A History of Photography in 12 Photographs

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. 

 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  date from 1826.

 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.

 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.

’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  of German society during the world wars, inspiring generations of artists to work in his ethnographic, documentary vein.

 helped develop the painterly  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.

, the radically experimental , 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 ) he pioneered, with which he produced semi-abstract images by arranging objects on photosensitive paper and exposing it to light.

 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.

 is one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed photographers, known for his casual  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.

 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.

 is the best known of the , 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  are largely credited with legitimizing color photography as a fine art form.

’s then-radical “Untitled Film Stills” put  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  to .

 is the foremost member of the , 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.