In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History of Photography

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Social and Cultural

Art History History of Photography
Kelley Wilder
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 July 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0041


The history of photography is a diffuse, interdisciplinary area of study written from numerous fields such as the history of art, literature, history of science, anthropology, history, media, and communication studies. Confusion arises not only in where to find scholarship about it but even what to call it: photographic history, photography studies, and photography theory are all current terms. Its reach spans art, science, social science, and history; and as it is still a fledgling field, it is changing rapidly. Although histories of photography have been written by inventors, scientists, curators, and photographers since the 1840s, it took nearly a century for the history of photography to become recognized as a discipline and to generate histories written by scholars within a self- consciously unified field. Writers of photographic history were frequently trained in photography, literature, or art history, and they often worked in libraries, museums, and archives. University departments teaching photographic history were almost universally attached to institutes of art history or to art institutes with strong photography programs. Since the 1990s, however, more scholars from a number of fields and training have begun to identify themselves as photo historians and teach photographic history in a variety of university contexts. Traditional boundaries exist between histories of technology, art photography, and visual culture, largely stemming from the systematic organization of museum collections along these lines. These traditional boundaries are beginning to break down as scholars ask more diverse questions, often originating from their training in other disciplines. Since the 1970s, photography has also developed as a theoretical object, generating another body of scholarship. At the turn of the 21st century, the field is undergoing rapid revision as scholars, educators, curators, and archivists begin working more closely to develop the field in important ways. Histories that claim to give an overview of the whole of photographic history are giving way to micro-histories written from different disciplinary viewpoints, such as the Exposures series, or revisionist histories, often written about previously neglected geographical areas, unknown collections or amateur practices of photography. The vast quantities of photographs in libraries, archives, record offices, businesses, and homes ensure that the archive of photography is never far from view. It stands to reason, then, that many photographic histories are influenced by the availability of both public and private archival holdings. The content of most archives is only just beginning to surface in public facing online catalogues, but many more remain uncatalogued and relatively unknown. One of the main sources of information about photographers for students of photography is the artist’s monograph. These books will be addressed in a future Oxford Bibliographies companion article on photography.

General Overviews

Photography is so broad a history that few single-authored overviews have been attempted. Only in the earlier years of the discipline could Gernsheim and Gernsheim 1969 or Newhall 2009 (originally published in 1949) conceive of writing something like a complete history. They contain inevitable omissions and frequently concentrate on European and North American movements and sources to the exclusion of all else. Nonetheless these overviews have a disproportionate weight in classroom teaching, and have influenced the history and historiography of photography a great deal so they bear mentioning together with textbooks often used in practical photography courses at undergraduate level, such as Wells 2009, compilations of art photography such as Szarkowski 1989, and the more recent multiple-authored revisionist histories such as Frizot 1998, and the Exposures Series. More and more attention has fallen on the historiographic element of photographic history, and this is nicely summed up in Nickel 2001.

  • Frizot, Michel, ed. A New History of Photography. Cologne: Köneman, 1998.

    Originally published as Nouvelle histoire de la photographie in 1994, this broad-ranging overview is also translated into German and Russian. Both undergraduates and advanced students will find compelling reading in the forty-one essays covering photographers, cultural history, technology, social history, and more and including not only general articles as introductions to subjects but also more specific short entries.

  • Gernsheim, Alison, and Helmut Gernsheim. The History of Photography from the Camera Obscura to the Beginning of the Modern Era. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969.

    Although the first edition appeared in 1955 titled The History of Photography from the Earliest Use of the Camera Obscura in the Eleventh Century up to 1914 (London, New York: Oxford University Press), the 1969 revised edition is more common and complete. This is a useful overview for newcomers to the field, emphasizing technological history. It resembles earlier Technical histories of photography such as Eder 1978.

  • Hamilton, Peter, and Mark Haworth-Booth, eds. Exposures Series. London: Reaktion.

    The Exposures series of books introduces readers to subjects in photographic history including photography and cinema, science, Italy, Africa, anthropology, China, Egypt, archaeology, Japan, literature, travel, Ireland, Italy, and death. Each micro-history contains an overview of the subject and current scholarship in the area.

  • Marien, Mary Warner. Photography: A Cultural History. London: Lawrence King, 2010.

    While this book is still heavily informed by art-historical narratives, it does give a broad account of photographic history, including photographic artwork motivated by social, cultural, and political concerns. Now in its third edition, this is a popular text with undergraduates due to its mixture of art photography and social documentary.

  • Newhall, Beaumont. The History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2009.

    This standard textbook has been frequently translated and revised with English versions published in 1949, 1964, 1983, 1993, and 2009. Originally a catalogue for the 1937 exhibition at the Modern Museum of Art in New York, it retains exhibition catalogue features with numerous illustrations that broke with earlier textual histories. Its concentration on photographic history in the United States, makes it similar to many of the National/Regional Histories.

  • Nickel, Douglas R. “History of Photography: the State of Research.” Art Bulletin 83.3 (2001): 548–558.

    DOI: 10.2307/3177242

    Nickel gives a useful overview of the origins of histories and historiographic articles previously written in English. Despite its title it is a summary of the state of research in the United States only.

  • Szarkowski, John. Photography Until Now. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1989.

    An overview of art photography, with an emphasis on the modernist style, that still serves as an introduction to canonical art photographers and main movements in art photography.

  • Wells, Liz. Photography: A Critical Introduction. 4th ed. Abingdon, VT: Routledge, 2009.

    The only textbook currently available in English that keeps abreast of scholarship and distills it for undergraduate students of photography and photographic history. It incorporates discussions of scholarly theories with social, cultural, and political history and theory. It represents a break with Newhall 2009, although it contains similar biases toward largely English-language photographers, sources and debates.

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