The History of Photography Movements

Over the years our approach, as photographers, to taking pictures has changed. The history of photography movements is a rich and interesting subject to discover.

In this article and podcast video below, you’ll learn how particular styles of photography altered over the decades. We’ll talk about the genesis of these movements, the pioneers behind them and how society’s views on photography changed too.

The Movements of Photography 1840-2000

These are the movements of photography that we’ll look at. They are still some of the most popular areas of photography for creating inspiring, dramatic and evocative images.

  • Abstract
  • Surrealist
  • Documentary
  • Fashion
  • Modern
  • Street

Image: Daguerreotype portraits

The Movement of Abstract Photography

Abstract photography is a term with ambiguous connotations, associated but not limited to the achievements of groups such as the Photo-Secession, Straight Photography, and New Vision movements.

Since the late 19th century, photographers have been determined to match the formal and conceptual advances of other genres within modern art.

In the early 20th century, artists such as Christian Schad, Man Ray, and László Moholy-Nagy began to create bricolage-style works by placing found objects directly onto photosensitive paper, generating graphically arresting images in which the everyday detritus of modern life is rendered luminous and strange.

Man Ray Abstract

Image: Man Ray, 1922, Untitled Rayograph

Since the early advances of artists such as Schad and Man Ray, abstract artists have continually returned to the “photogram” – the camera-less photograph – as a medium allowing for uniquely self-reflexive and creative interventions into the photographic form.

Rather than capturing an image by the passage of light through shutters onto photosensitive paper, the paper itself is directly manipulated and treated – often brought into contact with other objects – allowing for a potentially endless array of effects.

As a general rule, abstract photography has tended to avert its gaze from extraordinary and arresting subject matter. Instead, it focuses on the irregular forms and impressions which can be generated by representing familiar objects in new ways.

Did You Know? Alvin Langdon Coburn’s vortographs, were made using a camera lens adapted with fragments of broken mirrors.


Image: Alvin Langdon Coburn 1882-1966. Vortograph, 1917. Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper.

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Surrealist Photography

In post-WWI Germany and Paris, a ground-breaking practice of photography emerged, inspired by Dada’s improvisational practices and the surrealist’s foray into the unconscious, dream, and fantasy realms.

Whereas photography had been widely used as a tool to document reality, artists began to work with the camera and progressive techniques to create images jarringly detached from photography’s original uses.

These visuals oftentimes challenged the viewer’s perceptions with a strong basis in conceptualism, conjuring the uncanny, ethereal, or unordinary. This practice would spread to America and become a forebear to the decades-long exploration of the possibilities of the photographic image that remains common in today’s art world.


Image: The Duchamp Dictionary© 2014 Luke Frost and Therese Vandling

Artists during this time began to explore revolutionary photographic techniques, born from the surrealist impetus toward discovering affinities in fragments of imagery. This included photomontage, collage, post-production manipulation of photos, staging, and the photogram.

Many of these photographers focused on presenting images grounded in reality but which challenged perception, or tricked the eye of the viewer into seeing what lay beneath, forcing a sense of distorted reality. These pictures, upon first glance might be deemed familiar, but would instantly require a double take.

Much of the photography of this time evolved surrealism’s combination of imagery and text in order to carry the artist’s intention through to the viewer. By borrowing methods from the magazine and newspaper industry, these artists were turning their work into “advertisements” of the individual artist’s mind.

Documentary Photography

The term documentary photography describes photography that attempts to capture real-life situations and settings.

Since Nicéphore Niépce made the first photograph in 1816, photography’s capacity to capture reality led to an enthusiastic interest in documenting all aspects of contemporary life. As a result, documentary photography became a genre as early as the mid-1800s.

Lacking, then, a truly precise definition, documentary photography is best thought of as an umbrella term that encompasses many styles and themes including:

  • Social Documentary
  • Conservation Photography
  • Ethnographic Photography
  • War Photography
  • The Photo Essay
  • New Documents
  • Social Landscape Photography


Stylistically, documentarians typically favour sharply focused and/or pure images, that eschew darkroom manipulation or forgery. Other genres of photography, including street photography and photojournalism, sometimes include particular works that are considered documentary images, though both genres primarily focus on capturing a moment, or split second whether that be an encounter on a street or a moment of breaking news.

Documentary Photography

Image: Lewis Wickes Hine Ten-Year-Old Spinner in N. Carolina Cotton Mill, 1908

More than any other medium, the camera “machine” lends itself best to documentary because the spectator is predisposed to believe the visual evidence put before them. Documentary photography can be thus presented on its own or as part of a bigger written or spoken project.

Given its commitment to revealing a particular truth, documentary photography resists the idea of image or subject manipulation. This is in fact a rule-of-thumb rather than a hard-and-fast tenet.

Documentary photography will often aim at exposing social and/or humanitarian injustices. In this respect it shares close links with war and street photography but these rely more on a “snapshot” aesthetic whereas documentary photography tends to be more planned in its narrative structure and pictorial composition.

In addition to its focus on the human figure, documentary photography includes a trend within the genre that simply “documents”. Though the likes of conservation photography and ethnographic photography can be taken up for artistic and/or political purposes.

Documentary Photography

Image: Death of a Loyalist soldier, Spain, 1936, Robert Capa

Fashion Photography

Fashion photography is perhaps best described as a branch of fine art photography that focuses exclusively on the promotion of haute couture. Fashion photographs accentuate the fashion designer’s brand – or their “look” – which is typically expressed as an attitude or concept.

Since it is informed by high art, popular culture and societal views of gender, self-image, and sexuality, fashion photography is seen as, in the words of art historian Eugenie Shinkle, “a most fantastic barometer of the time.”

Historically, fashion photography was regarded as ephemeral and commercial, with gallery and museum exhibition space only granted to those special fashion photographers who also happened to be established artists.

By the 21st century, however, art historians, scholars, and leading art institutions have come around to the idea that fashion photography deserves to rank as a branch of fine art photography.

Shinkle observed that apart from “a handful of exceptions, there was a real reluctance amongst scholars to engage with fashion photography in a serious way.

Fashion Photography

Image: Horst P. Horst, British Vogue cover, August 9, 1939

More than any other photographic genre, fashion photography blurs the line between art and commerce. Rather than an impediment to creativity, however, the conflict of interests brings a dynamic tension that gives fashion photography its unique place within the canons of modern photography.

Mirroring developments in modern photography, fashion photography became liberated from the studio in the late-fifties/early-sixties as photographers and their models took to the urban streets.

Contemporary fashion photography occupies thus a space that accommodates, sometimes even at once, urban street style and haute couture.

What is Modern Photography?

Modern photography encompassed trends in the medium from the early 1900s through to the 1960s.

The move from early photography to modern photography is distinguished by a departure from the language and constraints of traditional art, such as painting, and this change in attitude was mirrored by changes in practice. Photographers started using the camera as a direct tool rather than manipulating images to conform to traditional notions of artistic beauty (a custom particularly associated with pictorialism).

In pioneering this move, modern photographers eventually disrupted the wider conventions of the art world by expanding both what was considered art and what was deemed an acceptable subject matter for it.

Although modern photography does not start until the beginning of the 20th century, earlier photographic innovations provide a technological and contextual framework for later developments and are important in understanding the stylistic changes of the period.

Some of the key approaches of modern photography are unique to the medium whilst others align with wider art movements such as Dada and surrealism.

In contrast to earlier relationships between photography and artistic groups, which tended to be imitative, modern photography became fully embedded in these movements and provided a new and powerful medium for experimentation and expression.


Image: Melvin Sokolsky, Jump, Paris, 1965

How Street Photography Changed Over the Years

Associated initially with Paris, and figures such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï and André Kertész, Street Photography became recognized as a genre in its own right during the early 1930s.

While there are precedents, and areas of overlap with documentary and architectural photography, Street photography is unique in the way it is associated with the photographer’s skill in capturing something of the mystery and aura of everyday city living.

As such, the human figure becomes the street photograph’s most vivid and defining feature. Street photographers will sometimes engage directly with their subjects (Brassaï, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand) but it became more common for the photographer to roam the streets with a concealed 35mm camera.

The ‘street photographer’ is namely someone who mingles anonymously amongst the crowd observing and recording the ways the unsuspecting city dweller interacts with his or her environment.

Possibly the most important street photographer of all, the Swiss-American Robert Frank, raised the status of the snapshot to art and his influence was to enthuse the next generation of American photographers.

Street Photography

Image: Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville, Paris 1950 © Robert Doisneau – Atelier Robert Doisneau

The mid-1960s and early-1970s became the “golden-age” of Street Photography when the likes of the Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander allowed their own sassy personalities to impinge on the images of their subjects. Photographer Joel Meyerowitz completed this new dynamic by raising the status of colour, hitherto thought of as somewhat artless and vulgar, to a new level of credibility.

Street photography emerged as a genre in its own right as a direct result of advances in camera technology. It is associated (if not exclusively so) with the hand-held 35mm SLR camera and especially the emergence of the very compact Leica and its superior lens quality.

Street photography can certainly qualify as documentary photography, yet documentary asks for a different type of intention from that of the street photographer.

Street Photography

Image: Garry Winogrand

The documentary photographer tends to be less spontaneous, more prosaic, in their approach with the documentarian invariably using his or her lens to expose social injustices or involved stories.

Though there remains a strong lineage to documentary, street photography tends to position itself as art. Street photographers want their audience to think more profoundly about the meanings behind the images they produce.

The latter-day street photographer is typically possessed of a particular attitude; someone who sees their art as a calling or vocation. Street photography is as much about a “state of mind” and a street photographer is someone who tends to treat their camera as a constant companion.

The History of Photography Movements: Final Words

Do you feel you know a little more about how photography has been shaped and altered by society? It’s amazing to see how we see and use a camera change to fit our needs.

Bookmark and save this article about the history of photography movements so you can find it again in the future. If you’ve got any other questions about photography chances are you’ll find the answers in our other articles and tutorials below.


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