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

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  • Francesca Woodman, 'Space², Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-1978' 1975-8
    Francesca Woodman
    Space², Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-1978 1975-8
    Black and white silver gelatin print on paper
    image: 140 x 140 mm
    Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008© The estate of Francesca Woodman
  • Eadweard Muybridge Head-spring, a flying pigeon interfering. Plate 365 1887
    Eadweard Muybridge
    Head-spring, a flying pigeon interfering. Plate 365 1887
  • August Sander, 'The Architect Hans Heinz Luttgen and his Wife Dora' 1926, printed 1990
    August Sander
    The Architect Hans Heinz Luttgen and his Wife Dora 1926, printed 1990
    Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
    unconfirmed, frame: 490 x 390 x 30 mm
    Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d'Offay 2010
  • Thomas Struth, 'The Late Giles Robertson (with Book), Edinburgh 1987' 1987
    Thomas Struth
    The Late Giles Robertson (with Book), Edinburgh 1987 1987
    Photograph on paper
    image: 439 x 579 mm
    Purchased 1995© Thomas Struth
  • Gilbert & George, 'Existers' 1984
    Gilbert & George
    Existers 1984
    object: 2410 x 3510 mm
    Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008© Gilbert & George
  • Jeff Wall, 'A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai)' 1993
    Jeff Wall
    A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) 1993
    Photographic transparency and illuminated display case
    object: 2500 x 3970 x 340 mm
    Purchased with assistance from the Patrons of New Art through the Tate Gallery Foundation and from the Art Fund 1995© Jeff Wall
  • Guy Tillim, 'Old landline exchange, Post Office, Lubumbashi, DR Congo' 2008
    Guy Tillim
    Old landline exchange, Post Office, Lubumbashi, DR Congo 2008
    Inkjet print on paper
    unconfirmed: 915 x 1315 mm
    Purchased 2010© Guy Tillim

Introduction to photography

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.

Explore the relationship between photography and performance in Performing for the Camera at Tate Modern. In the short film below, curator Simon Baker talks about key works from the show which include photobooks, performance and documentary.

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.

The development of photography

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Further Reading

How we are: Photographing Britain: Room guide
The room guide for this major survey of photography in Britain provides an introduction to the development of photography from its invention in the 1830s to its use by contemporary artists in the twenty-first century.

Photographers in focus

An in-focus look at the work of two photographers and the approaches they use to capture and reflect the lives of the people around them.

William Klein: 1950s street photographer

As well as using photography to document the things and people he saw around him every day, William Klein used the medium as an outlet for creativity and experimentation.

William Klein Candy Store, New York, 1955
William Klein
Candy Store
New York, 1955

In his work from the 1950s onward; blur, graininess and distortion are embraced by Klein as assets which contribute to the raw immediacy and vitality of his images.

In this video Klein talks about his explosive New York street photography that broke the rules and revolutionised the medium.

Nan Goldin: The private made public

‘My work has always come from empathy and love’.

The later twentieth century saw considerable debate around ideas of representation in photography. American photographer Nan Goldin is best known for her honest, personal and sometimes brutal images of the sub-cultural lifestyle of her friends and the communities in which she lived.

Nan Goldin, 'Greer and Robert on the bed, NYC' 1982
Nan Goldin
Greer and Robert on the bed, NYC 1982
© Nan Goldin, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York

In this video she discusses her 2014 book, Eden and After; a collection of portraits taken of children which provide an intimate investigation into the narrative of childhood.

Nan Goldin: Artist’s talk
Video of Nan Goldin’s artist’s talk at Tate Modern in 2007 where she discusses her career and work with Stuart Comer, curator of film at Tate Modern.

Photography in context

In this video photographer Nick Waplington recounts his experiences of working with fashion designer Alexander McQueen, and discusses his own evolution as an artist.

Tate Debate: is photography more expressive than other art forms?
Blog article exploring photography in relation to other art forms.

Exposed: Voyeurism, surveillance and the camera
Online guide to this Tate Modern exhibition which offered a fascinating look at pictures made on the sly, without the explicit permission of the people depicted and included photographs from the late nineteenth century to present day.

Performing for the Camera
This exhibition which is at Tate Modern in February 2016 examines the variety of ways in which the photographic image has both documented and developed our understanding of performance.

Other perspectives

Renowned photographer Charlie Phillips visits the Salt and Silver: Early Photography exhibition at Tate Britain and reflects on his own documentation of the Caribbean and West Indian communities in Notting Hill in the 1960s.

What are you looking at?
In this Tate Etc. article Gilda Williams casts an eye over the photographic works of four female artists: Vanessa Beecroft, Nikki S. Lee, Catherine Opie and Collier Schorr, and how they portray the tensions and myths of contemporary America

Six reflections on the photography of Robert Frank
Tate Etc. invited Lou Reed, Ed Ruscha, Mary Ellen Mark, Liz Jobey and Mark Haworth-Booth – and Robert Frank himself – to reflect on the photographs of one of the world’s most influential photographers.

Responses: working with Francesca Woodman at Oriel Davies
Nine young photographers respond to the intimate and moving photographs of Francesca Woodman.

Photography in detail

The Flowering of Photography
Tate Etc. article exploring the work of two pioneering practitioners, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, who collaborated on making salted paper prints – a technique that produced photographs that were as much objects as images.

Beyond the Frame: Photography & Experimentation
Audio recording of a Tate seminar in which artists and curators explore how photographers have experimented with processes that push our understanding of the photographic form.

Photography in the Street and Studio video recordings
Video recordings of this Tate Modern symposium which coincided with Tate Modern’s major photography exhibition of the same title, and examined different histories of the photographic portrait, in the street and in the studio.

Photography and the Limits of the Document Symposium: video recordings
Major photographers and filmmakers, and cultural theorists and historians reflect on the photographic document.

Related glossary terms

Genres and approaches
Conceptual photographydocumentary photography, subjective photography

Techniques and processes
Albumen printC-print, photogramsolarisation

Groups and movements
AfrapixAmerican social realist photographyDusseldorf School of photographyMagnum PhotosThe Photo-Secession