History Of Photography


Photography is so much a part of life today that the average person in the United States may encounter more than 1000 camera images a day. Photographs preserve personal memories (family snapshots) and inform us of public events (news photos). They provide a means of identification (driver's license photos) and of glamorization (movie-star portraits); views of far-off places on Earth (travel photographs) and in space (astral photographs); as well as microscopic scenes from inside the human body (medical and scientific photos). Many specialized commercial categories, including fashion, product, and architectural photography, also fit under the broad umbrella that defines photography's function in the world today.

To mid-19th-century observers, photography seemed capable of capturing the world whole rather than describing and interpreting it as drawing did. They called it the "mirror with a memory." But 20th-century critics have argued whether photography is indeed a direct trace of experience, like the mark of a footprint in the sand, or instead a reflection of the photographer's particular point of view. To be sure, some of the truths that photography seemed to tell at one time were later shown to be biased. These arguments have brought attention to the ways photography has been used as a tool in support of industrial progress, colonialism, government propaganda, social reform, and various disciplines in the social sciences, especially ethnology (the study of human cultures) and criminology (the study of criminal behavior).

Photography's role in the visual arts is equally a matter of debate. From the start, the photographer's camera was seen as a challenger to the painter's brush. Its ability to effortlessly render tones, detail, and perspective effectively put an end to the practice of certain forms of painting, such as portrait miniatures. Moreover, it is widely believed today that photography created an impetus for painters to forsake straightforward description in favor of more interpretive or abstract styles, such as impressionism, cubism, and abstract expressionism. Photography itself has been defined as an essentially modern art because of its relative newness and its reliance on the machinelike camera. A fascinating subplot within the story of photography is its complex and still-evolving role as a medium of art like painting, its supposed antagonist.

This article traces the progress of photography from its invention in the 1830s until today, focusing on its role in shaping modern Western visual culture and following its development as both an art form and a practical tool for documentation. It also looks at the effects of photography's evolution from a technically complex process requiring considerable skill to one that is available to anyone who can press a button.


Photography is a method for producing lasting images by means of a chemical reaction that occurs when light hits a specially prepared surface. It was invented during the first three decades of the 19th century as a direct consequence of advances in chemistry and optics (the science of the behavior of light). The word photography comes from two Greek words that mean "writing with light."

Although the technology is fairly recent, the origins of photography lie in an artistic technique known as single-point or linear perspective, which was developed in the early 1400s. Pioneered in Italy by architect Filippo Brunelleschi and others, the system of single-point perspective provided painters with a method for depicting three-dimensional space on a flat surface. It is based on the notion of a single observation point and results in lines that appear to recede into the distance by converging on a fixed point on the horizon, called the vanishing point.

In the 16th century many artists employed a boxlike device known as a camera obscura (Latin meaning "dark room") as an aid to depicting space with single-point perspective. This consisted of a box with a pinhole on one side and a glass screen on the other. Light coming through this pinhole projected an image onto the glass screen, where the artist could easily trace it by hand. Artists soon discovered that they could obtain an even sharper image by using a small lens in place of the pinhole. The camera obscura was used by Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

Also essential to the invention of photography was knowledge of the light sensitivity of certain materials. More than 2000 years before the invention of the camera obscura, the ancient Phoenicians knew that a certain snail, the purpura, left a yellow slime in its wake that turned purple in sunlight. In the 18th century a German anatomy professor, Johann Heinrich Schulze, observed that silver salts darkened when exposed to light. But the idea of making pictures using this phenomenon did not occur to him. That innovation required the talents of a later generation of scientists.

By 1800 a young English chemist, Thomas Wedgwood, had succeeded in producing images of leaves on leather that he had treated with silver salts. However, he could find no way to halt the darkening action of light and his leaf images eventually faded into blackness. His attempts to capture the image displayed by a camera obscura also proved unsuccessful. For the birth of photography two key discoveries were still needed: a way to combine a light-sensitive material with the camera obscura, and a way to fix, or make permanent, the resulting image.


In the 1820s French scientist Joseph Nicéphore Niépce was experimenting with improvements to the new printmaking technique of lithography. In the process he discovered a way to copy engravings onto glass and pewter plates using bitumen, a form of asphalt that changes when exposed to light. He first coated a drawing or etching with oil so that light would shine through it more easily, then placed it on a bitumen-coated plate and exposed the plate to light. Light shining through the paper burned an image into the dark bitumen, creating a nearly perfect copy of the original. Niépce could then etch and print this image using traditional printmaking techniques. In 1826 he put a bitumen-coated plate in a camera obscura, which he then placed with its lens facing the window of his estate in central France for eight hours. The resulting image, View from the Window at Le Gras (Gernsheim Collection, University of Texas at Austin), is the earliest camera photograph still in existence.

In 1826 Niépce began sharing his findings with Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, an artist and theatrical designer who owned a theater in Paris. This theater, the Diorama, provided a popular spectacle consisting of large, painted scenes that were shown in succession, changing before the viewers' eyes. Like Niépce, Daguerre hoped to find a way to create images from the camera obscura, but he had little luck until the two decided to become partners in 1829. Even then, Daguerre's most important discovery came only in 1835, two years after Niépce's death. Daguerre found that the chemical compound silver iodide was much more sensitive to light than Niépce's bitumen, and he placed a copper plate coated with silver iodide in a camera obscura. After exposing this plate to light for a relatively short time and then to fumes of mercury, an image appeared. One problem remained: The image darkened over time. But in 1837 Daguerre solved this final obstacle by washing away remaining silver iodide with a solution of warm water and table salt.

On January 7, 1839, Daguerre's process, called the daguerreotype, was announced to the French Academy of Sciences, and hence to the world. The announcement by respected French scientist François Arago was brief but nonetheless created a sensation. Newspaper accounts spoke of pictures 'given with a truth which nature alone can give to her works.' Half a year later the French government gave Daguerre and Niépce's son, Isidore, lifetime pensions in exchange for their release of all rights to the invention and public disclosure of the process. The daguerreotype was to become France's gift to the world.

Just three weeks after Arago's announcement in Paris, William Henry Fox Talbot, an English amateur scientist, read a translated account of the discovery. Perturbed, if not distraught, Talbot recognized Daguerre's invention as similar to his own unpublicized process, which he called photogenic drawing. Talbot moved quickly to claim priority over Daguerre, writing to members of the French Academy and presenting his process in a paper to the Royal Society in London, England.

To create a photogenic drawing, Talbot first coated a sheet of drawing paper with the chemical compound silver chloride and, placing it inside a camera obscura, produced an image of the scene with the tones reversed (a negative). He then placed the negative against another coated sheet of paper to produce a positive image. Talbot did not find a way to make the image permanent until a month after Daguerre's announcement. But his photogenic drawing process - later refined and renamed the calotype - forms the basis for most modern film technology, which relies on negatives to produce multiple positive prints.

For a number of reasons, including the imperfections of Talbot's process, the daguerreotype was the method of photography that first took the world by storm. The low-cost daguerreotype became so popular that, by the end of 1839, Paris newspapers were referring to a new disease called Daguerreotypomania. With improvements in its sensitivity to light, the daguerreotype quickly proved ideal for portraiture. By 1840 daguerreotype studios throughout Europe and in the United States were producing unique, detailed likenesses that were set inside hinged leather cases. An emerging middle class gazed in amazement at its own image in these 'mirrors with a memory.'

Photography arrived in the United States due to the enthusiasm of Samuel F. B. Morse, an American artist and inventor. Morse visited Daguerre in Paris in March 1839 and observed a demonstration of the daguerreotype process. Morse returned to the United States to spread the news, and by year's end new practitioners such as John Plumbe of New York City and the Langenheim brothers (William and Frederick) of Philadelphia had mastered the daguerreotype process and set up successful portrait studios. The yen for daguerreotypes persisted in America well into the 1850s, long after European photographers had switched to a much improved positive/negative process derived from Talbot's method. Most pictures of the California Gold Rush of 1849, for example, are daguerreotypes.


Portraiture: People were by far the most common photographic subject of the 19th century. Photographic portraits were much less expensive than painted ones, took less of the sitter's time, and described individual faces with uncanny accuracy. So great was the sense of presence in these pictures that photographers were often called on to take portraits of the recently deceased, a genre now known as postmortem portraits. Miniature painters, who had previously supplied the least expensive form of portraiture, quickly went out of business or became daguerreotypists themselves.

Although thousands of daguerreotype portrait studios operated in the 1840s, only a few portraitists chose to use Talbot's process. Among the most distinguished were Scottish photographers David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, who worked together in Edinburgh producing atmospheric portraits that were admired for their similarity to paintings.

Interest in daguerreotypes dwindled in Europe after 1851, when English photographer Frederick Scott Archer invented the collodion, or wet-plate process. Like Talbot's calotype, this was a negative-to-positive process, but because the negatives were made of smooth glass rather than paper, the collodion process produced much sharper images. Glass was also more durable than paper, so it was easier to produce many paper prints from one glass negative.

Using the collodion method, French painter and photographer Adolphe Disdéri in 1854 invented the carte-de-visite, a form of photographic calling card, which soon became the new rage. Taken with a special camera that produced eight poses on one negative, the carte-de-visite - and its larger sibling, the cabinet card - created a market for celebrity photographs in France and England. Cartes, as they are known, were both traded and collected; they served to connect royalty with commoners, actors with their audiences, and old society with the newly prosperous.

In the United States, the carte-de-visite played second fiddle to ever-cheaper variations on the daguerreotype theme. The first of these, the ambrotype, was nothing more than a glass negative backed with black material, which enabled it to appear as a positive image. Patented in 1854, the ambrotype was made, packaged, and sold in portrait studios as the daguerreotype had been, but at a lower cost. Even less expensive was the tintype, patented two years later, which substituted an iron plate for glass. During the American Civil War (1861-1865) tintypes were the most readily available form of location portraiture. Tintype photographers often worked from the back of horse-drawn wagons, photographing pioneer families and Union soldiers.

Views of Distant Lands: Architecture, travel views, and scenic landscapes also vied for the attention of early photographers. A book called Excursions Daguerriennes (Daguerrian Excursions), published in Paris between 1840 and 1844, contained engraved reproductions of daguerreotypes made by French photographers in Egypt. Other Europeans recorded views of the Italian and Swiss countryside. In the United States Southworth and Hawes, partners in a respected Boston portrait studio, produced some remarkable daguerreotypes of Niagara Falls.

Several early calotypists journeyed to the Middle East, Italy, Greece, and other sites on the so-called Grand Tour of Western civilization that had become popular among 19th-century travelers. French photographer Maxime DuCamp, one of the earliest makers of calotype images, traveled to Egypt where he photographed the temples at Abū Simbel and the pyramids at Giza in 1849 and 1850; these pictures were printed in multiple copies for an album published in France in 1852. Others who photographed monuments of the Middle East include Francis Frith of England, Auguste Salzmann and Felix Bonfils of France, and Antonio Beato of Italy.

Photographers using the collodion, or wet-plate, process hauled their large cameras, tripods, and portable darkrooms to the farthest reaches of Europe's imperial quest in the years between 1850 and 1870. Félice Beato, Antonio's brother, photographed in India, China, and Japan. Samuel Bourne from England took pictures all over the subcontinent of India. While photographing in the Himalayas, he required the services of 40 porters to carry his equipment up and down mountains. Between 1868 and 1872 John Thomson, a Scottish photographer, took some of the most beautiful images ever made of China.

Publishers of albums made many of these photographs available to European and British audiences eager to see what their country's far-off colonies looked like. French photographers Gustave Le Gray and Henri Le Secq contributed some of the few early landscapes that were admired primarily as artistic scenes. Other photographs served as an early form of photojournalism, such as the images of the Crimean War (1853-1856) by British photographer Roger Fenton. The British government commissioned him in 1855 to document the British army in Crimea (now part of southern Ukraine), primarily to counter charges that its troops were undersupplied and malnourished. Fenton's photographs showed little evidence of combat but much of camp life. They were among the first photographs to be used for government propaganda.


The Civil War in the United States (1861-1865) was the first war to be thoroughly recorded by photography. American photographer Mathew Brady, who in 1844 had opened a daguerreotype portrait studio in New York City, sensed the importance of documenting the conflict at its onset and organized a team of photographers to cover its various battlefronts. Among the photographers were Alexander Gardner, who soon launched his own competing project, and Timothy O'Sullivan, an Irish immigrant whose pictures of the battlefield at Gettysburg are among the most riveting and horrific of all war photographs.

An energetic entrepreneur, Brady had planned to become rich by selling large albums of civil-war pictures and individual stereographs. (Stereographs are side-by-side images, taken simultaneously, that create a three-dimensional picture when looked at with a special viewer; they were immensely popular in the late 19th century.) He also tried to sell his collection of negatives to the government after the war ended in 1865. None of these efforts was successful, and Brady was forced to declare bankruptcy.

O'Sullivan and another of Brady's employees, Andrew J. Russell, went on to become two of the best-known photographers of the American West, traveling on government-sponsored survey expeditions throughout the largely unexplored frontier between Missouri and California. Together with William Bell, John Hillers and William Henry Jackson, they produced large prints of spectacular, often startling land forms in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming during the late 1860s and 1870s.

Simultaneously but independent of these surveys, several photographers in California, including Carleton E. Watkins and Eadweard Muybridge, produced breathtaking views of Yosemite, as well as scenes of the rapidly growing city of San Francisco. Whereas the photographs of O'Sullivan and the other survey photographers were sent back to Washington, D.C., to impress government officials, Watkins and Muybridge produced scenic images to sell directly to the public from their studios in San Francisco.


As industrialization came to define Western life in the 19th century, industry employed photography to portray its successes and strengths. For example, in 1857 British photographer Robert Howlett took pictures of the British steamship Great Eastern, the largest vessel of its day, and of its designer and engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He depicted both ship and man as heroic exemplars of the age. In America, A. J. Russell celebrated the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 with a picture of the two facing steam locomotives that met there.

In addition to recording the construction of railroads, ships, buildings, and bridges, photography proved useful to medicine and the fledgling social sciences, such as ethnology, psychology, and sociology. Doctors wanted before-and-after pictures of wounded Civil War soldiers to study the effects of amputation and invasive surgery. Psychologists studied photographs of mental patients in an attempt to visually discern their disorders. Photographers recorded the features of criminals, not only as a means of identification, but also in an effort to identify physical characteristics, which criminologists then believed might correspond with criminal behavior. Fields as dissimilar as biology and astronomy demanded whole catalogues of new photographs to record and classify a rapidly expanding body of knowledge. American photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis produced a 20-volume ethnographic survey of the native peoples of North America. Like much early scientific photography, Curtis's work suffered from his own cultural biases - in this case, an overly romantic view of how Native Americans should look. He supplied his subjects with props and costumes that were not always authentic, and his photographs are no longer considered accurate as documentation.

The development of faster cameras in the 1870s spurred scientists and others to use photography in the systematic study of human and animal movement. In 1878 Muybridge used a series of photographs of a galloping horse to demonstrate to an amazed world that the animal lifts all four feet off the ground at once. He went on to record a wide variety of animal and human movements in sets of sequential photographs he took at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. His work inspired Philadelphia painter Thomas Eakins to take up the camera so he could more accurately depict motion in his paintings. French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey also followed Muybridge's example and devised a special camera to record sequential photographs on a single plate. The resulting photographs showed an echoing trail of images that recorded the subject's movement in both time and space. Marey used this method to develop insights into the flight of birds, human movement, and the workings of the human eye. His experiments helped prepare the way for airplane flight, motion pictures, and modern athletic training. His overlapping images also were models for the Italian futurist painters in their early-20th-century quest to depict speed and movement.

Rapid industrialization and the growth of cities were not without their ills, and in the last quarter of the 19th century the camera helped record the plight of the dispossessed, displaced, and overlooked. One of the earliest attempts to document urban poverty was made by Scottish photographer Thomas Annan, who aimed his camera at the empty, unsanitary alleyways of Glasgow in 1868. City officials commissioned Annan's documentation to justify replacement of Glasgow's unsavory slums with new development. His photographs were later published in Old Closes and Streets of Glascow (1878). John Thomson, recently returned from China, went a step further with candid photographs of poor people themselves, published in a series called Street Life in London (1877).

In the United States, Danish-born journalist Jacob Riis saw the virtue of photographs as well as words in his campaign to improve the lot of poor city dwellers in New York City. He first hired photographers to accompany him into the slums, and later began taking pictures himself. Riis illuminated dark, airless interiors with bright bursts of light that he produced by igniting magnesium flash powder. He showed the pictures at public lectures and later published them in a book entitled How the Other Half Lives (1890). Riis's tireless advocacy helped bring about better conditions for some slum dwellers, and initiated the use of photography as a powerful tool in the fight against poverty.


Photography's popularity among the 19th century's growing urban middle class produced a sharp but vigorous backlash. French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire declared in 1859 that "if photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude which is its natural ally."

Baudelaire's complaint centered on his belief that the rendition of the camera lens was so precise and believable that it left no room for the imagination. This was a claim that would haunt photography for the next hundred years. To demonstrate that imagination, artistic sensitivity, and individual style were possible with the camera, many photographers began to manipulate the photographic process more directly, either through chemical and mechanical means or through stagecraft. Another strategy was to imitate the prevailing styles of painting and drawing. At the same time, painters sought ways in which photography could assist their attempts to render the world by hand.

French artists Camille Corot and Jean François Millet collected photographs as aids in depicting nature. Millet was a member of the Barbizon School, which sought to introduce greater realism to landscape painting by painting outdoors rather than in a studio. During the 1850s French photographers Gustave Le Gray and Henri Le Secq produced evocative landscapes that resemble the sketches of the Barbizon painters. This is not wholly surprising, since both had studied painting with Paul Delaroche, who had also been Millet's teacher. In Great Britain, portrait photographers David Hill and Robert Adamson and landscapist Roger Fenton earned admiration for the compositional and tonal harmony of their pictures. In addition, scores of would-be artists of the camera produced daguerreotypes of nudes of a naughty nature.

Oscar Gustave Rejlander, a Swede living in England, made one of the most assertively self-conscious attempts at producing art through photography with Two Ways of Life (1857). This photograph juxtaposed figures representing Religion, Charity, and other virtues with figures representing Gambling, Wine, and other vices. To create this ambitious image of good and evil, he pieced together 30 separate negatives of costumed actors whom he had posed and photographed individually. Many photographers criticized Rejlander for resorting to manipulation with combined negatives, but his ambitiously artistic aims influenced a generation of photographers bent on extending acceptance of their medium. Under Rejlander's influence English painter and photographer Henry Peach Robinson used multiple negatives to produce soap-opera-style tableaux such as Fading Away (1858), which showed a dying girl and her grief-stricken family. He also employed actors to recreate bucolic scenes of peasant life. Both Rejlander and Robinson appealed to a Victorian taste for allegory, symbol, and sentimentality.

In England a theatrically posed form of portraiture came into vogue in the 1860s and 1870s. This trend was propelled by the talents of two women - Julia Margaret Cameron and Clementina Hawarden - along with Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Hawarden and Carroll concentrated on sentimental images of introspective girls and young women. Cameron used her family and friends to act out religious, allegorical, or literary scenes (she published illustrations for a segment of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's epic poem Idylls of the King, 1859-1885). She sometimes enhanced the mystery of her photos and their resemblance to painting by deliberate blurring. Cameron also produced powerful portraits of literary and artistic figures.

Many European photographers interested in the artistic potential of their medium formed photographic societies and wrote impassioned treatises spelling out their aesthetic ideas. One of the most influential essays of this kind was Naturalistic Photography by Peter Henry Emerson, published in England in 1889. In it, Emerson declared that photography was an art form as legitimate as painting, but that photographers should rely only on naturally occurring effects of light and subject, never resorting to contrived costuming or hand retouching of the print. Emerson's own photographs, taken in rural England, are landscapes and scenes of peasant life. After reading a scientific study of the photographic process, however, Emerson later recanted his belief in the artistic nature of the medium, seeing it instead as a mechanical process over which the photographer had little artistic control. He published his new stand in The Death of Naturalistic Photography (1891), but it was too late - his pictorial ideas already had influenced many photographers, including Alfred Stieglitz, an American who became one of the major figures of 20th-century photography.


As photography celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1889, new technologies were revolutionizing the medium. While its subjects and social functions were fairly well defined by then, it remained a specialized form of picture-making that still held some of the magical aura of its birth. The average person was familiar with what photographs looked like and probably kept some at home, but few people took photographs themselves. In addition, most photographs existed as unique originals, because copies were still difficult to make.

All this soon changed as a result of two important introductions: the simple-to-use Kodak camera and the halftone printing process. American inventor George Eastman perfected his Kodak camera in 1888 and began selling it with the slogan 'You push the button, we do the rest.' Eastman's invention put cameras into the hands of millions of people unskilled in the techniques of earlier photography and vastly increased the number of pictures taken each year. The halftone printing process, perfected in the mid-1890s, reproduces photographs as a set of tiny dots of varying diameter. Groupings of larger dots appear as an area of black, while smaller ones recreate various shades of gray. Halftone printing enabled publishers to reproduce photographs easily, economically, and accurately. For the first time, large numbers of photographs were reproduced in newspapers, magazines, and inexpensive books.

Leading up to Eastman's innovation was the dry-plate process, introduced in 1879. This replaced the less sensitive wet-plate process that required the photographer to apply a chemical emulsion to the plate immediately before taking an exposure. Cameras using the newer process were nicknamed detective cameras, because they were small and allowed photographers to work more easily out of doors, without the weighty and conspicuous burden of a portable darkroom or tripod. In 1884 Eastman found a way to apply this new dry emulsion to paper rather than glass, and four years later he marketed the Kodak, a camera that came loaded with a roll of the paper film. But the Kodak was more than just a roll-film camera: Its price included the development of the negatives and processing of prints from them. By packaging a simple, foolproof camera together with industrial-style processing, Eastman launched not only a brand new industry - known today as photofinishing - but also a new approach to taking photographs: the snapshot.

The concept of the snapshot - originally a hunting term for shooting from the hip - has both technical and aesthetic aspects. Technical advances made it possible to capture a scene quickly, spontaneously, and with sharper detail, thanks not only to the simple-to-operate, portable camera, but also to more sensitive silver emulsions, more energetic developing chemistry, better optics, and faster, more accurate shutters. In pictorial terms, the snapshot expanded photography's territory to include casual family scenes, candid views of everyday life, and instantaneous images that stopped motion in midair. The photographs of Frenchman Jacques Henri Lartigue, who began taking snapshots at the age of six, best exemplify the new spirit. In one snapshot, taken when he was ten, his teenage cousin appears suspended over a flight of stairs, miraculously posing for the camera in the middle of her flying leap.


Widespread amateur photography was greeted with dismay by photographers who saw their medium as a form of art. A group who became known as pictorialists sought to distinguish their artistic efforts from the snapshots taken by masses of so-called Kodakers. Pictorialists favored specialized (and difficult) darkroom techniques that gave them more control over their results. Some altered images by hand, as for example, Gertrude Käsebier, who softened and blurred parts of photographs during the printing process. American painter Frank Eugene had an even more extreme approach, applying a needle directly to negatives and scratching pencil-like lines or shading around figures. In contrast to snapshots of the time, the compositions of the pictorialists favored simplicity, with broad areas of extreme darks and lights. Most of the pictorialists favored subject matter made popular by impressionist painters: hazy landscapes, nudes, and groups of children gamboling in nature.

There were exceptions, however. American Fred Holland Day gained notoriety for dressing himself as Jesus Christ and acting out biblical stories for his camera. Alfred Stieglitz, a leader of the pictorialist movement, used his camera to capture the urban energy of his native city, New York. His works combined modern subject matter, including ferryboats and airplanes, with the naturalistic style advocated earlier by P. H. Emerson.

In 1902 Stieglitz broke away from the pictorialist movement to found his own elite group of artistic photographers, the Photo-Secession. Several former pictorialists joined him as founding members of the new group, including Käsebier, Clarence White, and Edward Steichen. Stieglitz set up the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession (better known as Gallery 291 for its address on New York City's Fifth Avenue), which was devoted to showing photography as an artistic medium, along with modern painting and sculpture. Stieglitz's gallery and the Photo-Secession publication Camera Work, which he edited from 1903 to 1917, helped him to become the leading voice in the establishment of a new and more modern aesthetic in photography. Paralleling developments in painting and sculpture, this new aesthetic embraced modern urban and industrial subjects, abstract composition, and a straightforward and unsentimental approach that would come to dominate the practice and criticism of photography in the 20th century.


As the technology for reproducing photographs improved in the first decade of the 20th century, a new world of images began to make the world seem smaller and its manufactured goods more desirable. Along with motion pictures, which the Lumière brothers of France introduced to the world in 1895, photographs in reproduction led to new concepts of celebrity, culture, advertising, and entertainment, all of which depended on the availability of a mass audience.

One example of the new visual culture provided by photomechanical reproduction is the birth of picture magazines, so called because their contents were defined as much by photographs as by text. Although many historians credit the illustrated weeklies published in Germany in the 1920s - such as Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung and Münchner Illustrierte Presse - as early models of the modern picture magazine, an even earlier publication was the National Geographic. Begun in 1888 as a journal for about a thousand geographers, the magazine transformed itself to capture an audience of millions by incorporating photographs into its pages. By 1907 fully half of its pages were devoted to exotic images from around the world. More importantly, the National Geographic editors wrote text to fit the photographs on hand, rather than the reverse.

Color Photography: In 1914 the National Geographic was also one of the first magazines to reproduce color photographs. Color photography was itself new at the time, although the idea had tantalized inventors since Talbot and Daguerre. Several processes for producing color had been proposed in the 19th century, but none proved workable outside the laboratory. The Autochrome process, created in 1904 by the Lumières, was both practical and widely marketed. It utilized a layer of dyed starch grains over a standard black-and-white emulsion; when the monochrome layer was developed after exposure, it produced a positive transparency. The clear areas of the transparency allowed light to shine through the appropriately colored bits of starch, while the shadow areas remained properly dark.

Nonetheless, color remained a sidelight in photography until the 1930s because it required considerable patience and expense on the part of both photographer and printer. The dominance of color in terms of reproduction and everyday picture-taking did not begin until 1935, when Kodak started to sell Kodachrome transparency film, and was completed by the introduction of color-print films and Ektachrome films in the 1940s.

Even without color, magazines brought a steady diet of visual excitement to their readers. Photographers for German picture weeklies of the 1920s and their 1930s imitators, such as Picture Post in England and Life in the United States, used the latest small cameras (preeminently, the German Leica) to capture events as they happened. The narrative style of early photojournalists, such as Alfred Eisenstaedt, Martin Munkacsi, and Erich Salomon in Germany, and André Kertész in Paris, made readers feel as if they were on the scene with the photographers. The immediacy of their style influenced later practitioners including Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Capa, and W. Eugene Smith, all of whom worked with publication in mind.

Fashion: Fashion photography developed along with the new picture magazines. Confined at first to studio portraits of society women in their finery, it turned to professional models and professional photographers to enliven images and entice the reader. Vogue and Harper's Bazaar magazines hired full-time staff photographers - most notably, American Edward Steichen and Englishman Cecil Beaton, both one-time pictorialists. These photographers began to use elaborate lighting schemes to achieve the same sort of glamorizing effects being perfected by Clarence Bull as he photographed new starlets in Hollywood, California. Martin Munkacsi initiated a fresh look in fashion photography after Harper's Bazaar hired him in 1934. He moved the models outdoors, where he photographed them as active, energetic modern women.

The new approach to photography in the editorial content of magazines was matched by an increasingly sophisticated use of photography in advertisements. Steichen, while also working for Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines, became one of the highest-paid photographers of the 1930s through his work for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. Together with Anton Bruehl, Nickolas Muray, and others, he helped transform the look of advertising photography from straightforward catalog pictures of a product to more natural and sensuous depictions, often with the addition of a woman's hands to indicate the product's usefulness and practicality. Some advertising photographers began to rely on elaborate stage sets constructed for the camera, recalling the era of Rejlander and Robinson. The artistry of photography succeeded in manufacturing consumer desire even during the worldwide economic depression of the 1930s.


The art of photography took a dramatic turn in the 20th century's second decade, influenced both by the straightforward look of early commercial photographs and by vanguard painting and sculpture in Europe. Stieglitz began to use his New York gallery to promote a more modern style of photography, as embodied in the work of American Paul Strand. Strand's pictures, such as The White Fence, Port Kent, New York, 1916 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) are crisply sharp but nearly abstract in their strong, spare compositions. They were among the first examples of purist, or straight, photography, so named because it relied on the qualities inherent to photography. These included sharpness, rich detail, full tonality, and unretouched printing on commercially manufactured papers.

Purism was the American contribution to a range of 20th-century artistic practices grouped under the label of modernism. Like modernism in painting and sculpture, straight photography was based on the idea that every artistic medium has its own distinct properties, which artists should seek to exploit. For instance, instead of playing down photography's connection to a machine, modernist photographers sought to emphasize it. During the 1920s Strand, Stieglitz, and American painter and photographer Charles Sheeler took crisply detailed pictures of the mechanisms of movie cameras, railroads, and automobiles. Stieglitz used the same sharp focus in portraits of his wife, painter Georgia O'Keeffe, and in a series of pictures of clouds.

In Europe, László Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian-born artist teaching in Germany at the Bauhaus (a vanguard design school), felt that photography had the power to transform culture in fundamental ways. He declared that the camera held the key to a new age, which he called the "New Vision." It would be a culture of light in which "everyone will be compelled to see that which is optically true." In his own work he went beyond the camera, producing photograms (his term for pictures made in the darkroom by shining light onto objects directly) and photomontages (images made by combining parts of different photographs). Aleksandr Rodchenko and other artists involved in the Russian constructivism movement shared Moholy-Nagy's vision of photography's power, and they sought to develop an art appropriate to the needs of the working classes in the newly formed Soviet Union.

Photography played a significant part in dada and surrealism, art movements that encompassed literature and theater as well as painting and sculpture. Dada artists in Germany, such as John Heartfield, developed a form of nonsensical photo collage around 1920, using it to express dissatisfaction with social conventions and to satirize government institutions. In Paris, surrealists such as American expatriate Man Ray saw photography as an avenue into the subconscious or into a world beyond reality. They discovered pictures of old Paris streets by French photographer Eugène Atget, and savored the way Atget's apparently ordinary style produced remarkable effects from shop-window reflections, for example. However, unlike Atget, Man Ray often violated convention in his uses of photography. In Violin d'Ingres (1924), for example, he added ink drawing to transform a woman's bare back into a musical instrument. In darkroom experiments he reversed darks and lights in the contours of objects, producing an otherworldly effect known as solarization.

Thanks to published reproductions, the different styles of modernist photography spread quickly and often mingled together in exhibitions. The establishment of a photography department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1940 helped solidify the belief that photography was a modern art and that its modernity was universal and unified. In the United States, however, the purely artistic practice of photography was constantly being challenged by those who saw photography as a form of social documentation. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the United States government hired Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, and other photographers to document farming conditions across the country. Their images, including Lange's famous Migrant Worker's Family (1936), remain an example of how photography can engage viewers' sympathy and create support for social reforms. Because their style of photography was essentially straight, however, it came to be viewed as art as well as social documentation.

French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was similarly recognized as both artist and documentarian. He began as a painter, but started working as a photojournalist in the early 1930s. He is now recognized as an accomplished artist for his ability to capture his subjects in what he called the "decisive moment," the precise instant when form and content conspire to create an image of potent significance and beauty.


In the second half of the 20th century, art photography became increasingly intertwined with commercial uses and with other forms of art. Today artists, like advertisers, designers, and other commercial users, look at photography as one of many media tools available to them, to be used not for its own properties so much as for its ability to suit a particular purpose.

From the years immediately following World War II until the mid-1970s, many photographers viewed with suspicion the mix of commercial and artistic motives that had established photography as a vital part of Western visual culture. As universities and art schools across the United States began to offer courses in photography, the artistic purity of photography again became an issue. Ansel Adams, Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Minor White, and other photographers taught students that by mastering technique, they would be freed to express their personal vision. Much of their work and that of their students verged on the abstract. Widely admired artists of the camera like Edward Weston provided an example of how photographers could live and work outside the commercial realms of photojournalism, fashion, and advertising.

Meanwhile, the more commercial genres also thrived. Photojournalists such as Cartier-Bresson, Bourke-White, David Douglas Duncan, and W. Eugene Smith all prospered in print and in the public eye, while newcomers Richard Avedon and Irving Penn brought more elegance and attention to fashion magazines and beauty advertisements. The introduction of television in the 1950s further strengthened the growing cultural role of photographic reproductions and films. Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank, in his book The Americans (1959), approached the documentation of American life with a skeptical, sardonic eye. Americans Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and Diane Arbus followed his lead, with candid shots of the less picturesque aspects of society.

In the 1960s the overwhelming presence of commercial imagery became a subject for artists with no interest in photography as an art form. In 1962 American artists Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol began to silkscreen reproductions of photographs onto canvas. Along with pop artists Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg, they rejected abstraction in painting and sculpture by introducing popular visual images drawn from comics, newspapers, and advertising. They were soon joined by conceptual artists, who were interested less in objects than in the ideas behind them; they used photography as a means of documenting their activities and performances.

In the 1970s and 1980s museums and collectors began to take photography as seriously as the older mediums of painting, drawing, and sculpture. Photography also became central to the practices and theories of postmodernism, a movement in art and thought that asserted the end of the ideals of modernism. According to postmodernists, originality and individual expression, which had been of paramount importance to modern artists, were no longer valid goals in a world filled with reproductions. There is no longer anything new to create, they claimed, and all visual images are merely copies of previous copies. American artist Cindy Sherman made this idea visible in her series of homemade Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980), photographs of herself posing in the guise of various clichés in cinematic history. Since photography is the primary source of such reproductions, the postmodernists held it up as the most important medium of contemporary art, although in many cases they used it in combination with other art forms.

Today photography remains a vital and inextricable part of contemporary art, as well as retaining its commercial and more everyday uses. The invention of various digital means of making, altering, and transmitting images has thus far failed to curtail interest in traditional methods of picture making. Nor has such technology lessened the faith most people have in the documentary truth of photographs. While this may change over time, the history of photography will continue to offer lessons about the development of human vision and perception.

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