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Explore the many different ways photography has been used to document and examine the modern world.


Some photographers pose their subjects, others capture candid images of people. Sometimes, it can be hard to tell the difference.

Photography and Public Image

Today, the identity of a notable figure or celebrity may be largely crafted through photographic images.

Photography as Witness

Photographs of major historic events often help define collective memory or provide indisputable evidence of moments in history.

Sets, Stories, and Situations

Throughout the history of the medium, photographers have staged images to evoke or reference literature, films, or real events.

The Photographic Record

Since its inception, photography has helped build a collective archive of human experience.

Photographs can offer glimpses into lives past, long-ago events, and forgotten places. They help shape our understanding of identity, culture, and history. In the 1830s, several photographic techniques were developed in rapid succession and soon photographic images were adopted as memory aides, surrogates for direct observation, and even trustworthy duplicates of important documents. Photography was perceived as a tool for accurately, objectively, and permanently documenting the world.

Photographers, scientists, and social historians in the late-19th and early-20th centuries created photographic archives of people, places, and natural phenomena in an effort to empirically catalog these subjects. However, in the latter half of the 20th century, new perspectives emerged challenging the idea of the photographic archive as an objective record. Recently many photographers and artists have re-examined and re-interpreted these archives and the histories they tell by appropriating and altering existing images with text and digital manipulations.

One who uses a camera or other means to produce photographs.

An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.

The method with which an artist, writer, performer, athlete, or other producer employs technical skills or materials to achieve a finished product or endeavor.

The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.

A representation of a particular individual.

The characteristics that determine one's self.

In the visual arts, appropriation is the intentional borrowing, copying, and alteration of preexisting images and objects.


SLIDESHOW: Photographs of neighborhoods, taken and submitted by the MoMA Learning community. Add your images by uploading them to Flickr and tagging them “MoMA Learning My Neighborhood.” Check back often to see what others have added!

Questions & Activities

  1. Sanders vs. The Bechers

    Look. View photographs of buildings and water towers by German husband-and-wife team Bernd and Hilla Becher. The couple cited August Sander’s portraits as having a major influence on their work.

    Reflect. How does their photographic project to Sanders’s? Would you consider their photographs of buildings to be portraits? Write a short essay comparing and contrasting Sander’s images to the Bechers’.

  2. Document Your Neighborhood

    Make. Photograph the areas within your neighborhood that you find visually arresting. Capture parts of your neighborhood that have changed since you have lived there and the parts that have remained the same.

    Share. Share your images by uploading them to Flickr and tagging them “MoMA Learning My Neighborhood.”