Visual Culture

10 Images That Changed the Course of Photography

Ian Haydn Smith
Apr 19, 2018 8:54PM

Since inventor Nicéphore Niépce snapped the first-ever photograph in the 1820s, the medium has come a long way over its two-century existence. A new book by Ian Haydn Smith—The Short Story of Photography: A Pocket Guide to Key Genres, Works, Themes & Techniques, from Laurence King Publishing—spotlights pivotal images that have shaped both artistic expression and public opinion. Below, we bring a selection of some of those images, accompanied by excerpts from the book, which is out on May 8th.

Nicéphore Niépce, View from the Window at Le Gras, 1826–27

Nicéphore Niépce, View from the Window at Le Gras, 1826–27. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Inventor and scientific pioneer Nicéphore Niépce developed his interest in lithography and experiments with a camera obscura into one of the first major breakthroughs in photography.

The earliest surviving photographic image was believed lost for over 50 years, until a print was uncovered in a trunk in 1952 by the photography historian Helmut Gernsheim. To produce it, Niépce took a pewter plate and coated it with a thin layer of bitumen of Judea, a naturally occurring asphalt. The compound’s light-sensitive qualities enabled him to develop a process he called Heliography. The coating became hardened in its exposure to light, and when it was washed with the solvent oil of lavender, only the hardened elements remained—the image having literally been etched by the sun’s rays. Niépce’s first attempt at capturing this view from one of the rooms in his family home was made on the surface of a lithographic plate, but it was eventually erased. This later photograph was originally believed to have been the result of an eight- or nine-hour exposure to the sun’s light on the facing walls. But one researcher, using Niépce’s notes and the same photographic process, placed the exposure time at a few days.

Man Ray, Ingres’ Violin, 1924


American-born Man Ray made Paris his home, became the photographic face of both the Dada and the Surrealist movements, blurred the line between fashion and art to rapturous effect, and brought dreams to life through his work.

For this portrait of the nightclub singer, actress, painter, and artist’s model Kiki de Montparnasse, Man Ray painted the f-holes of a stringed instrument onto a photographic print, and then re-photographed the print. The image appeared in the 13th issue of André Breton’s Littérature magazine in June 1924, and practically heralded the arrival of the Surrealist movement. It references one of Man Ray’s inspirations, the French Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who also played the violin. With Kiki’s body transformed into a musical instrument, there is a hint that she is something to be played. (She and Man Ray were lovers when this image was created, which further complicates any interpretation.) Her apparent lack of limbs also emphasizes her vulnerability. The title is a French idiom that means “hobby,” which further hints at the ambivalence of the image, between objectification and an appreciation of beauty, albeit with more than a dash of humor.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #96, 1981

Cindy Sherman
Untitled # 96, 1981
me Collectors Room

No photographer has crafted such a complex negotiation between viewer and subject, societal attitudes to gender, and questions of identity through self-portraiture as Cindy Sherman.

This image comes from the second series of Sherman’s foray into color. If the first series, which depicted her against rear-screen projections, evokes a bygone era of film and television, this series explores the way women are presented in pornographic magazines. Commissioned for Artforum, each photograph was to appear across a double-page spread in the style of Playboy centerfolds. Shot in close-up, an approach she would continue to employ in subsequent projects, Sherman is always seen looking off to the side. The vantage point of the viewer accentuates the vulnerability of this subject.

In this image, Sherman uses orange to almost kitsch effect, with her skirt raised to expose part of her thigh, hinting at violation. Her expression could be read as pensiveness; the personal ad in her hand suggests that she has just made, or is about to make, a call. The photograph goes beyond mere parody of the form, with Sherman questioning both the representation and the reception of such imagery.

Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait in Drag (Platinum Pageboy Wig), 1981

Leading the Pop Art vanguard, Andy Warhol embraced the limitations of the Polaroid camera, producing thousands of portraits.

Photography had always been central to Warhol’s work, albeit via his screen prints. An artist for whom identity remained a moveable feast, the self-portraits he shot between 1962 and 1986 are fascinating for the way he presents himself. With each series, his face appears more like a mask. He started using Polaroids in the 1970s, initially as the basis for more complex works, but many never progressed beyond simple, often crudely shot portraits.

Warhol’s self-portraits in drag recall Man Ray’s photographs of Marcel Duchamp in female dress. Drag queens fascinated Warhol, and this series blurs the line between genders. His expression remains blank, yet there is a hint of vulnerability, which could be read as a desire both to be looked at and for the viewer to turn away. Those contradictions lay at the heart of Warhol’s celebrity, which he both embraced and shunned. The use of Polaroid flattens the image and the light is harsh, but Warhol uses subtle shadows to soften his outline. The red of his lipstick and blusher adds a playful touch of élan.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Beatrice, 1866

Julia Margaret Cameron, Beatrice, 1866. Courtesy of the Getty Museum.

An early champion of photography as an art form, Julia Margaret Cameron produced beguiling portraits that prioritized artistry and the spiritual essence of an image over technical perfection.

Ethereal and mournful, Cameron’s visualization of Beatrice Cenci, immortalized by Percy Bysshe Shelley’s verse drama of 1918, best exemplifies the photographer’s desire to move away from the instantaneous towards art. Inspired by Guido Reni’s portrait of around 1600 of the Italian noblewoman executed for conspiring to murder her brutal father, Cameron wanted to tap into the spirituality of her subject—to reach beyond the physical and into a realm of pure emotion. Although dismissed by many of her peers, Cameron’s work has gained currency over time. Her images employ light and soft focus to startling effect.

Beatrice was taken with a large camera that Cameron had recently acquired, which held a 15-by-12-inch negative. In addition to producing grander tableaux, Cameron used the larger scale to move even closer to her subject. Like so many of her images, Beatrice finds its subject’s gaze fixed away from the lens. If Reni’s portrait suggests the faintest hint of plea in her expression, Cameron’s photograph records resignation, acceptance of the fate that lies in store.

Lewis Hine, Mechanic and Steam Pump, 1921

Lewis Hine, Mechanic and Steam Pump, 1921. Courtesy of the Getty Museum.

Lewis Hine’s early work prompted changes in U.S. child labor laws, while his approach to documentary photography in the 1920s presented a portrait of urban industrialization that contrasted sharply with the rural images produced a decade later by photographers commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

After his groundbreaking work with the National Child Labor Committee, Hine widened his focus to document all aspects of an expanding industrial workforce. However, his enthusiasm for the mechanization of contemporary American society was tempered by the conditions in which he witnessed countless people working.

Mechanic and Steam Pump first appeared in the December 1921 edition of the sociological journal The Survey Graphic. It was one of many photographs taken throughout the decade by Hine inside the country’s vast power plants. Accentuating the lines of every pivot and joint, the image highlights the photographer’s awe at the scale of industry, yet remains committed to his notion that the cast machinery could function effectively only through the intense labour of the U.S. workforce. It presents a symbiotic relationship between man and machine, the spanner a channel between metal and flesh. In this meticulously constructed shot, Hine transforms a lone worker into a symbol of human industry.

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936

Dorothea Lange
'Migrant Mother', ca. 1936
Galerie Prints

With the onset of the Great Depression, Dorothea Lange abandoned her studio for the outside world and became one of the most compassionate chroniclers of American working-class life.

The power of Lange’s photograph White Angel Breadline (1933), featuring a homeless man queuing for food, attracted the attention of the Farm Security Administration (FSA). They invited Lange to become one of a group of photographers, led by Walker Evans, who would record life in America’s rural states. She travelled the country for five years, photographing people as they searched for work. These images, like those of Lange’s colleagues, contrast significantly with earlier movements. If photographers such as Lewis Hine had previously emphasized an increasingly mechanized society, the FSA photographers edged towards a more pastoral documentary form.

Migrant Mother is perhaps the most famous image to have come out of the FSA project. Lange met Florence Owens Thompson and her family among thousands of migrant workers inside a pea-pickers’ camp in Nipomo Mesa, California. She took just a handful of shots. The family’s poverty can be seen not only in the clothes Thompson and her children wear, but also in the backdrop. The seam running from the top right corner makes clear that this is canvas—a tent of some kind—but it appears more patchwork than anything sturdy. The children, unkempt cherubs, face away from the camera, drawing our attention to the Madonna-like figure in the centre. Thompson’s expression and pose—hands were a regular focus of Lange’s attention—are those of a mother worried about the future, and made her a symbol of America’s economic plight in the 1930s.

Timothy H. O’Sullivan, A Harvest of Death, 1863

Timothy H. O’Sullivan, A Harvest of Death, 1863. Courtesy of the Getty Museum.

An apprentice in his teens to Matthew Brady, Timothy H. O’Sullivan became one of the most important chroniclers of the American Civil War.

The images captured during the conflict represent a seismic shift in the role of photojournalism in the United States. O’Sullivan was one of ten photographers Brady commissioned to record the war, photographing key figures and military encampments, and getting as close to the battlefield as safety would allow. The resulting images, Brady noted, presented audiences with “the eye of history.”

Gettysburg was the most brutal battle of the war, resulting in the deaths of of approximately 50,000 soldiers over three days, from July 1–3, 1863. O’Sullivan chillingly captured the bleak, deathly landscape in its immediate aftermath, while bodies lay strewn across the field of conflict. The photograph’s title was supplied by Alexander Gardner in his book Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War, which featured many of the conflict’s most important images. Although Gardner described the scene as featuring rebel dead, subsequent scholars have noted that it mainly features Union soldiers. Most of the bodies in the photograph are missing their shoes, which were routinely removed owing to the scarcity of footwear. Stark and direct, the image is made more unsettling by the mist—a death shroud—in the distance. Unlike modern wars, which typically devastate the earth, the landscape here looks unaffected by the conflict; were it not for the bodies strewn across the field, this scene might be a pastoral idyll.

Robert Frank, Parade, Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955

Few photographic projects have had an impact comparable to the work Robert Frank produced in the mid-1950s when he recorded daily life in America.

In his book The Americans (1958), Frank aimed to capture what naturalized citizens might choose to photograph were they to journey around their adopted country. He envisioned a collection of images that are “anywhere and everywhere—easily found, not easily selected and interpreted.” Between 1955 and 1957 Frank travelled the length and breadth of the country. The resulting 83 images were divided into four sections, with each image linked thematically or conceptually. With images that convey the tapestry of American rural and urban life, Frank helped to transform photographic practice.

Parade, Hoboken, New Jersey is the first image to appear in “The Americans”. The message conveyed here is a far cry from the Rockwellian portraits that adorned the covers of The Saturday Evening Post in the 1950s, featuring a casual style that appeared radical at the time. The views from the two windows on this summer day are obscured, one by dirty glass, while in the other a woman is “blinded.”

Gillian Wearing, WORK TOWARDS WORLD PEACE, from the series “Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say,” 1992-93

Gillian Wearing
Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say (Work towards world peace), 1992-1993
Tanya Bonakdar Gallery

Questions of representation dominate the work of Gillian Wearing, as she gives voice to her subjects or explores identity through self-portraiture.

In challenging preconceptions about photographic subjects, with this series of street portraits Wearing hands power back to the people being photographed, allowing them to express what they think or how they feel. The idea for the series stemmed from the photographer’s ambivalence towards the conventions of portraiture, and her feeling that she “couldn’t bear the idea of taking photographs of people without their knowing”. Approaching strangers on the street, Wearing asked them to write what they were thinking on a piece of white paper. From a black police officer exclaiming “HELP” and an elderly man writing “ME,” to a young woman stating “MY GRIP ON LIFE IS RATHER LOOSE!” Wearing sought to capture the juxtaposition of thought, expression and interpretation.

This image was used in 2017 by London mayor Sadiq Khan and the artist David Shrigley as part of a series of artworks entitled #LondonIsOpen that appeared in the city’s 270 Underground stations, highlighting its openness to the world, despite the referendum that had just voted in favour of Britain leaving the European Union.

Ian Haydn Smith