Shortly after photography’s invention in 1839, rapid and succeeding technological advancements allowed photographic images to be adopted as memory aides, surrogates for direct observation, and even trustworthy duplicates of important documents. Photographs can provide glimpses into lives past, long-ago events, and forgotten places. They can help shape our understanding of culture, history, and the identity of the people who appear in them. Photography has been utilized in these ways, and perceived as a tool of accurate and objective documentation, because of its inextricable connection to the real world: light-sensitive film records what is before the camera’s lens. Generations of photographers have used the camera for this end, even as many of them acknowledge that their images are not fixed statements of fact but, rather, that they may be read and interpreted in many different ways.
Photographs can also be powerful tools for telling stories and chronicling events. Their context and presentation can greatly influence the way we understand everything from historical narratives to current cultural issues and situations. In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, photographers, scientists, and social historians gathered together photographic images into archives cataloguing people, places, and natural phenomena. By the second half of the 20th century, new perspectives emerged, which challenged the idea of the photographic archive, and the photograph itself, as an objective record. Many contemporary artists have taken on photographs and photographic archives as the subject of their own work, re-examining and re-interpreting the histories they convey through methods ranging from appropriation to digital manipulation of existing images. In doing so, they seek to reveal biases, challenge accepted histories, and construct new narratives.
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.
An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.
A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.
The customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.
The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.
A representation of a particular individual.
A spoken, written, or visual account of an event or a series of connected events.
In the visual arts, appropriation is the intentional borrowing, copying, and alteration of preexisting images and objects.
Questions & Activities
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’.
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.