case. She was reportedly concerned that she became known for photographing “freaks.” Then again, she once said this: “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.” Reconcile that.

Joel-Peter Witkin

Brooklyn-born transgressive photographer Joel-Peter Witkin works in Albuquerque, New Mexico but ventures to Mexico when pesky US laws limit his creativity… He sometimes uses corpses and their parts in his intricate, classically influenced tableaux, often featuring the same sort of “outsiders” that Arbus was drawn too, but without any complex or restraint.

Irina Ionesco

Like Sally Mann, photographer Irina Ionesco attracted controversy for taking photographs of her own child, but with unmatched notoriety. Turning her five year old daughter Eva into her muse and model, Irina spent years photographing her and instructing her in posed precociousness. The sprawling, kittenish results are heavily stylized, visually compelling, and beautiful — but damn, they’re seriously creepy. Eva has sued Irina three times for emotional distress.

Jan Saudek

Early on his career Czech art photographer worked out of a cellar, hiding from the Communist secret police. He’s still sticking to rooms to set up his distinctively tinted portraiture, which explodes with surrealist symbolism, political metaphors, and sex. Lots and lots of sex. Sometimes, he even makes a cameo in the portraits. He’s been tsk-tsk’ed about the salaciousness of his content more than once and, as recently as 2011, had an unsettling photograph removed from the Ballarat International Foto Biennale. C’est la vie.

Robert Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe photographed the icons Andy Warhol, Deborah Harry, and his friend Patti Smith and contributed immensely to New York’s visual oeuvre with stylized, clean, and expressive portraiture. But various “family groups” aren’t fond of certain homoerotic and sadomasochistically themed parts of his work, thrusting him to the front lines of the American Culture War, forcing a museum not to exhibit his traveling 1989 solo show and opening up a raging dialogue on public funding for so-called “obscene” art. Good for him! Yes, some of those photos like his self-portrait of rectally engulfing a bullwhip are quite risque. Deal with it.

Andres Serrano

Andres Serrano hasn’t just enraged religious zealots to repeatedly attack his Piss Christ . He has a varied practice, with varied spurts of controversy, like these shocking photographs from The Morgue series, inspired by the works of Theodore Gericault. “I use photography as a painter uses his canvas,” he has explained, fittingly to the rich colors and classic composition in his close-ups of these corpses, most much more graphic than this foot cut, no longer bleeding.

Gottfriend Helnwein

“Friend of Marilyn Manson” has a very specific ring to it, doesn’t it? Still, there may be elements of kitsch there, but the Viennese-born Austrian-Irish artist Gottfriend Helnwein creates striking, cryptic imagery in divine light with a certain eloquence. If imagery of theatrical violence, subverted innocence with a dribble of blood, and a sprinkle of Nazism and consumerist culture bothers you (like many, many before you), Helnwein might not be your cup of tea.

Steven Meisel

Steven Meisel was born to do this (in 1954) and 12 years later was gently stalking Twiggy to take her photograph. One of world’s most successful fashion photographers and an acclaimed regular with US and Italian Vogue, Meisel pushes buttons with his with socio-political and couture juxtapositions, like with post-9/11 cop hysteria-themed spread and glamor shoot related to the Iraq war. Oh, also, Madonna’s infamous Sex book? He shot that. Naturally.

Bill Henson

Photographer Bill Henson’s utterly exquisite chiaroscuro series centers on young people being initiated into adolescence, floating through dark landscapes in ambiguous abandon, ’cause adolescence is mysterious like that. OK, yes, depending on the age of these models, it is getting into potentially controversial territory, so much so, that one of his nude portraits provoked complaints and led to the cancellation of an exhibit in Sydney. Going to a primary school for casting might have raised a few eyebrows, too.

Terry Richardson

Love him or hate him, Terry Richardson belongs on this list. Say what you will of his personal life — this whole raunchy shoots and sleek ‘n’ flash technique is working out for him. The promiscuous prolific portfolio grows, vomiting forth regurgitated meta-Hollywood culture, and spitting up some interesting things sometimes, wouldn’t you know it? Like James Franco in drag and Paz De La Huerta humping MoCA director Jeffrey Deitch at the Chateau Marmont. Oh, poor Lindsay. Sigh.

Who would you rather have seen on this list? Tell us in the comments section.