The History of Artistic Photography and Its Values in the Modern World

Capturing moments with the emphasis on aesthetics that speaks alone brings photography to its throne. The story is crucial that leaves the audience fascinated. Even if there’s no audience, the artistic photography is more than image.

The first traces of photography appear around 1820 and it developed as an artistic form until the late 19th century. The realistic paintings give precedence to the photography, especially by the French Neoclassicists.

Photography brings new ideas and our viewpoints. The common opinion that photography describes the crude reality is not enough at the creative level. Documenting your life through photography is more than catching the right moment, it’s the way to produce fantasy.

The Early Photography

Photography in the early period was a kind of experiment. Artistic photography or fine art photography has no universal definition. It’s the image that produces the touching impression where the creative process comes into focus. The video art shares the spirit of artistic photography, especially during the post-war time.

In the beginning, photography experienced debate about its artistic role. Artistic photography changed the perception of art and visual culture.

The Photographic Society established in 1853 in London paved the path to the artistic photography and other similar societies in Europe. Now it exists as the Royal Photographic Society which educates and promotes the artistic photography.

An image by Oscar Gustave Rejlander Not Angels but Anglos depicting lovely children
An image by Oscar Gustave Rejlander Not Angels but Anglos depicting lovely children- Credit:

Composition shaped these early photos into an artistic package. The Swedish pioneer of photography, Oscar Gustave Rejlander, was a famous portraitist who studied art in Rome. Behavioural science granted him a special position considering his collaboration with Charles Darwin.

The first major photography exhibition came on surface  in 1858 at the halls of London’s South Kensington Museum.

The Role of Alfred Stieglitz

Alfred Stieglitz took the new way of promoting photography putting in focus the small galleries. His wife Georgia O’Keeffe, overshadowed his success. The Camera Club of New York was a leading scene of photography, appearing in 1896. The movement of Photo-Secession put an accent to the darkroom image.

Some of the famous art galleries that Alfred Stieglitz established with a few partners were 291, the Intimate Gallery, and An American Place. These were the seeds of the various forms and techniques.

Portraits as Expressions of Art

Portraits at an early stage were mostly silhouettes only available to aristocrats and very wealthy. Shaped out of black paper, these portraits are pretty unimaginable in today’s world.

Daguerreotype portrait on the silver plate
Daguerreotype portrait on the silver plate- Credit:

The new types of portraits were more realistic, the so-called daguerreotype. The name derives from Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, its inventor. The commercial success of the daguerreotype became pretty common. Even today we can notice this rustic type of photography at the portraits of our ancestors. Daguerreotypes were often used as souvenirs. Silver-plated copper with a mirror was a basis for this lovely item.

Fashion photography in modern terms tends to be pretty artistic, especially considering the portraits.

Naturalistic Photography

One of the main protagonists of the Photographic Society, Peter Henry Emerson, pleaded for the idea that photographs should represent nature. Under his opinion, the photographs should be purely natural without retouching techniques, models or costumes.

The naturalistic photo showing the reflections of the trees
The naturalistic photo showing the reflections of the trees- Credit:

In this way, the photographies were actually documentaristic. The proper rhythm of photography is done in different tones, textures or light by Emerson.

Documentary Photography

Though not strictly artistic, documentary photography cheers up the artistic values and composition. The first traces of the documentary photography were done in Paris by street vendors. The French photographer Eugene Atget showed exquisite interest for composition, light and photographer’s perspective. Architecture and street photography in Paris were his main inspirations. Before becoming a professional photographer, Eugene Atget was an actor. Most of his clients were artists, painters and architects and various institutions, like Musee Carnavalet and Biblioteque historique de la ville de Paris.

Black and white photo of the Parisian street Rue du Figuier
Black and white photo of the Parisian street Rue du Figuier- Credit:

Czech photographer Josef Sudek captured Prague in black and white. His home and garden intertwined with the Bohemian forests as the main source of inspiration. Simple corners in his surroundings needed an artistic perception depending on the view of light. Several famed museums hold the artwork of Josef Sudek in today’s world.

Lewis Wickes Hine created a collection of social photographs belonging to immigrants and working-class in the United States.

Documentary Photography During the Great Depression in the USA

The Farm Security Administration organised a large project dedicated to agricultural practices during the economic downturn. More than 270 000 images by 11 photographers showed various places in the American South and midlands.

The huge success of the California portraitist Dorothea Lange focused on the exquisite expression of the anxiety during the Great Depression.

Walker Evans influenced several generations of photographers representing the present in the artistic way. The poetic images of his artwork belong to street photography, cheap cafés and various posters.


Pictorialism became pretty popular at the end of 19th century, where reality retreats under the beauty of expression. Pictorialism is focusing on the desired effect, in modern terms, equal to editing and Photoshop. Photographs took the aesthetic value, competing with the paintings.

A Merry Tale, photo by Henry Peach Robinson depicting women in the forest
A Merry Tale, photo by Henry Peach Robinson depicting women in the forest- Credit:

Pictorialism defined photography as artistic, giving it a social role, rather than only a visual style.

Henry Peach Robinson is a main protagonist of pictorialism, separating artistic photography from its scientific role. His book Pictorial Effect in Photography gave name to this popular movement.


With the new track of magazines, photographic images come into traffic. Pretty popular were representations of various wars and revolutionary movements in the world. Photojournalism focuses on the collection of images instead of stories.

The fantastic contribution to photojournalism gave German-made miniature cameras Ermanox (from 1924) and Leica (1925). They were very practical for outdoor pictures and indoor scenes considering the light.

These cameras captured the movements and speed with a detailed approach.

The significant representatives of this progressive style are the Hungarian photographer André Kertész with his artwork of Paris and the Frenchman Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Soldiers with the monuments of Genoa, photo by Robert Cap
Soldiers with the monuments of Genoa, photo by Robert Capa- Credit:

Robert Capa is a legendary photojournalist that captured many wars but unfortunately his death was the ultimate in the Indochina War. His educational work deeply touched the social injustice in the world.

The throne to the picture magazines in Europe opened Munchner Illustrierte Presse and Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung.

Street Photography

Street photography belongs to the documentary world without a social role. Street or candid photography may focus on people or not, but the real background lies in the random captures just anywhere. Landscape photography, on contrary requires sharpness, perfect colours and eye for details.

Composition turns on the difference and a crystal clear purpose. The relation between objects most often plays the game. Light in the street photography takes the indirect role without much attention. The reality comes into question, not the location or the equipment.

Children in front of a door, a photo by Helen Levitt
Children in front of a door, a photo by Helen Levitt- Credit:

Helen Levitt left strong traces in the street photography focusing on underprivileged children. Roy DeCarava, an American painter and photographer, was obsessed with the civil rights movement.


Humans of New York

Humans of New York is probably the most famous collection of the street portraits, photos and interviews. Brandon Stanton established in 2010 this exquisite catalogue with the purpose to learn about locals taking it to 10 000 portraits.

The book itself gained a tremendous success  reaching the top selling position of the New York Times. Humans of New York cheers up the valuable captions opening the shell of the personal experiences and beliefs.

The pretty engaging content shares the marketing spirit at the social media with millions of followers. Human understanding lies in the essence of this successful blog. The spirit of identifying with human emotions leads to a larger business values. Starting conversation in a more personal level brings the more motivating field regarding future.

The documentary series Humans of New York appeared in 2017 at the screens of Facebook Watch.

Colour Photography

The early traces of the colour photography pull the roots around 1840. The basis of such an experiment was a solar spectrum on a sensitive surface. The early stage focused on the three colours- red, green, blue.


Today, the colour photography comes naturally that we don’t wonder what causes this miracle. Hand-colouring firstly went into action as a cheaper variant. Understanding the colour process is the first step towards deeper meaning of the topic. The Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell in 1861 developed the three-colour method. Red, green and blue are the basis that produce the rich palette of colours.

Beautiful autumn colours and water reflections, photo by Stanley Zimney
Beautiful autumn colours and water reflections, photo by Stanley Zimney- Credit:

Gabriel Lippman conducted the phenomenon of light inteference. The world turned to the three-colour theory because of the long exposure the light brings.

Today’s colour theory is based on colour pigments combining red, green and blue.

Modern Area of the Colour Photography

The invention of Kodachrome film by Leopold Godowsky and Leopold Manner in 1935 is the beginning of the modern colour photography. The Kodachrome process involves about 28 various stages all developing from black and white film.

Agfa Company from Germany developed in 1936 a new level of colour photography. It was used for the motion pictures, usually to produce at home.

Kodak film soon became a fantastic competition due to quality, speed and affordable prices.

The Debate About the Artistic Role of Photography

The ongoing debate about photography as an art form needs the definition of art as such considering the philosophy of aesthetics. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines art like this: „the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects“.

Photography can be visually pretty magical where art plays its song. Opponents to this art theory underline the realistic characteristics of photography. The fact that it’s taken by a machine also explains the realistic approach.

Beautiful balerina in the city
Beautiful balerina in the city- Credit:

Photography opens up the curtains of emotions and that’s the deeper meaning of photography. Photography speaks with a thousand words, taking the observer into the world of wonder. It can be rough sometimes, but creative photography doesn’t stand alone.

Putting a frame to the real world offers new challenges giving more than a photography. The artistic mode depends upon the skills of the photographer opening new colours, perspectives or dreams to make.

Social Media and Artistic Photography

Social media play the role of popularizing photography, which’s been more creative than ever, especially thanks to Instagram. It’s the way to create your own community and, beyond geographical limits- become famous.

Instagram is not only a gallery than depends upon seasons and colours. It offers the power to brush up your skills as video tutorials become pretty popular. The inspiration opens up new doors where secrets of new places fade away.

Phone in the hand with the instagram app
Phone in the hand with the instagram app- Credit:

Not only do your skills become sharpened, but the way we see the world. It’s about self-confidence that grows in being a model, in presenting your thoughts and becoming more sensual.

Just because of the colours, someone can dive into photography. Catching the right moment is wisdom that lies in the heart of every photographer.

Even if it’s saturated, Instagram and similar platforms motivate you to overcome your limits and stand out.

The Most Famous Photographers of All Time

As the exquisite source of inspiration, they shake up the world with their authentic style and skills. Softening the petals that belong to photography, their images continue to inspire.

Some of the world’s famed museums hold artworks of these masters. These collections include thousands of photos from the Guggenheim of New York, the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and much more.

The portrait of Cindy Sherman
The portrait of Cindy Sherman- Credit:

Cindy Sherman is an American contemporary artist who touches the world of self-portraits.

Robert Frank started as a commercial photographer in his native Switzerland and became professional in fashion photography. Street photography occupied his interest afterwards.

Eliot Porter is an American photographer who built his artwork upon the brilliant landscape photography.

Imogen Cunningham is a famous American photographer who gave glory to the botanical photography.

Paul Strand shaped the world of the artistic photography in the 20th century.

Conclusion- The Role of Artistic Photography

Artistic photography captures not only the moments, but the creative process that fascinates. It’s the world that doesn’t belong to reality but to the eyes of the photographer.

It developed in its silent steps imitating the paintings. The amazement that photography cheers up opens up the world of imagination.

Modern technology levels up the art where photography shares the values of paintings, even the most famous ones. In artistic photography, the camera is just an instrument, it’s the person behind the camera that brings true value.

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