What is Modernist Photography?

It’s interesting to talk about “Modern photography” as photography itself as a medium and an object, are products of Modernity.

So, we’ll talk about the changes in style and the photographer’s choices of subjects and their form of representation towards what we associate with “Modernism” in visual arts.

Dora Maar "Man looking inside a sidewalk inspection door, London", c.1935
Dora Maar “Man looking inside a sidewalk inspection door, London”, c.1935 / Image @ Tate

Before being considered an art form, photography was merely a documentary tool used in scientific research. As technology evolved, the cameras became smaller and more accessible. Soon, some photographers started to explore their artistic potentials.


At the end of the 19th century, influenced by new artistic movements in painting and sculpture, photographers started to “stage” or work with the negatives in ways to give the photos, painting aspects. Subjects, focus and atmosphere were manipulated to simulate a painting. 

Photography clubs were created around Europe and the US, which helped to disseminate the style. The Photo-Secession group in New York became particularly influential, with names like Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, and Gertrude Käsebier among its members.

Straight Photography

Appearing around 1904, this movement sought to capture what the photographer’s eyes saw. The emphasis was in clarity, precise framing and focus. There was no (or almost none) manipulation in the dark rooms. 

Photographers started to document cities, architecture and other subjects of modern life.

Important names in this movement were Imogen Cunningham and Ansel Adams (both part of f/64 group), Paul Strand, Alfred Stieglitz, and László Moholy-Nagy.

From Straight Photography, many other art movements incorporated photography with important contributions:

  • Surrealism (Dora Maar, Man Ray, etc.)
  • Dadaism (Hannah Hoch, John Heartfield, etc.)

To know more:

Check this Youtube channel with a brief history of photography in 8 videos:

Have a great week!


  1. So happy to have run into your blog. My next post will be about American machine age and industrial photography! So so interesting. In Milan I managed to visit an exhibition in October in Margaret Bourke-White. Amazingly beautiful.


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