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What Is_?Photography

The What Is_? Programme provides an introduction to some of the key concepts and themes in modern and contemporary art for all audiences.


This introductory text provides a brief overview of Photography. Art terms are indicated with an underline and their definition can be viewed by hovering the cursor over the term. They can also be found in the glossary. 

The word Photography literally means ‘drawing with light’, which derives from the Greek photo, meaning light and graph, meaning to draw. Photography is the process of recording an image – a photograph – on lightsensitive film or, in the case of digital photography, via a digital electronic or magnetic memory.

The photograph is evident in nearly every aspect of modern life. As a form of communication and documentation, photographs are present in newspapers, magazines, advertisements, posters, television, the Internet, passports, ID cards, archives, security and Surveillance Systems, forensics and medicine. Photography also plays an important role in domestic and recreational activities. Most photographs produced today take the form of Snapshots documenting activities such as holidays and celebrations. With the prevalence of digital cameras and mobile phone cameras, these activities are also documented for display on photo-sharing websites and photo-based Social Networking Sites. Despite the prevalence of photography in many aspects of modern life, only a small minority of photographs are considered to be art and tend to be displayed in museums and galleries in formats similar to painting.

The invention of photography is a contested subject. It was the outcome of many technological developments, most notably associated with the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, but was also influenced by earlier technological developments such as the Camera obscura, which is an optical device used during the Renaissance to aid drawing and perspective.


The first fixed photograph was produced by Joseph Niépce in 1827 and was originally referred to as a Heliograph due to the long period of exposure to the sun required to produce the image. Niépce collaborated with Louis Daguerre to produce the Daguerreotype which was the result of their experiments with light-sensitive paper. The Daguerreotype became a popular method of photography; however, because it was expensive to produce and it was not possible to create multiple images, it was used mainly for portraiture. In the 1830s William Henry Fox Talbot developed the more versatile Calotype, which allowed for the production of multiple prints through the development of a negative image.

The introduction of low-cost portable cameras, such as the Kodak camera in the 1880s and the Brownie in the 1900s, resulted in the increased popularity and use of photography for domestic and recreational purposes. These innovations contributed to the development of photography making it more visible and accessible to a growing middle class of consumers and a working class with increased leisure time and disposable income. Photography also became important to the promotion and dissemination of commercial goods through advertising, as a consequence of its capacity for mass reproduction.

The development of lightweight and flexible equipment, such as the Leica in the 1920s and innovations in film in terms of light and speed, resulted in more dynamic and spontaneous photography. These innovations of photography as a means of documentating social, political and cultural events in the form of Documentary Photography. In the 1920s and ’30s documentary photography played an important role in recording social and cultural events during the Depression era in America.

The ubiquity of photography for domestic and recreational purposes, as a result of cheap and easy-to-use cameras and its use for social purposes, contributed to the emergence of a distinction between different modes of photography. Recreational photography in the form of the snapshot was associated with the amateur documentation of aspects of everyday life. Documentary photography was associated with the recording of social and political events for the purposes of documentation and communication. Art Photography was associated with the artistic expression of the photographer. The mechanical nature of photography, its potential for mass reproduction and its association with commercial enterprise, raised questions, for some, about its consideration as art, where art was associated with beauty, originality and the imagination and technical skill of the artist. Despite these reservations, some early photographers sought to ensure photography’s status as art by adopting the conventions of painting, such as posed portraits, landscapes, elaborate Tableau and also by presenting their work in academy-style displays. They used soft focus and Printmaking techniques, such as Photogravure, to create painterly effects in their photographs. This movement became known as Pictorialism.


At the turn of the twentieth century, photography displaced painting as the primary mode of pictoral representation, freeing artists to experiment with new media and methodologies. Embracing all things new and modern, many artists associated with the Avant-Garde of the early twentieth century were influenced by or adopted the technological developments of photography and applied them to their work. No longer concerned with representation, artists associated with Cubism focused on the medium and structure of painting itself, challenging the illusory nature of painting and prompting the development of Abstraction. Other avant-garde artists associated with FuturismDadaSurrealism and Constructivism experimented with the processes and material properties of photography to produce photographic work in the form of PhotogramsSolarisation and Photomontage.

Influenced by these avant-garde movements and also by developments in documentary photography, emerging modernist photographers abandoned the painterly and manipulated style of pictorialism, focusing instead on the inherent properties of photography, such as cropping and sharp focus. This resulted in more realistic and experimental images reflecting tendencies towards abstraction within avant-garde practice. This approach became known as Straight Photography. The emphasis on the medium’s inherent qualities, the exploration of abstraction and the role of the photographer as author expressing his/her vision, distinguished this work from the more prevalent forms of social and documentary photography and were central to its consideration as art.

The modernist period tended to be media-specific, where artists worked primarily in a single medium, such as painting or sculpture. Photography’s Indexicality– its association with its context – and the assumptions underpinning its capacity to represent reality inhibited it from being fully embraced as an art form at the height of Modernism, when abstraction was the dominant mode of expression. However, social and political changes in the 1960s resulted in a shift towards social considerations in art in general and a reconsideration of photography as an artistic medium. This new Postmodern era was characterised by interdisciplinarity, where artists employed a range of media, including photography, in the achievement of their artistic objectives. Consequently, photography acquired a more.



During this period, artists adopted strategies of Appropiation and Mass-Production to undermine modernist notions of the artwork as an original, unique, commodifiable object. Pop Art embraced the massproduced imagery of advertising and popular culture largely generated by photography. Emphasis was placed on the idea or concept rather than the production of an art object. Artists began to experiment with new forms of practice, such as temporary, textual, performative or Didactic work to challenge the Commodification of the art object. Photography played an important role in documenting the emerging conceptual and process based practices of Conceptual ArtFluxusPerformance Art and Happenings. The photographic documentation of such ephemeral, conceptually-based practice was generally not considered to be art; however, over time, it has acquired the status of an art object, where it is now collected and displayed as such. For some performative artists, the documentation of their practice is considered an inherent component of the overall work. Equally, many art photographers have appropriated the performative strategies derived from conceptually-based work to stage their photographs.

The pace of technological development has accelerated considerably in the second half of the twentieth century with the development of Digital Technology, the Computer and the Internet. Developments in Film and Video and the emergence of New Media Art have expanded the possibilities for new technologies to inform contemporary art practice. In the 1970s and ’80s art photography began to encompass colour photography and documentary photography; consequently many documentary photographs; are now developed with the gallery space, rather than the newspaper or magazine, as the intended forum for display. The development of the digital camera and the mobile camera phone have transformed the process of producing and developing photographs. Yet many art photographers continue to use traditional methodologies to produce and develop their photographs and some employ strategies from earlier forms of practice, such as pictorialism and tableau photography, in the production of their photographic work.

Since the end of the twentieth century, photography has become a common medium among artists, suggesting that it now occupies a dominant role in contemporary arts practice. Art photography is recognised as an art form in and of itself and is created increasingly for the museum or gallery space. Many photographers use medium- or large-format cameras to create large prints which are displayed in a manner similar to paintings. The situation of photography within the display, collections and discourse of many international art museums and galleries acknowledges the centrality of its role within contemporary art and has contributed significantly to its presentation and reception as art.


Reading List

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.
Geoffrey Batchen, Burning with Desire: the Conception of Photography, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997.
Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936), in Illuminations, London: Fontana, 1973, pp. 219-253.
Richard Bolton (ed.), The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989.
Victor Burgin (ed.), Thinking Photography, London: Macmillan, 1982.
David Campany (ed.), Art and Photography, London and New York: Phaidon Press, 2003.
Charlotte Cotton, The Photograph as Contemporary Art, London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 2004.
T. J. Demos, Vitamin Ph: New Perspectives on Photography, London: Phaidon Press, 2006.
Emma Dexter and Thomas Weski (eds.), Cruel and Tender: The Real in Twentieth-Century Photography, London: Tate, 2003.
Steve Edwards, Photography: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Jessica Evans (ed.), The Camerawork Essays: Context and Meaning in Photography, London: Rivers Oram Press, 1997.
Vilem Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography, London: Reaktion Books, 2000.
Michael Fried, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.
Michel Frizot, A New History of Photography, Cologne: Konemann, 1998.
Martin Lister (ed.), The Photographic Image in Digital Culture, London: Routledge, 1995.
J. J. Long, Andrea Noble and Edward Welch (eds.), Photography: Theoretical Shapshots, London and New York: Routledge, 2009.
Nathan Lyons (ed.), Photographers on Photography: A Critical Anthology, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1966.
Mary Warner Marien, Photography: A Cultural History, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002.
W. J. T. Mitchell, Iconography: Image, Text, Ideology, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present Day, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1982.
Fred Ritchin, After Photography, London and New York: W. W. Norton, 2009.
Naomi Rosenblum, A World History of Photography, New York: Abbeville Press, 1997.
Aaron Scharf, Art and Photography, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974.
Stephen Shore, The Nature of Photographs, London: Phaidon Press, 2007.
Susan Sontag, On Photography, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977.
John Szarkowski, The Photographer’s Eye, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007.
John Tagg, The Disciplinary Frame: Photographic Truths and the Capture of Meaning, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2009.
Alan Trachtenberg (ed.), Classical Essays on Photography, New Haven: Leete’s Island Books, 1980.
Liz Wells (ed.), The Photography Reader, London: Routledge, 2002.




We invited Fiona Loughnane, art historian and lecturer, to write an essay on photography titled Image of Reality / Image not Reality: What is Photography?, which focuses on artists and artworks in IMMA’s Collection as a means of contextualising this area of contemporary arts practice. We hope to draw attention to the body of artworks in the Collection by artists who use photography exclusively, such as Thomas Ruff, Paul Seawright and Candida Höfer and those for whom photography forms an important part of their practice, such as Les Levine, Willie Doherty and Carl Zimmerman. We also hope to draw attention to the potential of IMMA’s Collection as a growing resource for further exploration and consideration of this subject.