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American Photography

American Photography

Why didn't people smile in 19th-century photographs? Were the social customs different from today, or were the sitters all unhappy? The sitters' stern appearance was because the exposure times were long, and they needed to keep still.

From approximately the middle of the 19th century, photography developed in Europe, allowing ordinary people to document their family history, photojournalists to capture historical events, and artistic photographers to highlight the beauty of nature. This invention was a hit in the United States. Many American artists elevated this new technology to a whole other level. Let's look at this portrait of the photography history of America.

The History of American Photography

Pinhole cameras (camera obscura)—a small box that creates an inverted image by using light—have existed for hundreds of years. The true revolution occurred when daguerreotype photography emerged in 1839 in France due to Louis Daguerre's invention.

This popular photographic method was introduced in the United States by D.W. Seager.

  • Portrait photography of that time was very different from today: it was expensive–although cheaper than painted portraits–and the exposure times were long.
  • For the first decades, photography was only black and white, that is, in shades of gray.

The medium of photography has been a focus of debates. Does photography represent reality? Is it art? Photography realistically captures images, yet the photographer's technical choices, such as cropping, may alter how an image is perceived.

Daguerreotype refers to an early photographic process that Louis Daguerre invented in 1839.

American Photography history of photography StudySmarter

Portrait of Louis Daguerre, Jean-Baptiste Sabatier-Blot, daguerreotype, 1844. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

American Photography: Facts

The development of photography involved many experiments in order to optimize the photographic process every step of the way. The field of photography also produced different genres: portraiture, photojournalism, and artistic photography, among others.

American Photography Timeline

DateEvent
1830sCalotype (talbotype) was invented in Britain.
1839The daguerreotype was invented in France.
1839D.W. Seager introduced daguerreotype photography to the United States.
1849David Brewster makes stereographs usable.
1885-1889American entrepreneur George Eastman releases the first photographic film.

Daguerreotype in Europe and America

Daguerre's photographic process was so popular that it was soon exported from Europe to other parts of the world. However, the process was cumbersome: long exposures were inapplicable to moving objects and difficult for portraiture. Sitters had to stay still for up to several minutes.

Europeans and Americans experimented with Daguerre's process to improve the technical aspects and make it more usable. For instance, working in Britain, Antoine Claudet perfected this process and minimized the exposure times. He also determined that red light was safe to use in the darkroom without damaging the photographic plates.

D.W. Seager introduced this photographic method to the United States in 1839. A year later, New York City already had its first photography studio opened by Alexander Wolcott. The owner created miniature portraits and named his studio "Daguerrean Parlor."

Other Photographic Processes

In the 19th century, the field of photography developed rapidly. William Henry Fox Talbot, for instance, created the calotype (talbotype) in 1830s Britain. Talbot was able to identify the chemical for developing an image on paper. This discovery also allowed to reduce the exposure times drastically.

Another popular photographic process in Europe and the United States was the stereograph, also known as the stereoscopic method. Charles Wheatstone described it in 1832, and David Brewster modified the process in 1849.

The stereograph comprised two offset images depicting the same subject. As a result, looking at these two images with the left and right eyes created the illusion of a three-dimensional photograph.

In 1876, Hurter and Driffield started working with photographic emulsions and explored their sensitivity to light, thus introducing the film. By 1885, American entrepreneur George Eastman of Kodak company began to sell the first photographic film–still a paper base with a special type of coating. By 1889, the first plastic film on a roll was introduced to the market. Film was the primary photography medium for over a hundred years until the digital era.

Edgar Allan Poe, ca. 1849, daguerreotype, unknown author. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

Edgar Allan Poe, ca. 1849, daguerreotype, unknown author. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

Early Photographers

The improvements in photographic techniques popularized photography and made it more accessible to the middle class. The middle class was able to document important moments, such as family portraits.

Victorian death photography in Britain was seen as a way to commemorate the lost loved ones and offer a sense of closure.

Eadweard Muybridge: Early British-American Photographer

One of the best-known photographers at this time was the British-born Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge worked in Britain and the United States, establishing a book shop in San Francisco in 1856. He returned to Britain, but by 1867, he was back in California. His dramatic 1872 photographs of Yosemite solidified his reputation as one of the best landscape photographers in the world. At this point, Muybridge was competing with other established photographers, including Americans Carleton Watkin and Charles Leander Weed. Muybridge is also known for his work documenting movement, for instance, that of horses.

A sequence of a horse jumping, Eadweard Muybridge, 1887. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

A sequence of a horse jumping, Eadweard Muybridge, 1887. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

James Presley Ball: African-American Photographer

Another example from this period is the African-American photographer and abolitionist James Presley Ball. Ball worked as a traveling daguerreotypist. He also opened his own studios, such as J. P. Ball & Son in Montana. J.P. Ball was also involved in politics and published abolitionist literature.

Edward S. Curtis: Native American Photography

Edward Sherriff Curtis (1868-1952) is another important early photographer because his work focused on capturing the images of Native Americans. After receiving his education as an apprentice to a photographer in Minnesota, Curtis moved to and operated out of Seattle in the 1880s. For example, the photographer captured a portrait of Kickisomlo, the daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle. In 1900, he photographed the Blackfoot people of Montana.

This experience allowed Curtis to capture thousands of photographs of Native Americans supported by the financier and banker, J.P. Morgan. This extensive project had other components like recording and documenting the Native American languages, as well as music, history, food, and other parts of culture. This project remains an important part of the history of the indigenous people in the Americas.

American Photography, Kikisoblu (Princess Angeline) of the Duwamish, the eldest daughter of Chief Seattle, Edward S. Curtis, 1896. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain), Study Smarter.

Kikisoblu (Princess Angeline) of the Duwamish, the eldest daughter of Chief of Seattle,Edward S. Curtis, 1896. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

Early 20th-Century Photography

The 1920s was a decade known for artistic experimentation. In the wake of the First World War, Americans felt a certain sense of optimism. This optimism translated into incredible creativity. Experimenting with unusual angles, montage, and even Freudian psychology, photographers pushed the boundaries of this field. Photojournalism, which documented the First World War, also left an impact.

Freudian psychology refers to the work of the European thinker Sigmund Freud who relied on such techniques as psychoanalysis to analyze the subconscious.

Photomontage (montage) is a method of putting together pieces of photographs to create new artwork.

Alfred Stieglitz

Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), of German-Jewish descent, was one of the most important American photographers and art curators of this period. Stieglitz was also the husband and advocate of American Modernist painter Georgia O'Keeffe known for her striking paintings of flowers, animal skulls, and New Mexico landscapes. Enrolled in Berlin's Technische Hochschule in the field of engineering, Stieglitz actually dedicated his time to photography, including studying the work of Hermann Vogel, a well-known photochemist.

Alfred Stieglitz, The Steerage, 1907. Source: Wikipedia Commons (U.S. public domain).

The Steerage, Alfred Stieglitz, 1907. Source: Wikipedia Commons (U.S. public domain).

  • Stieglitz's early photographs include such works as his 1892 Winter, Fifth Avenue or The Terminal.
  • By 1902, he established the group Photo-Secession, and frame photography as a true form of art.
  • Between 1903-1917, Stieglitz also published 50 issues of Camera Work, a definitive photography magazine at this time.
  • In 1905, Stieglitz opened a New York gallery that came to be known as 291. The gallery held art exhibitions in different media, including famous painters like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.

These activities firmly established Stieglitz's reputation in the art world. One famous series of photographs that he created at this time were those of Ellen Koeniger in a bathing suit (1916) which are remembered for their eroticism. Stieglitz also frequently photographed his wife and painter, Georgia O'Keeffe.

Man Ray

Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky, 1890-1976) was an iconic American photographer and filmmaker because he participated in the European avant-garde movements, such as Dada and Surrealism. Born to Jewish immigrants, Man Ray focused on art, architecture, and engineering in New York. He was also inspired by Stieglitz's exhibitions that were formative of his own art.

By 1915, Man Ray was already collaborating with the well-known French artist Marcel Duchamp and the Dada movement. One of his projects involved creating the so-called ready-mades–existent objects that he refashioned into art.

Avant-garde is a French term that refers to being ahead of society. Avant-garde artists pushed boundaries and experimented with innovative techniques and subjects.

Dada was an early 20th-century European avant-garde art movement that experimented with images and the use of language.

Surrealism was a 20th-century movement in the arts (painting, literature, photography) inspired by the subconscious and presenting subjects in surprising, dreamy ways.

Man Ray spent the 1920s in Paris. At this time, he became fully immersed in both Surrealism and Dada, and his experimentation flourished. Man Ray created photograms, which he dubbed rayographs, generated without using a camera. His process for creating rayographs involved putting the desired object on light-sensitive paper. He then exposed and developed it to create art, such as the examples featured in the 1922 book Champs délicieux (The Delicious Fields).

Man Ray also ventured into commercial photography. In the 1920s-1930s, he captured the images of many celebrities and was published in Vogue and Harper's Bazaar.

Noire et Blanche, Man Ray, 1926, originally published in Vogue. Source: Wikipedia Commons (U.S. public domain).

Noire et Blanche, Man Ray, 1926, originally published in Vogue. Source: Wikipedia Commons (U.S. public domain).

His filmic experimentation included such works as Le Retour à la raison (Return to Reason, 1923) and Anémic cinéma (1926)—another joint project with Marcel Duchamp. Man Ray escaped the Second World War by moving to Los Angeles but returned to Europe in 1946 where he lived and worked in Paris until his death.

Other 1920s Photographers

Alfred Stieglitz and Man Ray were among many other talented and well-known American photographers working at this time. Not less relevant, here are two examples of great American 1920s photographers.

Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams (1902-1984) focused on photographing landscapes, such as the Sierra Nevada, in the 1920s and held his first solo exhibition in San Francisco in 1928. Since then Adams had a long and successful career of photographing the American landscape in a painterly way.

Edward Steichen

Edward Steichen (1879-1973), a friend and collaborator of Alfred Stieglitz. He was a Luxembourgish-American photographer and curator. Well known for his portraiture and fashion photography, Steichen worked for key magazines like Vanity Fair and Vogue and major advertising agencies like J. Walter Thompson. He was Director of the Department of Photography at New York's iconic Museum of Modern Art (1947-1961).

Legacy

As time went on, photography became more diverse. For instance, pioneering women-photographers, such as Margaret Bourke-White and Diane Arbus, pushed boundaries not only in aesthetics and subject matter, but also regarding gender in this formerly male-dominated field. Photojournalism also continued to grow in importance. In this way, a 1972 photograph of terrified Vietnamese children, including Kim Phuc, running for their life changed attitudes toward the American war in Vietnam. As technology continues to change, photography remains a culturally and socially impactful medium.

American Photography - Key Takeaways

  • Louis Daguerre's 1839 invention of daguerreotype photography in France was a key milestone in popularizing photography around the world.
  • Late 19th-early 20th-century pioneering American photographers include Eadweard Muybridge, James Presley Ball, Edward Curtis, Alfred Stieglitz, Man Ray, Edward Steichen, and Ansel Adams.
  • American photographers experimented with this medium in art, ethnography, advertising, photojournalism, and fashion photography.

Frequently Asked Questions about American Photography

American photography is a visual-arts field that developed from about the middle of the 19th century in Europe and the United States. It began with portraiture and became more diverse to include photojournalism, artistic photography, and other types of visuals. American photographers captured portraits of other Americans, created documentary images of important events, and photographed the American landscape.

Photography affected American history in many ways. Ordinary Americans were able to document their family history through portraits from the middle of the 19th century. Photojournalism captured important historic events and relayed the images to the general public. Artistic photography displayed the beauty of the American landscape.

D.W. Seager introduced photography to the United States in 1839. A year later, New York City already had its first photography studio opened by Alexander Wolcott. 

Photography changed American life in different ways. Ordinary Americans were able to document their family history through portraits from the middle of the 19th century. Photojournalism captured important historic events and relayed the images to the general public. Artistic photography displayed the beauty of the American landscape. Commercial and fashion photography promoted consumerism and motivated Americans to buy different products.

The first type of photography to be popularized during the 19th century was the daguerreotype. Photography was more affordable than commissioning a painting. As a result, the middle class was now able to document family history. Photography was also used to record historic events, such as the American Civil War, create art, and study movement.

Final American Photography Quiz

Question

What was the name of the first commercially successful type of photography in the 19th century?

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Answer

Daguerreotype

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Question

Which American photographer collaborated with Marcel Duchamp?

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Answer

Man Ray

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Question

Who introduced photographic film to the American market?


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Answer

George Eastman (Eastman Kodak)

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Question

What is a pinhole camera?


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Answer

A pinhole camera is a small box that creates an inverted image by using light. These cameras have existed for hundreds of years.

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Question

Who invented the calotype?


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Answer

William Henry Fox Talbot

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Question

What is photomontage?


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Answer

Photomontage (montage) is a method of putting together pieces of photographs to create new artwork.

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Question

Which painter did Alfred Stieglitz promote for much of his life?


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Answer

Georgia O’Keeffe

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Question

Which photographer created rayographs?


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Answer

Man Ray

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Question

Which famous commercial photographer worked at the Museum of Modern Art in New York?


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Answer

Edward Steichen

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Question

Which 19th-century photographer documented movement?

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Answer

Eadweard Muybridge

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