From its birth, photography has had a dual character. It is both a medium of artistic expression and scientific invention. Many of the first photographers were also inventors. As photographic equipment and processing has advanced, so has the art form, with photographers blending art, science and technology to create images.
Much can be learned from the masters of photography who came before us. Below, we recount the stories of some of the greatest photographers in history to understand how the art form has evolved and changed over time.
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (March 7, 1765 - July 5, 1833) was a French inventor who is credited with taking the first known photograph in 1825.
Born to a prominent family in Chalon-sur-Saône in the Burgundy region of France, Niépce grew up during a time when popular demand for an affordable way to take photographs was rising. Niépce's early photographic experiments would be motivated by this popular demand. He conducted his experiments with the dual aims of creating copies of prints and documenting real life scenes using a camera obscura.
As early as 1816, Niépce began producing legible but fleeting camera pictures —what he called “points de vue”— at his family estate in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes. Over the next decade he experimented with an array of chemicals, materials, and techniques to innovate a process he called héliographie, or “sun writing.”
In 1827, Niépce created the first photograph, later known as the “Niépce Heliograph.” It shows the view from his work room in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, including the silhouette of a barn and rooftops of nearby buildings. The Niépce Heliograph is believed to be the earliest surviving photograph to be produced with the aid of the camera obscura.
The first photograph taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1825). Source: PhotographyTalk.com
To make his heliograph, Niépce dissolved light-sensitive bitumen in lavender oil and coated a polished pewter plate with the solution. Then, he took a waxed piece of paper, placed it on the pewter plate and inserted the plate into a camera obscura. He set up the camera obscura near a window in his second-story workroom. Accounts vary on how long it took Niépce to expose his first heliograph — anywhere from 8 hours to several days. After being exposed to sunlight, the wax paper yielded the image we know as the first photograph today. In 1827, Niépce wrote about his process and acknowledged that while it required further enhancements it was "the first uncertain step in a completely new direction."
After entering a partnership with Louis Daguerre in 1829 to further perfect his process of heliography, Niépce died suddenly in 1833.
Niépce’s first photograph propelled an era of invention in the evolution of photography that was expanded upon by Louis Daguerre with the daguerreotype process and Henry Fox Talbot with the calotype process.
Louis Daguerre (November 18, 1787 - July 10, 1851) was an artist, painter, photographer, and a developer of the diorama theatre. He is best known for his conception of the daguerreotype process, the first successful form of photography that also expanded the art form’s commercialization potential.
Following the announcement of Niépce’s first photograph in 1827, Daguerre made repeated overtures to the inventor to partner with him so that he could perfect and leverage his heliography process. In 1829, Niépce formally partnered with Daguerre. However, Niépce died suddenly shortly after in 1833. After Niépce’s death, Daguerre continued building off his heliography process and working with his materials. Eventually, he was able to drastically reduce the exposure time of Niépce’s process by honing a practical and reliable chemical process that would become a forerunner to modern photographic processing.
The process named “daguerreotype” involved taking a silver-coated plate sensitized with iodine vapors, exposing it in a large box camera, developing it in mercury fumes, and stabilizing (or making it “fixed”) with salt water or “hypo” (sodium thiosulfate).
Many of Daguerre’s earliest images using his daguerreotype process were still-life compositions of plaster casts. These were ideal subjects as the casts stayed immobile during long exposures and their whiteness reflected light well. He also photographed arrangements of shells and fossils. The first successful daguerreotype was a still life produced in 1837. The first human image was recorded on a daguerreotype in 1839. Daguerre publicly presented his images to members of the French Académie des Sciences on January 7, 1839. Each daguerreotype was a one-of-a-kind image on a polished, silver-plated sheet of copper.
L'Atelier de l'artiste (“The Artist's Studio”) (1837) is widely regarded as the first successful daguerreotype. Source: TheArtStory.org
Daguerre’s process marked a decisive turning point in the history of photography. The daguerreotype made possible the preservation of a moment, a face, or a period of time. This drastically changed the responsibility of the artist. No longer did a painter need to precisely depict a scene with their pen or brush. Instead, they could capture a real life scene literally with the daguerreotype. This further democratized the expensive and time consuming art of painted portraiture. It also made the photographic process commercially viable.
Alfred Stieglitz (January 1, 1864 - July 13, 1946) was an American photographer and art dealer who is credited for his advocacy to make photography an accepted art form at the turn of the century.
Stieglitz took his first photographs in 1883 while studying photochemistry under the renowned photochemist Hermann Wilhelm Vogel at the Technische Hochschule in Berlin. After traveling around Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, he returned to New York City in 1890 and became a partner at a photogravure firm. Stieglitz was fascinated by “the idea of photography” and he began writing articles advocating that it should be treated as an art. He believed photography would profoundly alter the arts and revolutionize the way humans learn and communicate. Inline with his beliefs, in 1902, Stieglitz formed the Photo-Secession, an organization of photographers committed to establishing the artistic merit of photography.
Over the course of 25 years, Stieglitz photographed the streets of New York City, depicting its parks and newly-built skyscrapers. Documenting America through two world wars and the Great Depression, Stieglitz also witnessed the United States’ transformation from a rural, agricultural nation to an industrialized, globalized superpower.
“Two Towers—New York” (1911). Source: The National Gallery of Art
By the late 1910s and early 1920s, Stieglitz began capturing the landscape around his summer home in Lake George, New York. He also became consumed with photographing his future wife, the artist Georgia O’Keeffe. He began developing the idea of a composite portrait — an extended photographic portrait in which he would study one person over a long period. In this vein, he created more than 330 portraits of O’Keeffe over the course of 19 years. Beginning in the 1920s, he also became preoccupied with photographing clouds, and eventually made more than 300 finished studies of them.
Over the course of his career, Stieglitz saw the medium of photography evolve dramatically. When he began taking photographs in the 1880s, photography was only 40 years old, and the process was cumbersome, complicated and only accessible to professional photographers. Furthermore, photography was seen strictly as a tool for recording and describing scenes, not as an art form. By the time Stieglitz took his last photograph in 1937, the public perception of photography had been elevated to that of an art form — thanks in large part to Stieglitz’s efforts. Through the publications he edited (Camera Notes, Camera Work, and 291), the exhibitions he organized and his own insightful photographs, Stieglitz demonstrated the expressive power of the medium.
Dorothea Lange (May 26, 1895 - October 11, 1965) was an American documentary photographer and photojournalist whose portraits humanized and amplified the plight of displaced farmers during the Great Depression. Her work remains a profound influence on documentary photography to this day.
After working at a photo studio while studying at the New York Training School for Teachers in 1913, Lange decided to pursue photography as a profession. She would go on to study photography at Columbia University as well as at Clarence Hudson White’s prestigious school of photography. She also apprenticed under Arnold Genthe, a leading portrait photographer. By 1918, Lange had moved to San Francisco and opened a successful portrait studio. In the 1920s, Lange began traveling around the Southwest region of the United States, photographing Indigenous Native Americans. In the 1930s, as the Great Depression took hold, she began photographing people and social tensions in San Francisco, including breadlines and labor strikes.
From 1935-1940, Lange began working as a photographer for the Resettlement Administration (today known as the Farm Security Administration) a Depression-era government agency working to raise public awareness and aid for struggling farmers. It was during this time period that Lange photographed her most enduring portrait, “Migrant Mother” while visiting a pea pickers camp in Nipomo, California.
“Migrant Mother” (1936). Source: The Library of Congress
Lange was one of the first photographers to use her camera as an instrument of democracy. Unlike Alfred Stieglitz, whose mission was to classify his photographs as art, Lange used her photographs as agents of social change. She was skilled at patiently and compassionately interacting with her subjects, an ability that allowed her to capture the inner lives of struggling Americans. Because of her expertise, Lange became the first woman awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1940.
When WWII started, Lange was hired by the Office of War Information (OWI) to photograph the internment of Japanese Americans. She was hired again by the OWI in 1945 to document the San Francisco conference that formed the United Nations.
Lange’s commitment to using photography to document social justice issues remained constant throughout her life. Following her beliefs, she would write essays urging contemporary photographers to reconnect with the world through their lens and focus on capturing reality rather than illusion, writing: “Bad as it is, the world is potentially full of good photographs. But to be good, photographs have to be full of the world.”
Ansel Adams (February 20, 1902 - April 22, 1984) was an American photographer, artist and activist who is best known for his stunning black and white photographs of the American West.
Adams received his first camera in 1916 and throughout the 1920s, began shooting impressive landscape photographs of Yosemite National Park while working as a custodian at the Sierra Club lodge. It was during this time that he developed a devotion to the Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra. Throughout his career, this attachment would fuel the majority of Adams' most powerful and original work.
“Half Dome, Merced River, Winter, Yosemite National Park, California” (1938). Source: Christie’s
In 1930, Adams met American photographer Paul Strand and was influenced by the luminous tonality and simplicity of his work, which contrasted to the Pictorialist style that was popular at the time. Pictorialism was a style that highlighted a soft focus and idealized or romantic imagery rather than the documentation of stark, real life. Adams would go on to reject this style of photography, aiming for a new “pure” and sharp focus approach. In 1932, Adams formed Group f/64 with a handful of other prominent Bay Area photographers. The group’s commitment was to taking photographs that displayed a sharp-focus, modernist style that used the entire photographic gray scale, from black to white.
Adams’ photographs are characterized by pristine, technically perfect landscapes. His style was rooted in his passionate appreciation for the natural world. Furthermore, his work evolved alongside his activism as a conservationist. From 1934 to 1971 Adams served as a director of the Sierra Club. Many of his later photography books were also published with the goal of raising awareness for the preservation of the natural landscapes that they showcased. The most notable of these books was This Is the American Earth published in 1960, which helped reawaken the conservation movement in the 1960s and ’70s.
In 1980, shortly before Adams’ death, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter for his work as a photographer and environmentalist. As said by President Carter in his award speech: “It is through [Adams’] foresight and fortitude that so much of America has been saved for future Americans.”