Art Term

Photography

Photography refers to the process or practice of creating a photograph – an image produced by the action of light on a light-sensitive material

Francesca Woodman, ‘Space², Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-1978’ 1975–8
Francesca Woodman
Space², Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-1978 1975–8
Tate / National Galleries of Scotland
© Courtesy of George and Betty Woodman

A photograph can be either a positive or negative image. Most photographs are created using a camera, which uses a lens to focus an object’s visible wavelengths (the light reflected or emitted from it) into a reproduction on a light-sensitive surface of what the human eye would see.

The word photograph was coined in 1839 by Sir John Herschel and is based on the Greek word ‘phos’, meaning ‘light’, and ‘graphê’, meaning ‘drawing’ – so ‘drawing with light.

Types of photography: Non-digital vs. digital

Non-digital photographs are produced using a two-step chemical process: light-sensitive film captures a negative image (colors and lights/darks are inverted) from which a positive image can be made by transferring the negative onto photographic paper (printing).

The advent of digital photography has led to the rise of digital prints. These prints are created from stored graphic formats such as JPEG, TIFF, and RAW. These can then be printed out using printers including inkjet printers, dye-sublimation printer, laser printers, and thermal printers. Inkjet prints are sometimes called ‘giclée’ prints.

Photography through time

August Sander, ‘Farming Family’ 1913, printed 1990
August Sander
Farming Family 1913, printed 1990
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d'Offay 2010
© Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur - August Sander Archiv, Cologne; DACS, London, 2017.

Early twentieth century: August Sander
In the early twentieth century documentary photography became increasingly important. August Sander pioneered a realist, almost scientific approach based on observation which made him one of the heroes of modern photography.

Eadweard Muybridge
Jumping over boy's back (leap-frog). Plate 169 1887
© Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Nineteenth century: Eadweard Muybridge
Born in 1830 – around the same time that photography was invented – Muybridge was one of the early pioneers of photography. Tate’s 2010 Muybridge exhibition explored his important contribution to the development of photography.

Mid twentieth century: William Eggleston
Often described as the godfather of colour photography, and known for his rich and complex images of the American South, William Eggleston is largely credited with establishing the acceptance of colour in fine art photography.

Chris Killip, ‘North Shield Housing Estate on May 5 1981. The day Bobby Sands’ death was announced.’ 1981, printed 2012–13
Chris Killip
North Shield Housing Estate on May 5 1981. The day Bobby Sands’ death was announced. 1981, printed 2012–13
Tate
© Chris Killip

Late twentieth century: Chris Killip
Photography changed radically as it became more politically conscious and socially engaged. Chris Killip was at the forefront of a generation of photographers interested in documenting working-class communities in the 1970s and 1980s.

Adam Broomberg, Oliver Chanarin, ‘Political 1 sheet 19’ 2010
Adam Broomberg, Oliver Chanarin
Political 1 sheet 19 2010
Tate
© Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin

Twenty-first century: Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin
From the early 1990s onward, photography has diversified as photographers have found the freedom to experiment. Contemporary photography is often enigmatic with photographers collecting and making fictions from facts or sometimes facts from fictions. Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin explore the turbulence of the near past, as revealed in archival materials.

Selected artists working with photography

Explore this term

Related techniques and processes

Related genres and approaches

Art Term

Conceptual photography

Conceptual photography is photography that illustrates an idea

Art Term

Documentary photography

Documentary photography is a style of photography that provides a straightforward and accurate representation of people, places, objects and events ...

Art Term

Subjective photography

Subjective photography was an international movement founded in Germany by the photographer Otto Steinert in 1951 which championed photography that ...

Related groups and movements

Photography at Tate