Tag Archives: Modernism

Photography theory: A brief overview of the key stages of development


Figure 1: Hippolyte Bayard Drowning Man (1840)

In order to contextualise the forthcoming part 4 Reading Photographs I have set out a basic understanding of the main stages development in photography theory. Bate (2009:26) identifies three significant periods in time where photography theory formed an overwhelming identifiable perspective in answering the traditional theoretical questions; what is it? What does it do? What is the impact?

Victorian Aesthetics from the 1840s onwards 

From the outset it was widely recognised that the process of photography contained an inherent quality to create a copy of the real or what the Victorians referred to as the natural world, (Fox-Talbot’s first book of photographs in 1844 was entitled The Pencil of Nature).

Wells (2009) describes how European pioneers; the explorers, anthropologists, merchants, military and the growing middle-classes used photography to record, categorize and, effectively, justify their expanding global horizons and with it their growing ambition, wealth and assets.

Challenging the naturalists’ debate was the belief that photography was an emerging artistic medium and the pictorialists composed artistic impressions using the technique to create art. The first Photographic processes were officially invented in 1839 by artist Louis Jaqcues Daguerre and inventor and scientist Henry Fox-Talbot but it is perhaps Hippolyte Bayard’s photography of the Drowning Man (1840) which perfectly highlights the original theoretical debate as to whether photography was an art form or an application of science and technology.

Hippolyte Bayard’s image Drowning Man (1840) is his depiction of himself as a broken man cheated out of his rightful place in history as the inventor of photography by friends of Daguerre and as such is perhaps the first example of the art of photography, although “at the time of it’s conception in the late 18th and early 19th centuries the identity of photography was defined by a shifting mix of ideas about a world where human culture, previously regarded as dominated by nature, was seen to be increasingly in control of natural phenomena.”(Bull, S. 2009:9)

1920s and 1930s and the period of Modernism

Still and moving images in the form of photographs and films were the primary language of media and communications driving the new forces of progress and universality which were spread through the rise of the film industry, advertising and marketing, consumerism, fashion and leisure; core features of the new mass culture society created by capitalism and fuelled by industrialisation.

This new world of mass reproduction enabled photographic imagery to be distributed on an unprecedented scale leading to the next significant period of theoretical thinking around photography.

One of the most important essays of the time was perhaps Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) previously reviewed (see here); a significant point raised by Benjamin escaped most observers for many years. Benjamin writes, “Earlier much futile thought had been devoted to the question of whether photography is art. The primary question – whether the very invention of photography has transformed the entire nature of art was not raised.” (Bate, D 2009.27)

During this period of modernism the camera was still regarded as a mechanical tool of precision but at the same time people were now becoming individuals and as such could be regarded as the creative artist who could master the camera for their own ends. The era of straight and defined photography where the camera was merely a recording device taking pictures at the click of a button had passed.


Figure 2: Robert Frank, taken from The Americans

Photography as a medium was now developing through documentary and Henri Cartier-Bresson’s significant photographic concept The Decisive Moment; The so-called Masters of Photography were unchallenged and were experiencing a golden era as they were deemed to be blessed with a natural gift which what the influential John Szarkowski, curator of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art New York termed ‘The Photographer’s Eye’.

The rise in prosperity and living standards experienced in post-war American and Europe was well documented capturing real peoples’ lives through what was still regarded as an objective lens. Many of the concerns around photography during this period centred on aesthetics and there was a growing belief that “photographic modernism isolated photographs from their surrounding context entirely. (Philips 1989)” (Bull S 2010, 11)

1960s, 1970s and the period of Post-Modernism

Post-modernism rejected the progress and universality of modernism and interrogated the modern era against a backdrop of the political and social unrest of the 1960s and 1970s such as the student riots in Paris, the second wave of feminism, the struggle for American civil rights and the protests against the Vietnam War.

Photographers and theorists interrogated the role that the medium played in creating and perpetuating the social structures which now existed and questioned photography’s social purpose.     

Marxism and Art: Beware of Fascist Feminism 1977 by Hannah Wilke 1940-1993

Figure 3: Hannah Wilke (1977) Marxism and Art: Beware of Fascist Feminism


As a result photography and art became highly became political and if modernists focussed on what lay within the frame post-modernists were very much concerned with the social issues of the world which sat outside of the frame.

Photographic imagery was undoubtedly the central feature of a popular social culture fuelled by capitalism and mass production and characterised by consumerism and materialism.

Post-modernism no longer concerned itself with the aura of authenticity, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard used the term, ‘Simulacra’: copies for which there was no original.” (Wells, L 2009.22)


Figure 4: Amalia Ulman taken from Excellences and Perfections

Summing up

“A number of contemporary critics now argue that photography has given up attempting to provide depictions of things which have an autonomous existence outside the image and we as spectators no longer possess the psychic energy needed to compare the photograph with objects, persons or events in the world external to the frame of the camera. If a simulacrum is a copy for which there is no original; it is, as it were, a copy in it’s own right.” (Wells, L 2009. 23)

Whether this is ‘post-modernism’ or ‘post post-modernism’ I’m not entirely sure right now but this certainly a precursor for further reading and reflection.

I am increasingly beginning to recognise that theory (of photography) is essential if we are to contextualise and make sense of specific thoughts and debates. Whilst 1000 words hardly does justice to 170 years of photography theory and history this research and reflection has provided an opportunity to consolidate my understanding of photography theory and position future learning and development.


Bate, D (2010) Photography: The Key Concepts London: Bloomsbury

Bull, S (2010) Photography Abingdon: Routledge

Wells, L. (2009). Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th ed.) Abingdon: Routledge

List of Images 

Figure 1: Drowned Man by Bayard, H taken from

http://photographyhistory.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/bayard-forgotten-pionner.html (accessed 18/03/2016)

Figure 2: Robert Franks taken from The Americans, accessed 21/02/2016) from


Figure 3: Hannah Wilke (1977) Marxism and Art: Beware of Fascist Feminism

http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/wilke-marxism-and-art-beware-of-fascist-feminism-p79357(accessed 26/05/2016)

Figure 4: Amalia Ulman taken from Excellences and Perfections

http://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/amalia-ulman/#_ (accessed 25/05/2016)