Back to Overview


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


Some photographers pose their subjects, others capture people in candid moments. Sometimes, it's hard to tell the difference.

Photography and Public Image

Photographs of public figures or celebrities often reinforce their personas rather than reveal the real person behind the public image, but sometimes photographers manage to break through the facade.

Photography as Witness

Photographs of news stories and major events can often shape collective memory and how history is written and understood.

Sets, Stories, and Situations

Throughout photography’s history, photographers have staged images to evoke literature, films, real events, and, sometimes, the artifice of the medium itself.

The Photographic Record

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

Photography and celebrity have become so intertwined that our understanding of famous figures is largely shaped by the images we see of them. Before the invention of photography, the likenesses of the rich, famous, and illustrious could be found on coins and in paintings and statues. With the advent of film negatives in the 1840s, photographic portraits could be reproduced and widely disseminated. Roughly 150 years later, when digital cameras were introduced and widely adopted in the 1990s, it became easier than ever to take, circulate, and manipulate pictures of people.

Early in photography’s history, those with means and stature went to photography studios to have their portraits taken. The resulting images were formal and posed. As camera shutter speeds increased and technology advanced, photographers began to experiment with new ways of picturing public figures. While some photographers reinforce celebrities’ public personas through carefully structured portraits, others have sought to uncover and capture something of the real, unguarded person behind their public image.

To explore more, click on each artwork thumbnail, then click again on the larger image that appears in the box above.

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

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).

A mechanical device for controlling the aperture, or opening, in a camera through which light passes to the film or plate. By opening and closing for different amounts of time, the shutter determines the length of the photographic exposure.

The way a figure is positioned.

A representation of a particular individual, usually intended to capture their likeness or personality.

A previously exposed and developed photographic film or plate showing an image that, in black-and-white photography, has a reversal of tones (for example, white eyes appear black). In color photography, the image is in complementary colors to the subject (for example, a blue sky appears yellow). The transfer of a negative image to another surface results in a positive image.

Questions & Activities

  1. Celebrity Appearances

    Explore. Find three to five photographic portraits of your favorite actor, musician, athlete, or other celebrity online.

    Reflect. Compare these images and take notes on the following: How does your celebrity’s appearance change in these photographs? Why do you think that is? Where do the photographs appear and why were they taken? What do the images reveal or hide about the persona of this person?

  2. Shaping an Image

    Pick out a recent newspaper or a magazine photograph of a politician (online or printed).

    Reflect and Write. Write a response to the following questions: What kinds of choices did the photographer make? How is the image cropped or framed? What about the focus? From what point of view was the photograph taken? Is the caption important? Is the politician portrayed in a particularly positive or negative way?

  3. Before and After: Two Portraits of a President

    Look. Go to The Library of Congress website to see a famous portrait of Abraham Lincoln, which was made by the Matthew Brady Studio before the politician’s historic Cooper Union Speech. Compare it with the portrait shown above, which was made after President Abraham Lincoln had been in office for two years.

    Reflect. The first image was taken before Lincoln was elected and the other was taken afterward. How do you think that timeline affected these two portraits? Write a comparison of this image to the later one shown here.