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Modern Photography Collage

Modern Photography - History and Concepts

Started: 1910
Ended: 1960
Modern Photography Timeline

Laying the Foundations: Early Photography

Although Nicephore Niepce is credited as the inventor of photography he experimented with early photography techniques throughout the 1820s (the earliest surviving photograph dates from around 1826), his photographs required an extremely long exposure time and the results were imperfect. Louis Daguerre refined Niepce's work during the 1830s resulting in the creation of the daguerreotype which only needed a few minutes of exposure and produced a sharp, clear image. The details of this process were released in 1839 and this date is considered to be the start of photography as a viable medium. Subsequent discoveries and developments, including those by Henry Fox Talbot, continued to make photography easier and more affordable.

In its earliest forms, photography was seen as a scientific tool and its first practical usage was in botany and archeology. Despite innovations in the fields of artistic photography this use remained important with photographers such as Eadweard Muybridge, known for his studies of movement in the 1870s, continuing to exploit its scientific applications. As the medium spread and became more accessible, photographers began to experiment, producing portraits as well as tableaux, the latter often inspired by historical and literary works. There were a number of key figures in this move including John Edwin Mayall, Julia Margaret Cameron, Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), and Oscar Rejlander in the UK. In the United States photographers such as F. Holland Day, Alfred Stieglitz, and Edward Steichen led the way with Stieglitz notably introducing photography into museum collections and art galleries.

As part of an attempt to have their work recognized alongside other, more established, art forms, these photographers adopted the language and values of fine art. This can be seen in Henry Fox Talbot's book The Pencil of Nature (1844). This was one of the first collections of photographs to be published commercially and each image was accompanied by a short description explaining the scene and the processes involved in its capture. The book utilizes art terminology and clearly demonstrates how Talbot understood the photograph in terms of the painted image.

Pictorialism: Photography as Art

Between 1889 and 1914, the international Pictorialist movement developed. Pictorialists emphasized beauty over factual accuracy, producing soft focus images with painterly qualities. To achieve this they invented a variety of darkroom techniques to alter the image during the developing process often adding color, visible brushstrokes, or other surface manipulation.

Frank Eugene's Pictorialist photograph<i> Frank Eugene, Alfred Stieglitz, Heinrich Kuhn and Edward Steichen admiring the work of Eugene</i> (1907)

New photographic societies, focusing on the Pictorialist style helped to define and spread the movement. Groups included the Linked Ring Society (1892) in England, the Club de Paris (1894) in France, and the Vienna Camera Club (1891) in Austria. The Photo-Secession group (1902) in New York became one of the most influential Pictorialist groups and counted Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, Clarence H. White, Frank Eugene, F. Holland Day, and Gertrude Käsebier amongst its members.

Pictorialism Movement Page

Straight Photography

Originating around 1904, Straight Photography sought to make a truthful record of what the photographer saw. It is usually considered the first movement of Modern Photography and the point at which photographers ceased trying to imitate established artistic modes. On the whole, images were neither manipulated in the taking or by post-production darkroom processes (although there is some significant variation relating to this point). Images tended to emphasize careful framing, sharp focus, and clear detail, utilizing these traits to distinguish photography from other visual media. Photographers took pictures of the world around them. And industrialization led to an increase in urban photography, particularly a great variety of street scenes.

The style was widely promoted by Alfred Stieglitz as a more pure form of photography than Pictorialism (which he first heralded, but later moved away from). Other key figures of the movement included Paul Strand (who produced some of the first, iconic images and influenced Stieglitz), Ansel Adams and Edward Weston who founded Group f/64 in the early 1930s and produced images with a focus on the American West. Ultimately, Straight Photography served as the foundation for the majority of photographic innovations over the next 60 years, encompassing Photojournalism, Documentary Photography, Street Photography and "The Snapshot Aesthetic".

Straight Photography Movement Page


Bringing movement and vitality to the still photograph, Anton Bragaglia's <i>The Typist</i> (1913) shows off his “photodynamism” technique to its full effect.

It seemed at first that still photography would not suit the artistic goals of the Italian Futurists who were in thrall to speed, dynamism, and violent energy. It was only with the invention of "photodynamism" in 1911 that Futurism made its own contribution to modern photography. The term was introduced by brothers Anton Giulio and Arturo Bragaglia who used their camera to induce a sense of "visual vertigo" by creating photographic movement through multiple exposures. Indeed, Anton had published the first of three editions of his book Fotodinamismo Futurista in 1911 and his theories were well received in photographic circles and widely adopted by other European avant-garde artists. These early experiments in movement and portraiture - Fortunato Depero, for example, produced a series of "gestural" self-portraits during the first wave - more or less defined Futurist photography until Marinetti and Tato published the "Manifesto of Futurist Photography" in April 1930.

The manifesto gave birth to a decade that is widely considered the most productive in Italian photographic arts. It was a decade that saw photography merge with other Futurist art forms including dance, painting, and performance art. Filippo Masoero for instance developed novel conceptions of space and movement by photographing Italian cities from the cockpit of an aeroplane. And, like other European schools, the Futurists were drawn to the moving image too: "the expressive medium most adapted to the complex sensibility of a Futurist artist" as its manifesto put it. Though little remains of early experimental Futurist cinema, Anton Bragaglia's 1917 full-length futuristic melodrama Thais stands as a widely exhibited testimonial to the movement's cinematic legacy.

Futurism Movement Page

Constructivism and Bauhaus

El Lissitzky's <i>Self-portrait</i> (1924), more commonly known as <i>The Constructor</i>, asks the spectator to think of the Constructivist artist along the same lines as a laboratory or studio technician.

The artistic method of both Constructivism and Bauhaus embraced the idea of a new technology for a new world. Their photography (like their art generally) was characterized by a precision and geometric simplicity that saw the artist assume the mantle of technician. While a large group experimented with the medium, the two outstanding figures in Russian constructivist photography were El Lissitzky and Aleksander Rodchenko, both of whom were invested in the idea that modern art should help "construct" (hence Constructivism) rather than merely reflect or represent the real world. El Lissitzky was a qualified architect who had produced "modern" self-portraits that equated the role of the photographer with that of an engineer. In his famous 1924 Self-portrait, known as The Constructor, for instance, El Lissitzky forms the centre of a geometric montage featuring a superimposed hand with compass, a drawn circle (produced by the compass presumably) and modern (san serif) typography. Rodchenko, on the other hand, was widely regarded a photojournalist but, having submitted six photographs, including Mother and Courtyard of Vhutemas Seen From Above, to the 1928 Ten Years of Soviet Photography exhibition, he was awarded a special prize for inventing a new genre altogether - "technical photography" - which was a blend (or construction) of documentary and art photography.

Constructivism Movement Page
<i>Photogram</i> (1926). One of the Bauhaus' most influential artists and teachers, László Moholy-Nagy's legacy includes the invention of the “photogram,” a process whereby he used darkroom techniques to make photographs that altered one's perception of ordinary objects.

The Bauhaus might be similarly defined by two pioneering artists, László Moholy-Nagy and Walter Peterhans. Until their appointment to the Bauhaus School in 1929, the Bauhaus camera had been used simply for documentation purposes. Having established a dedicated photography school (within the advertising department) the two men developed a culture of avant-garde experimentation based on the School's two aesthetic positions known as the "Nueue Optik" (New Vision) and the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). In this spirit, Moholy-Nagy produced a series of still life compositions that he called "photograms" (making images by placing objects on photographic paper and exposing them to light) that were inspired by Man Ray's well known "Rayographs". Peterhans, meanwhile, was best known for his still-life images of everyday objects whose shapes and textures he revealed through painstaking lighting strategies that lent his objects an otherworldly effect.

Bauhaus Movement Page

Dada and Surrealist Photography

Driven by the devastating effects of World War I, the large and international movements Dada and Surrealism sought to create a new kind of art that reflected the chaos and absurdity of modern life. More preoccupied with concepts than aesthetics, they broke down the traditional barriers between different types of art, utilizing photography as an important medium for expression (Surrealist Film was a force and a deeply explored topic as well). Photographs followed the tenets of the movements presenting objects which had been disassociated from their usual context, distorted human forms, and photographic composites. These images aimed to invert viewers' understanding of what was normal and offer new perspectives on social and political issues.

Working in Paris between 1897 and 1927, Eugene Atget viewed himself as a documentary photographer, capturing the sights of the old city. His work, however had a profound impact on many Surrealists from Andre Breton to Pablo Picasso. Man Ray purchased a number of his photographs in the 1920s and was inspired by his use of light and reflection and his images of shop mannequins. As one of the most prolific photographers of the Surrealist movement, Man Ray created some of its most famous photographs including Le Violon d'Ingres (1924). Additionally, he experimented with a range of techniques including solarization and photograms (which he called Rayographs) in which objects were laid directly onto light sensitive paper.

Photomontage also became an important technique and this was pioneered by artists including George Grosz, John Heartfield, and Hannah Hoch who were all associated with the Berlin Dada branch. Photomontage first appeared in 1916 and early works pointed out the futility of war; the medium continued to be used for political and social comment throughout World War I. Photomontage was, later, adopted by the Surrealists and can be seen in the work of Salvador Dalí. Other photographers associated with Surrealism include Brassaï, Dora Maar, Raoul Ubac, Claude Cahun, and, Manuel Álvarez Bravo.

Dada and Surrealist Photography Movement Page

Fashion Photography

Edward Steichen's photos were placed next to fashion designs by artists Paul Iribe and Georges Lepape in two luxury, limited-edition fashion albums.

Although there are earlier examples of high fashion being depicted in photographs, the first modern fashion shoot is attributed to Edward Steichen, who photographed gowns designed by Paul Poiret for the April 1911 issue of the magazine Art et Decoration. These images were genre defining in that they did not just record the appearance of the clothing but also conveyed a sense of the garment and its wearer. The field of fashion photography grew rapidly during the 1920s and '30s, with magazines such as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar leading the way and employing famous in-house photographers including Horst P. Horst, George Hoyningen-Huene, Cecil Beaton and Martin Munkacsi.

In the post-war period new names in the field emerged such as Lillian Bassman, Norman Parkinson, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and David Bailey with many of these photographers favoring a more spontaneous and energetic approach. Irving Penn noted his role was "selling dreams not clothes" and consequently images became increasingly focused on modern women and their activities. Penn's statement also captures the tension between art and commerce which is apparent in fashion photography and this overlap continues to drive creativity and innovation within the field.


The early photojournalist Robert Capa went on infamous adventures to tell his stories in photographs and films. Photograph by Gerda Taro

The golden age of Photojournalism began in the 1930s in Europe and became associated, in the post-World War II period with magazines such as Paris Match and Life. Photojournalists relied on photography to document and tell a news story, sometimes as part of a journalistic written account and sometimes independently in a photo-essay. Proponents adhered to strict standards of honesty and objectivity to record events. Noted early photojournalists include Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Margaret Bourke-White, Agustí Centelles, Tony Vaccaro, and Erich Salomon.

Documentary Photography

Documentary Photography has close links with Photojournalism, bearing many of the same hallmarks with both terms being used to describe photography that chronicles people or places, recording significant historical events. Documentary photographers, however, tended to be less influenced by the need to capture breaking news or to explain and entertain through their photographs. This enabled them to engage in longer term projects, recording what they saw and experienced over a period of time and this often allowed them to highlight the need for reform in some capacity.

Although in existence much earlier (there is a large body of documentary photographs relating to the American Civil War), this style of photography came to popular attention around 1935, when the Farm Security Administration in the USA recruited notable photographers including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, Russell Lee, and Jack Delano to document the American way of life. The program ran until 1944 and amassed an extensive pictorial record of Americans during the Great Depression.

Abstract Photography

Abstract photography refers to non-objective images that can be created by using photographic materials, processes, or equipment. Like all works of abstract art, the resulting images do not represent the object world, yet may have associations with it. The earliest examples of abstract photography appeared in the mid-19th century in images of scientific experiments that were later viewed from an artistic standpoint. The first intentionally abstract photographs were Alvin Langdon Coburn's Vortographs in 1916. László Moholy-Nagy's photograms and Man Ray's Rayographs are noted examples of abstract photography in the 1920s. Abstract photography became a more defined movement following World War II, due to photographers such as Aaron Siskind, Henry Holmes Smith, Lotte Jacobi, and Minor White.

Abstract Photography Movement Page

Street Photography and Snapshot Aesthetic

Street photography depicts spontaneous encounters or situations on the city street. An early pioneer of the genre was Paul Martin who shot unposed images of people in London during the late-19th and early 20th century. This idea of spontaneity and capturing people's daily activities was further developed during the 1930s by the Mass Observation Project which sought to record life on the streets of Britain through transcripts of conversations and candid photographs. In the early 1950s Henri Cartier-Bresson developed the concept of 'the decisive moment'. This was the point when "form and content, vision and composition merged into a transcendent whole" and he applied this idea to his both his street and Documentary Photography. Other key practitioners of the style were Helen Levitt, who captured life in New York City's close-knit neighborhoods in the 1940s and 1950s, and Joan Colóm, who explored the Raval neighborhood of Barcelona in the 1960s.

The Snapshot Aesthetic is closely associated with Street Photography and developed with the introduction of the hand-held camera, which enabled photographers to capture a precisely observed instant of everyday life. Early practitioners include Lisette Model and, most famously, Robert Frank whose book The Americans (1958) was hugely influential in post-war American photography. The Museum of Modern Art's 1963 exhibition of Henri Lartique's previously unknown snapshots was pivotal in the acceptance of the genre into mainstream photographic circles. Other photographers such as Garry Winogrand, Joel Meyerowitz, Nan Goldin, and Wolfgang Tillmans subsequently adopted the snapshot aesthetic to emphasize everyday, even banal, subject matter and images - images that were often blurry, askew, or erratically framed - resembling the snapshots of an amateur photographer.

Street Photography and Snapshot Aethetic Page

Postmodern Photography

Photographic innovations have kept pace with developments in art generally, and just as Postmodernism superseded Modernism, a similar pattern followed within photography. Postmodern photography avails itself thus of all previous photographic and artistic styles and movements while acting as a tool for conceptual artists who will typically utilize a range of media in the production of their work.

The general ethos that brings the various strands of Postmodern art together is that there are "no rules" and Postmodern art will very often ask the spectator to reflect on what art is, or, what art should be. Indeed, one of the defining features of Postmodern photography is the idea of the "banal", and photographers such as Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston, Jeff Wall, and Andreas Gursky have all sought to re-examine "banal" (or "boring") subject matter through their camera. These photographers share a preference for color too; a quite clear departure from Modern photography which had typically been rendered in sharp or expressionistic monochrome.

One of the most influential essays on postmodern photography was Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936). In it, Benjamin directly addressed the idea of originality and authenticity in art, both key concerns for Postmodernism. Benjamin put the argument that "mechanical reproduction" (photography, in other words) had revolutionized the art world. Before the invention of the camera, to appreciate art, one visited an art gallery. By "making many reproductions," however, the camera had allowed copies of the artwork to "meet" the spectator in her or his own environment. Though the copy lacked the "aura" that surrounded the original work, Benjamin still saw this as a positive step forward - a "shattering of tradition" as he called it - because mass-reproduction made art more widely accessible and thereby more democratic.

The idea that fine art could lend itself to mass-reproduction was popular with Postmodernists because it challenged the "elitist" label that was often attached to the idea of the fine arts. Many of these ideas were explored initially through Pop Art and in the new freedom that allowed artists to integrate high culture with popular (or consumer) culture.

The catalyst for the shift in postmodern thought was Roland Barthes's famous 1968 essay "The Death of the Author". Barthes's argument was that knowing what the artist's objectives were (their worldview) was irrelevant to reading the work of art and that true meaning "belonged," not to the artist/creator at all, but rather to the spectator/viewer. The spectator was then free to interpret the artwork as she or he wished and the idea - or "myth" - of the male modernist genius (Jackson Pollock or Andy Warhol) was effectively debunked. In theory, this meant that there were no right or wrong way to interpret art and as such there could be no one defining truth - only truths. This reverse in thinking led to the collapse of the old modernist hierarchies (often referred to as the "grand narratives") and a new generation of politically motivated artists emerged, most of whom were concerned with exploring the idea of identity through the Postmodern concept of "the self". In the field of photography, artists such as Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Robert Mapplethorpe, Molly Landreth, Zanele Muholi and Jeff Sheng exemplified this ideological swing.

It is tempting to think that somehow the old modernist ideals had been destroyed once and for all but in reality high art and postmodernism would bleed into one another. Indeed, Conceptual art practices dominated the art world during the 1970s and '80s and photography, as practiced by the likes of John Hilliard, Sherrie Levine, John Baldessari, and Ed Ruscha, featured prominently in the Conceptual sphere.

As a result of the steady innovation of photographic artists, the photograph is now almost universally accepted as a work of art and most American and European art museums have a photographic department, devoted to collecting and exhibiting photography. Having said that, some institutions have been slow to acknowledge the importance of Modern Photography, not least Tate Modern in London that only began growing its collection in 2009 having previously viewed photography as no more than an applied, or common, art.

Key Artists

  • Alfred Stieglitz was an American photographer who published the pioneering journal Camera Work. His gallery 291 was a locus for modern artists in America.
  • The iconic photographer Strand redifined the medium through his portraits, city scenes, and abstract compositions that helped define modernist photography in the twentieth century.
  • Tina Modotti is perhaps best known for her Straight Photographs, documenting the Mexican Muralists, and her activitism with the Mexican Communist Party.
  • Man Ray was an American artist in Paris whose photograms, objects, drawings, and other works played an important role in Dada, Surrealism, modern photography, and avant-garde art at large.
  • Edward Weston helped revolutionize photography so that it became a legitimate modern artistic medium and influenced an entire generation of American photographers.
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Do Not Miss

  • Straight Photography is a movement centered on depicting a scene in sharp focus and detail as a way to emphasize the photographic medium and distinguish it from painting. Straight Photographers manipulated darkroom techniques to enhance the photograph with higher contrast and rich tonality.
  • This ground-breaking practice of photography was inspired by Dada's improvisational practices and the Surrealist's foray into the unconscious, dream, and fantasy realms. Many artists contributed various works that ultimately stretched the possibilities of the medium.

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kate Stephenson

"Modern Photography Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kate Stephenson
Available from:
First published on 17 Oct 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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