Explore the History of Photography as an Art Form

Photography, like poetry, doesn’t provide the pool of narrative, just the diving board. ~ Alec Soth

Photographers, including Robert Adamson, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll), gain legitimacy as more than technicians. They staged elaborate tableau photographs, such as those of well-known scenes from literature.

  • 1838

    View of the Boulevard du Temple, a daguerreotype by inventor Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre showing a vacant street except a seated shoe shiner attending his customer.

    Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787–1851), View of the Boulevard du Temple, 1838. Daguerreotype, 51⁄16 × 67⁄16 in. Collection of the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich, Germany.

  • 1850s

    Portrait studios, often decorated with elaborate backdrops and props, emerged making photographs affordable, popular, and fashionable.

  • 1857

    Victorians Oscar Gustave Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson employed a montage technique in which models and backgrounds were photographed separately due to the complexity of single exposure.

    Oscar Gustave Rejlander (1813–1875), Two Ways of Life, 1857, printed ca. 1925. Gelatin silver print, toned, 161⁄8 × 311⁄8 in. Collection of the George Eastman Museum, Rochester, New York, 1978.0841.0001.

  • 1860s

    Stereograph, dual stereo images that created a three-dimensional image when placed in a viewer, depicts a wide range of subjects—Biblical, literary, travel, etc.

  • 1870s

    Advances in the sensitivity of emulsions and camera shutter speed allowed photographers to stop motion in a single frame, as evidenced by the work of Eadweard Muybridge.

    Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904), Plate 349 from Animal Locomotion. An Electro-Photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movements. Commenced 1872–Completed 1885. Volume V, Man (Pelvis Cloth), 1880s. Photogravure, 1813⁄16 × 233⁄4 in. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, Rogers Fund, transferred from the library, 1991, 1991.1135.5.

  • 1870

    F. L. Stuber (1846–unknown), The Young Housekeeper—Washing Day, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, ca. 1870. Photographic print on stereo card, 35⁄16 × 615⁄16 in. Collection of the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-123735.

  • 1874

    Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879), The Parting of Lancelot and Guinevere, 1874. Albumen silver print from glass negative, 131⁄16 × 115⁄16 in. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, David Hunter McAlpin Fund, 1952, 52.524.3.10.

  • 1875

    Lewis Carroll [Charles Lutwidge Dodgson] (1832–1898), Saint George and the Dragon, June 26, 1875. Albumen silver print, 413⁄16 × 63⁄8 in. Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California, 84.XP.458.15.

Led by photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, Pictorialists sought to create handcrafted prints in an ethereal visual style that differed from amateur Kodak snap shooters.

In the tradition of their Victorian predecessors Julia Margaret Cameron, Pictorialists F. Holland Day and Gertrude Käsebier photographed scenes from Greek mythology and Biblical passages as well as domestic settings.

  • 1899

    Gertrude Käsebier (1852–1934), Blessed Art Thou Among Women, 1899. Platinum print, 91⁄16 × 53⁄16 in. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1933, 33.43.132.

  • 1907

    F. Holland [Fred Holland] Day (1864–1933), from the Orpheus series, 1907. Platinum print with handcoloring, 91⁄2 × 77⁄16 in. Collection of the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsca-37384.

With advances in camera speed and portability, photographers pivot from metaphor, allegory, and symbols and embrace fragments, close-ups, and cropping. Henri Cartier-Bresson famously describes the harmony of form and content captured as a “decisive moment,” famously illustrated by Robert Capa’s photograph The Falling Soldier.

  • 1936

    Robert Capa (1913–1954), The Falling Soldier, 1936. Gelatin silver print, dimensions unknown.

  • 1938

    In his photobook American Photographs, Walker Evans documents the country in the throes of the Great Depression. Later, Robert Frank’s book The Americans (1958/59) similarly documents the struggle and changing sense of identity in the wake of World War II.

    Photograph 47 from Part One, Walker Evans: American Photographs (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2012; first published in 1938), showing Walker Evans (1903–1975), House and Billboards in Atlanta, 1936. 208-page book, 73⁄4 × 83⁄4 in., closed.

  • 1960s

    Conceptual artists use photography to document installations and performances with the photograph serving as the surviving record of the event.

  • 1964

    The Photographer’s Eye, a landmark exhibition and book by John Szarkowski, curator, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, establishing the medium of photography as a fine art.

  • 1967

    Ed Ruscha documents in rigorous detail the process and results of throwing a typewriter from a car as it sped down the highway.

    Ed Ruscha (born 1937), in collaboration with Mason Williams (born 1938) and Patrick Blackwell (dates unknown), spread from Royal Road Test, 1967 (first edition), 1969 (second edition), 1971 (third edition). 62-page book, 36 illustrations, 91⁄2 × 61⁄2 × 3⁄16 in., closed.

  • 1971–1973

    Eleanor Antin arranges 50 pairs of boots in locations through the American West and documents them so that they appeared to be going about conventional human activities.

    Eleanor Antin (born 1935), 100 BOOTS On the Road, Leucadia, California, July 12, 1971, 10:30 am; mailed: September 7, 1971. Photo-offset postcard on white wove paper, 43⁄8 × 7 in.

  • 1973

    John Baldessari’s book Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-six Attempts) shows 36 pictures of orange balls suspended in air. The title alone encapsulates the artist’s objective.

    John Baldessari (born 1931), Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts), 1973. Offset lithograph from an artist’s book of the same title, 99⁄16 × 123⁄4 in.

  • 1970s–1980s

    Photographers turned to images in advertising and popular media as inspiration and the target of critique.

  • 1978

    Cindy Sherman returns to the tableau casting herself in a range of feminine roles where each image appears to be plucked from a film still. Her work, and that of her contemporaries, mark the resurgence of narrative photography that is still prevalent today.

    Cindy Sherman (born 1954), Untitled Film Still # 7, 1978. Gelatin silver print, 10 × 8 in.