From Social Activism to the Selfie: A History of Modern Photography

Subtlety in the Details by Ben Zank

You may not know it, but your carefully curated Instagram feed has most likely been informed by decades of photographic movements that preceded it. We asked our resident art guide, Angella d'Avignon to take us through the history of modern and contemporary photography from the incredibly cumbersome early photography of the mid-1800's to the tumblr-esque Still Life New Wave of the nineties to today. An interesting pattern to note: the artform itself is hugely impacted by the speed and efficiency of technology itself, which is probably why you don't see a lot of selfies from the mid 1800's.

American critic Susan Sontag wrote, "To collect photographs is to collect the world." The most popular medium in contemporary art, photography has been growing exponentially since its invention in the 1830's. Its presence is ubiquitous and its impact, global - anyone can take a photo and because of this, photography has become the most democratic of the art forms. Even though it's a fairly recent phenomena, photography is as vast as contemporary art itself with as many trends and movements.

Staged Photography (1839-present)

From Social Activism to the Selfie A History of Modern Photography

Think Pink by Laura Beckerdite

Early photography was a laborious process and a single exposure took a long time. (The first photograph took several days to expose!) Daguerrotypes were the first publicly known photographs, and involved a silver-plated copper sheet, a chemical treatment to develop the image, and a water bath to fix it. I wonder what the early practitioners of photography would think if they knew we took photos with our phones? Or that photography became digitized at all?

Because photos took so long to take, staged photography was the posture of the day. Scenes were constructed, prop-heavy, and involved costuming - think of the set up when you go to get a vintage-y western style portrait taken. Or StarShots! Think about StarShots for those of you who hung out at the mall. This trend has endured the test of time and became popular around the 1980's with artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman, and Bill Viola who captured stunning portraits as simple as someone's face to elaborate movie sets in somebody's swank backyard in LA.

Names to drop: Ansel Adams, Robert Mapplethorpe, Bill Viola, Alfred Stiegliz, Sam Taylor-Wood (now Sam Taylor-Johnson, she's also a filmmaker!)

Examples of Staged Photography:

Portraiture and Street Photography (1880's-Present)

From Social Activism to the Selfie A History of Modern Photography

Girls on Beach by Gordon Chalmers

"A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know." - Diane Arbus

Street photography is as straightforward as its name. When the first handheld camera was invented in the 1880's, anyone who could get their hands on a camera could snap photos in the street. Long exposure times and harrowing hours in the studio were left behind and street photography loomed large. According to Artsy, "Notable early street photographers include Paul Strand and Walker Evans, whose portraits of immigrants and the urban poor continue to shape our image of New York in the early 20th century." In fact it was photographer Lewis Hine who inspired Upton Sinclair's book, The Jungle, which exposed exploitative labor practices and unsanitary conditions which endangered the lives of workers. (You'll definitely recognize his photographs, they've been used in history books for decades.)

In this way, photography was used as a force for social activism and later inspired the birth of the Conceptual photography movements of the 1960's and 70's, which showed the world - quite literally - what injustice looked like. Street photography style rejected the cool modernist aesthetic of the mid century and later in the 1960's, shots made by Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander were associated with the snapshot aesthetic.

Names to drop: Martin Parr, Rineke Dijkstra, Diane Arbus, Vivian Maier, Garry Winogrand, Nan Goldin

Examples of Portraiture and Street Photography: 

New American Color Photography (1960's-Present)

From Social Activism to the Selfie A History of Modern Photography

Ice Cream by Debbie Carlos

A new type of voyeurism and tourist-in-your-hometown mentality emerged when Kodak introduced Ektachrome color slide film in 1959. Not only could you buy film in a drugstore you could get it processed cheaply to boot. The first museum exhibition of color photography took place at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976 and featured William Eggleston. New York Times' critic Hilton Kramer wrote that it was "perfectly boring," but did not realize that this show was a historic moment for photography. Other artists like Richard Misrach were doing similar things and were eventually called the New American Color photography, for their dark room technique and use of color. These images focused on contemporary day to day life, "banality" as it's called, "presenting raw portraits of suburbia and critiques of 'The American Dream'".

Names to drop: William Eggleston, John DivolaAlec Soth

Examples of New American Color Photography: 


The New Landscape and New Topographics (1970's-Present)

From Social Activism to the Selfie A History of Modern Photography

Marble by Santo Sagese

"New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape" was an exhibition that epitomized a key moment in American landscape photography in 1975. Marked by an absence of people in frame, new topographics focus on the long terms effects human civilization has on the earth. This new style presented dense compositions of saturated landscapes, completely empty yet completely observant. They brought a new perspective to landscape photography that focused on an objective documentation of locations such as fields, parking lots, and abandoned buildings. Writer, art critic, and feminist activist Lucy Lippard wrote of landscape photography, "...Given that photographic content is sometimes buried in beauty, contemporary landscape photographers are often condemned to making pretty pictures." The New Landscape and New Topographics were often made in large formats, were highly detailed, and mostly minimalist in subject matter. They were also a reference to Ansel Adams earlier work in which he photographed, almost obsessively, the American west in stark, striking black and white.

Names to drop: David Maisel, Stephen ShoreAndreas Gursky

Examples of New Landscape and New Topographics: 

The Still Life New Wave (1990's-Present)

From Social Activism to the Selfie A History of Modern Photography

Keep Your Tampon Safe by Sookieye

Christopher Schreck was writing about photography around the same time I was back in 2012 and beat all of us to the punch when he coined the term "Still Life New Wave" to describe a new style of Staged photography. Someone at VICE affectionately called it a lazy epidemic three years later because of its ubiquity. Blame it on Tumblr to ruin our favorite phases of art or completely obliterate them with its rapid image cycling and ability to remove attribution on their platform. A trend in design as much a in photography, the Still Life New Wave relies on punny, absurdist juxtapositions in which the object is subject and the style reminiscent of eighties stock photography - only more bizarre and curated. It's a super catchy style and it's no wonder it's reached the point of archetype - mainstream product styling has caught on, making the trend about a trend a, well, trend. We live in meta times, ladies and gentlepeople.

Names to drop: Barbara Kasten, Jan GrooverStephanie Gonot

Examples of Still Life New Wave: 


The Rise of the Selfie in the Instagram Age

We are now without a doubt, a culture inundated by images. Each of us, with the power of access (to the internet, that is), have become purveyors of images - photojournalists of our own lives. In the realm of social media, especially Instagram, we control our narratives. Selfies are a major force in this realm. While the term "selfie" is less than ten years old, self-portraiture is as old as photography itself. While ubiquitous, the selfie is a construction of the self - yet, they are created and received in very similar ways. Which is to say, we're all taking on the same posture to take the same picture but we all have individuals faces and realities.

 Want to know more? Check out Contemporary Art 101

From Social Activism to the Selfie A History of Modern Photography





psychologist commented on Sunday, April 24, 2016 2:56am
Adaralbion commented on Tuesday, April 26, 2016 5:49pm
Love it!
PhotoArtbyDmh commented on Friday, April 29, 2016 1:57pm
Good read.
Nyay Bhushan commented on Saturday, May 14, 2016 3:38am
This is a great perspective on how photography has evolved. And also great to see the work of fellow Society6 photographers.
Nyay Bhushan commented on Saturday, May 14, 2016 3:40am
Here's an Indian perspective :

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