Important Photographs and Artists of Modern Photography

Progression of Art
Alfred Stieglitz: The Steerage (1907)

The Steerage

Artist: Alfred Stieglitz

Stieglitz promoted this photograph as his first truly "modernist photograph" and it is this image that marks his departure from the Pictorialist style and his abandonment of the idea that photographs should imitate paintings. The photograph depicts steerage (lower class) passengers aboard a ship sailing from New York to Europe, which Stieglitz was also travelling on. The majority of those shown are likely to have been skilled migrant workers who had entered the US on temporary visas to work in the construction industry and were now returning home. It was probably taken whilst anchored at Plymouth, England and was developed in Paris some days later.

In the photograph, Stieglitz creates an image that is as much a study in line and form as a straightforward depiction, with the decks, passageways, and ladders creating a series of bold, intersecting lines and spaces. Later, Stieglitz stated of the image that "I saw shapes related to each other. I saw a picture of shapes and underlying that, the feeling I had about life". Due to this emphasis of geometric shapes the photograph has been cited as one of the first proto-Cubist works of art.

Although taken in 1907, Stieglitz did not immediately see the potential of the work. He later realized its importance and published it in Camera Work in 1911 in a special issue devoted to his own art and its modernist focus. In the issue he also included a Cubist drawing by Picasso, drawing his own parallels between the two and arguing that the photograph as a medium could be as innovative and as modern, as any work of avant-garde art. Picasso himself also acknowledged the similarities, noting that "this photographer is working in the same spirit as I am".

Photogravure - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Paul Strand: Blind (1916)


Artist: Paul Strand

This is one of the most important photographs in establishing Modern Photography and a noted early street photograph. Strand said that the woman's "absolutely unforgettable and noble face," prompted the photograph which is in direct contrast to the formal, posed studio portraits of the period. One of a series of street portraits using a handheld camera with a false brass lens attached to its side, so the subject would be unaware, Strand's street photographs were influenced by his teacher and mentor, Lewis Hine, who pioneered social documentary photography for purposes of social reform.

The piece combines this focus on social documentation with a modernist aesthetic which highlights pattern and form, with the diagonal lines of the rectangular blocks mirroring the woman's gaze and framing the image. The viewer is immediately aware of the contradiction between her dignified face and the oval peddler's badge (required by law) and the simple and bold sign announcing her disability. As the curator Peter Barberie notes of Strand, "For him, the camera was a machine - a modern machine... He was preoccupied with the question of how modern art - whether it's photography or not - could contain all of the humanity that you see in the Western artistic traditions." Blind was published in a 1917 issue of Camera Work and immediately took on an iconic status within the new American photography movement.

Platinum print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Tina Modotti: Workers Parade (1926)

Workers Parade

Artist: Tina Modotti

Depicting a march of Mexican agricultural workers seeking better working conditions, this image combines social documentary concerns with an emphasis on the appearances of modernism, combining art and politics (like other photographs of the period). The workers are depicted from above and behind so that their backs and hats fill the frame, suggesting a crowd beyond the confines of the photograph. The workers are faceless making them anonymous as individuals but as a mass they are powerful, surging diagonally upwards across the frame. This is further emphasized by the lack of a clear focal point in the image.

Italian-born, Modotti immigrated to San Francisco as a teenager and began acting in theatre and film and working as an art model. Edward Weston whom she met in 1920 influenced her photographic practice. They became lovers and moved together to Mexico City in 1923 where they opened a photo studio and associated with political figures such as Leon Trotsky, and the painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Modotti remained in Mexico after Weston returned to the States. She eventually moved to Moscow, joined the Soviet communist party, and gave up photography in 1931 to dedicate herself to social causes. Following her early death at the age of 46, Modotti was known primarily as Weston's muse and mistress, but the discovery of a large collection of her photographs in 1999 led to a re-evaluation of her work in its own right, and a solo exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in 2013.

Gelatin silver print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York City


Noire et blanche

Artist: Man Ray

Part of a photo series by Man Ray, this Surrealist image depicts a woman, her face with closed eyes reclining on a surface, while in her left hand she holds an upright African ceremonial mask. The woman is Kiki de Montparnasse, one of Man Ray's favorite models and also his lover. The work's title refers both to the black and white film and to the juxtaposition in color between face and mask. The ovals of the woman's face and the shape of the mask, both wearing a serene expression, create a connection between the two, both are objectified and the high polish of the image emphasizes the beauty of the object, whether face or mask.

Created at a time when African art was enormously popular and collectable, there have been numerous readings of the image with one of the most sustained suggesting that in it Man Ray tackles the theme of the double, a common one in Surrealist art, which symbolized the split between the conscious and unconscious mind. The work can also be viewed as an attempt to neutralize difference or as a reflection of contemporary attitudes towards race and gender, making it problematic in post-colonial terms.

Gelatin silver print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York City


Pepper No. 30

Artist: Edward Weston

For two decades Weston created close-ups of peppers, eggplants, shells, artichokes, and other organic forms that emphasized their sensuous and sculptural beauty and this is one of his best-known images from this period. In this photograph, lit with rich tonalities, the pepper becomes a monumental form which evokes human curves. Weston achieved the contrast between the pepper and its background by placing it inside a tin funnel to photograph it. The resulting light gave the image a three-dimensional quality of which he said "It was a bright idea, a perfect relief for the pepper and adding reflecting light to important contours". His intent was not only to depict the beauty of the pepper but the qualities beyond the subject itself, as he noted it was, "a pepper ‒ but more than a pepper; abstract, in that it is completely outside subject matter".

Silver gelatin contact print - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


Secretary at a West German Radio, Cologne

Artist: August Sander

This image of a secretary at a radio station depicts a fashionably dressed and coiffed young woman seated on a chair smoking. The image projects a strong sense of the character of the sitter and this photographic honesty was part of the realist movement known as Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). This was one of a series of portraits produced by Sander during the 1920s and '30s, some of which were published in his major photography book: Faces of Our Time (1929). Sander sought to create "a physiognomic image of an age", and a catalogue of "all the characteristics of the universally human". Sander divided his portraits into one of seven categories, based on social standing and occupation of the sitter. In doing so, Sander created, not only, a unique collection of portraits but a social history document that records the German class structure of the period.

In this image, the sitter holds a cigarette whilst looking directly at the camera as if challenging the photographer. In portraying her smoking (an activity previously considered unsuitable for women) and clearly in control of the situation, Sander shows her as an emancipated, working woman capable of managing her own career and finances. The portrait consequently highlights a dichotomy between the individuality of the sitter and the limited number of categories of classification defined by Sander and this reflects wider issues in German society at the time. As the art historian Lynette Roth notes: "If typecasting and classification were introduced during the Weimar period in order to negotiate an increasingly complex society, then ambiguity in even the most definitive Weimar period portraits serves as evidence of ongoing disorientation".

Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur - August Sander Archiv, Köln, Germany

Dorothea Lange: Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936)

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California

Artist: Dorothea Lange

A contemporary survey found Migrant Mother to be the most widely recognizable photograph ever made and it is the quintessential example of social documentary photography. The image features a woman framed by two of her children and holding a third in her arms. The family's poverty is apparent in their worn and dirty clothing, and the hardship they face is conveyed in the mother's expression and in the body language of the children who turn away to cling to her. Lange was part of a group of photographers along with Jack Delano, Walker Evans, Russel Lee, Carl Mydans, and Gordon Parks, who were hired by the Farm Security Administration to document "the American way of life", particularly emphasizing the effects of the Depression and the Dust Bowl. The images were intended to support the social reform efforts of the Roosevelt administration and this is reflected in the caption for the photo that read, "Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California".

Lange later said of the experience, "I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food...[she] seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it." Later the subject of the photograph, Florence Owens Thompson, contradicted this version of events noting that they were based at the pea pickers camp temporarily whilst their car was being fixed and whilst poor, were not in the same desperate position as other families living more permanently at the camp.

Though Lange's story emphasizes the human element of the encounter, the photograph is also notable for its modernist sense of composition. The lines of the woman's arm on which her head rests, the lines of the children's arms and bodies as they lean into her, and use of tone and contrast create a simple and symmetrical image which adds to the power of the message.

Gelatin silver print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Berenice Abbott: Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery, Manhattan (1935)

Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery, Manhattan

Artist: Berenice Abbott

Abbott's image depicts the Blossom Restaurant, as viewed from the street, with a barbershop to the right. Signage, announcing items and their prices, fills the windows, and a man, looking at the photographer, pauses on the steps leading from the restaurant, whilst another man can be partially glimpsed behind the barber shop pole. The image itself is divided into sections by the line of the street, the strong verticals of the windows and doorways and the diagonal stripes of the barber's pole, which together convey a sense of fullness and dynamism replicating the busy nature of the city, thus the photograph captures a brief moment in the ever-changing urban environment.

Abbott was a leading Straight Photographer who felt the image should convey "the shock of reality unadorned", a phrase she coined to describe the work of Eugene Atget which she had encountered in Paris in the 1920s whilst working for Man Ray. Atget had a significant and lasting influence on Abbott's work and like his photographs her images often contain juxtapositions between old and new. Returning to New York in 1928, she was struck by how the city had changed and began taking photographs to document what she saw, working for much of the late 1930s as part of the WPA's Federal Art Project.

Gelatin silver print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York


Fort Peck Dam, Montana

Artist: Margaret Bourke-White

This picture presents Fort Peck Dam as a modern icon of engineering with the massive architectural structure as the focus of the image, filling much of the frame. The dam's size is further emphasized by the inclusion of two human figures in the foreground who are dwarfed by the looming concrete buttresses. These individuals also serve to highlight the vulnerable position of the worker in a changing industrial landscape. At the same time, the work is also a modernist study in line and form with the geometric shapes of the structure defined by vertical bands of light and shade. The image appeared on the cover of the first issue of Life magazine where it symbolized the modern age that the publication sought to represent as well as defining the style of Photojournalism that was to become a key feature of the magazine.

Bourke-White is best known as a pioneer of Photojournalism, but she first received critical acclaim for her industrial photographs such as Steel Mill (1930) and this image shows an understanding of the structure of a photograph. Later in the 1930s she photographed people impacted by the Dust Bowl, and her Life photograph of African-Americans displaced by flooding standing in front of a sign that depicted a smiling white family and read "The World's Highest Standard of Living'" became an iconic image with a lasting social impact. Becoming the first woman war correspondent, she took photographs in Europe during World War II and photographed Buchenwald when the concentration camp was liberated.

Gelatin silver print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City


Accused Gestapo Informer, Dessau, Germany

Artist: Henri Cartier-Bresson

This perfectly timed photograph captures the public denunciation of a young Belgian woman as a Nazi collaborator. The woman accusing her stands to her left, angry and dynamic in her allegations and seated at a desk is a serious looking man, the camp commandant of the transit camp at Dessau where the image was taken. The camp was located between the American and Soviet zones and provided accommodation for displaced persons, forced laborers, political prisoners, refugees, and prisoners of war, returning from the Eastern front of Germany which had been liberated by the Soviet Army.

At the time the photograph was taken, Cartier-Bresson was engaged by the American Office of War Information to make a documentary film about French prisoners of war and refugees. This was a film by a prisoner about prisoners, since Cartier-Bresson had been taken prisoner by the German army in June 1940 whilst working for the French Army's film and photo unit. He was held for more than three years, successfully escaping on his third attempt and returning to France with forged papers. This image was shot during the making of the film and directly communicates Cartier-Bresson's meaning of 'the decisive moment', in this case the moment of reckoning.

Gelatin silver print - Magnum Photos, New York


Uruapan 11

Artist: Aaron Siskind

This image shows three white painted patches on a dark concrete wall, while just above the wall the tops of a few trees are partially visible. Siskind started out as a social documentarian and was an active member of the New York Photo League in the 1930s. Subsequently, in the early 1940s, his work changed and he began to focus on close-ups of walls, peeling paint, and small objects in such a way that the images became abstract. Elements of Siskind's pictures were often condensed or foreshortened giving them a two-dimensional appearance and this can be seen here in the lack of depth between the wall and trees, of this he noted, "First, and emphatically, I accept the flat plane of the picture as the primary frame of reference of the picture".

This image exemplifies one of the key approaches to abstract photography which is to focus on a fragment of a natural scene, so that texture, form, line, become the dominant focus, isolating the image from its context. Through his work and his close friendship with Franz Kline, Siskind's images both borrowed and had a significant influence upon the Abstract Impressionists.

Silver gelatin print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


La Palangana

Artist: Francisco Ontañón

Ontañón's image depicts a basin (la palangana), viewed from above, in which the portraits of the founders of a Spanish photographic collective float, the photograph includes Ontañón's own image. The group, founded in 1959, took its name from this photograph and were known as La Palangana. Members focused on social photojournalism, emphasizing the camera's functionality and using it to depict the everyday realities of Franco's Spain. They worked mainly on the outskirts of Madrid and in nearby villages and their work marks the beginning of Spanish Neorealism.

The basin is similar to those used in the photographic developing process and consequently the photographers themselves appear to be developed in the same manner as their photographs. The white bowl fills the center of the frame and contrasts sharply with the dark geometric shapes of the chair and the strong diagonal lines of the flagstones giving the image a modernist appearance. This image embodies, both the group's dismissal of artistic pretension, and their focus on practical processes and the everyday - echoing modern and postmodern ideas in the wider visual arts.

Gelatin silver print - Museo Centro Nacional de Arte: Reina Sophia, Madrid, Spain

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kate Stephenson

"Modern Photography Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kate Stephenson
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First published on 17 Oct 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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