A History of Photography in 12 Photographs

Artsy Editorial
Sep 30, 2013 11:14PM

Today everything exists to end in a photograph.” —Susan Sontag

From its humble invention in the hands of scientists, through its long fight to achieve the status of “fine art”, to its current proliferation via the cameras of mobile phones, the two-century rise of photography has been nothing short of meteoric. Although we had to exclude dozens from the list, we thought we’d take you on a brief tour through the history of Artsy’s most popular medium, through the works of 12 photographers. 

William Henry Fox Talbot

William Henry Fox Talbot invented the calotype, one of the original photographic processes along with the daguerreotype (invented around the same time by his main rival, Louis Daguerre). Working with paper treated with light-sensitive silver chloride, Talbot produced his first successful photographic image in 1835; credit for the first photo goes to Nicéphore Niépce, however, whose images made with a camera obscura date from 1826.

Julia Margaret Cameron


Julia Margaret Cameron was one of the early pioneers of portrait photography as an art form. Influenced by literature and history, Cameron captured Victorian society in her sensitive images, mastering the labor-intensive wet collodion/glass plate process to produce blur, loose compositions, and other aesthetic effects that were considered radical in their day.

Eadweard Muybridge

Eadweard Muybridge broke major ground with his innovations in stop-motion photography. His images of animals and people in action, both shot and meant to be viewed in quick succession (the latter using a Zoopraxiscope), led to breakthroughs in our understanding of movement and laid much of the foundation for motion pictures.

August Sander

Maler (Anton Räderscheidt), 1926
Galerie Julian Sander
Girl in Fairground Caravan, 1927-1932
Galerie Julian Sander

August Sander’s epic 40-year project, Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts (People of the Twentieth Century), encompassed hundreds of portraits of German citizens, from the intellectual to the homeless. Shot with a straightforward yet sensitive style, Sander’s images formed an important typology of German society during the world wars, inspiring generations of artists to work in his ethnographic, documentary vein.

Edward Steichen

Edward Steichen helped develop the painterly Pictorialist approach to photography, co-founding the Photo-Secession and probably contributing more to the acceptance of photography as a fine art form than any other individual. He also championed many of the most important early European Modernist artists (like Picasso, Brancusi, Matisse), spreading their influence to America via his New York galleries.

Man Ray

Man Ray, the radically experimental Surrealist, is best known for his profound achievements in photography, pushing the bounds of the medium where none had before. He is closely identified with the eponymous “rayograph” technique (the same as a photogram) he pioneered, with which he produced semi-abstract images by arranging objects on photosensitive paper and exposing it to light.

Ansel Adams

Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, CA, 1944
Robert Mann Gallery

Ansel Adams is synonymous with landscape photography. The master photographer was a founding member of the f/64 group, whose “straight photography” valued technical mastery and precision above all else. Adams meticulously honed his exposures and experimented with new techniques. “You don’t take a photograph, you make it,” he famously said.

Robert Frank

Robert Frank is one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed photographers, known for his casual street photography whose blurs, everyday subjects, and off-hand compositions shocked viewers in their day. The Americans is his iconic work—a series of images he shot while traveling throughout 1950s America, producing the defining visual record of the postwar United States.

Richard Avedon

Richard Avedon was one of the instrumental fashion photographers who elevated their craft to the level of “fine” art over the course of the 20th century. Among the many advances he brought with his sensitive portraits and elegant fashion shoots, perhaps none is more immediately recognizable than the bold white backlighting technique that bears his name.

William Eggleston

Untitled (Road with yellow lines), 1976/2011
Gagosian Gallery

William Eggleston is the best known of the New American Color Photographers, and his 1976 exhibition at MoMA was the first major museum exhibition to show color photography. Although derided by many at the time, Eggleston’s brightly colored images of classic Americana are largely credited with legitimizing color photography as a fine art form.

Cindy Sherman

Untitled, 1976/2005
Metro Pictures

Cindy Sherman’s then-radical “Untitled Film Stills” put staged photography on the map as a legitimate—and highly sought-after—artistic technique. Blurring the lines between reality and fiction, identity and disguise, Sherman’s staged, costumed self-portraits would help pave the way for a new generation of artists, from Laurie Simmons to Gregory Crewdson.

Andreas Gursky

Paris, Montparnasse, 1993
White Cube

Andreas Gursky is the foremost member of the Dusseldorf School, whose large-format, rigorously composed photographs dominate the market today. Known for his expansive views of land- and cityscapes, whose massive scale and minute detail create an enveloping, dizzying experience, Gursky holds the record for the most expensive photograph ever sold at auction.

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Artsy Editorial