Modern Art Miniseries: 4/20

Early Photography

"Photography was naturally suited to representing the fast-paced cacophony that increasingly defined modern life." — from Lisa Hostetler’s essay, Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) and American Photography.

The history of photography began with Thomas Wedgwood and Joseph Nicephore Niepce in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries, who created the earliest methods of capturing images, using the camera obscura technique. Niepce later met Louis Daguerre, creator of the Daguerreotype, who perfected the bitumen process in developing photos after his partner died in 1833. Originally, the French government planned to buy the rights to this new technology off of him to showcase to the world (excepting, of course, Great Britain). Although Daguerre retained the patent, he taught fascinated crowds the process he had developed, walking them through the steps and explaining to both curious scientists and artists alike. Daguerreotypes became very popular among the middle classes during this time (one of the reasons the Victorian era is so visually well documented) and became a symbol of the rapidly modernizing world. (x)

A few decades later in America, Alfred Stieglitz formed his own photography circle. He wanted to break away from the painterly style of photography, where many artists sought to emulate the compositional values and subject matter of conventional painting. He organized exhibitions for early photographers and sought to legitimize the practice of photography as an art. Some of his famous pictures include the one took in the steerage class (bottom right) as well as many of Georgia O’Keeffe, an American painter, who later became his wife in 1924. 

The word “photography” literally means to draw or to measure light. At first, early photography imitated painting, and not the other way around. Photography had to fight to prove itself as an art form. It became yet another medium for artists to experiment with in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, documenting American Civil War soldiers, the working class, the bustling city life in Paris, New York, and London, and everyday portraits. 


Georgia O’Keeffe, Alfred Stieglitz, 1918.

Paris Boulevard, Louis Daguerre, 1838 or 1839.

The Artist’s Van, Roger Fenton, 1855.

The Steerage, Alfred Stieglitz, 1907.