2015-06-26 10:44:15

Photography is the process of recording and generating permanent images through the exposure of light onto photosensitive material. This process is achieved through the use of a mechanical device known as a camera, which can take several forms. The traditional form of camera contains a roll of photosensitive film, which is exposed to light through an aperture. The amount of light exposed is controlled by a shutter, which can be opened for varying amounts of time to achieve the desired visual effect.

The other important form is the digital camera, which has developed and become popular during the past 20 years.

Digital photography uses an electronic sensor to record visual information as electronic data, rather than chemical changes on photosensitive material.

The medium of photography is considered an art form in its own right, such as painting or sculpture.

It can also be used for a wide variety of different purposes, each with its own set of skills and aesthetic criteria.

These areas include art photography, portrait photography, photojournalism, fashion photography, advertising and scientific record.

During the past 150 years it has also come to be recognised as a way of creating a permanent record, documenting historical events and important cultural and social trends.

Different photographs can be considered as works of art, historical documents or items of memorabilia and cultural ephemera, and can be collected as such.

This distinction is usually decided by the subject matter of the image and the photographer themselves, but often the different areas can overlap.

For instance, a portrait of Marilyn Monroe by photographer Richard Avedon could be considered both an item of her memorabilia and a work of his art.


There are several criteria by which collectible photographs are judged and valued.

Age, rarity and quality are the most important factors, along with the reputation of the photographer and the subject matter of the image itself.

The works of famous and iconic photographers such as Ansell Adams or Diane Arbus are the most sought-after by collectors, but often the aesthetic quality of the image can be just as important as the name attached to it.

Rarity is a factor, as photographs are by their very nature copies of an original image which can be reproduced any number of times.

However, often the original negatives may have been lost or destroyed leaving only a small number of prints in existence.

As such the photograph will be far more valuable than one of which thousands of prints exist (dependant on the photographer in question).

When a large number of prints are available, the most important issue in valuation becomes the age of the print.

A vintage print produced soon after the photograph was taken is valued far higher than a print of the same image produced several years later, or after the photographer’s death.

This market principle is based on the concept of originality, as in many collectors’ eyes the proximity to the original event gives the print an intrinsically higher value because it was likely closer to the photographer’s original vision.

The later the print, the more likely it is to have been produced for commercial instead of artistic purposes.


During the 19th century the combination of growing scientific enquiry and a more secular society led to a desire for a more realistic representation of the world, which had begun during the Renaissance period with perspective drawing and greater spatial awareness.

This desire was met by the invention of the photographic process, which could create images with far greater levels of realism and detail than any other artistic medium.

Camera Obscura and the Daguerreotype

The history of photography as a medium began in 1822. Using the chemical photography process of a ‘camera obscura’ French inventor Nicéphore Niépce took the world’s first permanent photograph, of an engraving of Pope Pius VII.

He continued to develop his process along with Louis Daguerre, who in 1839 created the Daguerreotype photography process.

Daguerre took the first ever photo of a person in 1839 when, while taking a daguerreotype of a Paris street, a pedestrian stopped for a shoe shine, long enough to be captured by the exposure of several minutes.

The next 50 years saw rapid technological developments in photography, as the work by William Fox Talbot, John Herschel and Frederick Scott Archer brought forth various processes which increased the quality and permanence of the image produced.

During this period the bulky technology and amount of exposure needed meant that most photographs were landscapes, still lives and sitting portraits as early cameras were unable to capture images of moving objects.

Mid-19th century

The mid-19th century also saw the birth of photography collecting.

People filled albums with photos of their friends and family, celebrities and exotic locations such as the countries visited whilst on a ‘grand tour’.

Many photographic albums were published for the wealthy collectors' market, such as Peter Henry Emerson’s ‘Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads’ or John Thomson’s ‘Street Life in London’, and in 1854 London was the setting for the first photography auction.

During this time arguments arose as to whether the new medium could be considered ‘art’.

Photography as art

Many painters and sections of the public thought that photography could not be considered as art, as they believed photographs were made with a mechanical device and by physical and chemical phenomena instead of by human hand and spirit.

The late 19th and early 20th century saw the growth of ‘Pictoralism’, a movement which believed that art photography needed to emulate the painting and etching of the time using techniques such as soft focus, special filters and darkroom manipulation.

The argument was pushed further when, after inventing the first photographic film in 1884, George Eastman produced the first commercially available easy-to-use Kodak camera in 1888 (with the slogan "You press the button, we do the rest").

Suddenly anyone could take a photograph, and so a set of aesthetic criteria began to emerge to distinguish exceptional artistic images from amateur snapshots.

But by the turn of the century photography began to achieve some recognition as art through the ‘straight style’, which used no effects or manipulation. This more modern form of photography began to capture vibrant images with smaller cameras that could record moving objects.

Subjects no longer needed to pose for an image, and a far greater level of realism began to emerge in the work of photographers.

Art and documentary photography began to appear in galleries, and photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen began to curate exhibitions and fight for the medium to be recognised alongside other traditional art forms.

20th century

The 20th century saw photography develop and change with each artistic movement of the traditional forms, from modernism and cubism to minimalism and constructivism.

As well as documentary photography, photographers began to experiment with light, double exposures, photomontage and different methods of development to create surreal and expressionistic images.

In 1936 Life magazine was first published, expanding the role of photojournalism in social documentary, and in 1940 the Museum of Modern Art established a Department of Photography, the first of its kind in any museum.

The post-war years saw photographers such as Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn come to the fore, all working in the straight style of realism. In 1962 Robert Frank stated:

“There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment. This kind of photography is realism. But realism is not enough— there has to be vision and the two together can make a good photograph. It is difficult to describe this thin line where matter ends and mind begins.”

During this period photographs began to earn greater respect as individual objects and their history and provenance became subjects of scholarly study.

In the 1970s the photography market, previously the preserve of a small group of dedicated collectors, began to grow and broaden its appeal to art collectors and business enterprises.

By the early 1990s the world of photography had created an established cannon of artists with strong influential legacies and reputations. The photography market began to put a higher price on vintage prints, and photographers were considered in a similar manner to painters in terms of their body of work.

Today photography auctions regularly raise millions of dollars, and all works from unique, antique Daguerreotypes to classic social studies of the 1950s and high fashion photography on the 1980s are considered true works of art.

Notable Photographers

Main article: List of notable photographers

Trade terms

Main article: List of photography collecting terms

The world’s most expensive photograph

The most expensive photograph ever sold at auction is Andreas Gursky’s 2001 two-part photograph ‘99 Cent II Diptychon’. The work depicts the colourful aisles of a supermarket, with digitally-altered perspective, and just six prints were created. On February 7 2007 it was sold to an unknown collector by Sotheby’s for a world record price of $3.34m.

Other notable photographs

Main article: List of notable photographs

Notable photography collections and collectors

Main article: List of notable photography collections
Main article: List of notable photography collectors

Photography dealers

Main article: List of photograph dealers

Clubs and societies

Main article: List of photography associations, clubs and societies

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