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1900s photography

Updated: Aug 13

The 1900s marked a significant turning point in the history of photography. This transformative era witnessed the emergence of new techniques, styles, and advancements in photographic technology. From the birth of Pictorialism to the introduction of portable cameras, the 1900s ushered in a new era of creative possibilities for photographers. In this article, we will delve into the world of 1900s photography, exploring its key characteristics, influential photographers, and the impact it had on the art form.

The Pictorialist Movement

One of the prominent developments in 1900s photography was the rise of the Pictorialist movement. Pictorialism sought to elevate photography to the realm of fine art by embracing subjective and interpretive approaches. Photographers aimed to create images that resembled paintings, emphasizing atmosphere, mood, and poetic storytelling. Techniques such as soft focus, manipulation of light, and alternative printing processes were employed to achieve the desired aesthetic.

The Pictorialist movement brought photography closer to other established art forms, challenging the notion that photography should strictly serve as a documentary tool. Notable Pictorialist photographers of the time included Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Gertrude Käsebier, who pioneered the use of evocative and expressive techniques in their photographic works.

Advancements in Camera Technology

The 1900s witnessed significant advancements in camera technology, making photography more accessible and portable. The introduction of handheld cameras, such as the Kodak Brownie and the Leica I, revolutionized the way photographs were taken. These cameras were smaller, lighter, and simpler to operate compared to earlier large-format cameras, enabling photographers to capture spontaneous moments and scenes more easily.

The availability of roll film also played a crucial role in the popularization of photography. Roll film eliminated the need for photographers to carry multiple glass plates or sheets, allowing them to take multiple exposures without the hassle of changing plates after each shot.

The Influence of Modernism

The 1900s saw the emergence of modernist movements, which greatly influenced photography. Artists and photographers began to experiment with geometric compositions, abstraction, and unconventional viewpoints. Modernist photographers aimed to capture the essence of the rapidly changing world, embracing urbanization, industrialization, and technological advancements.

Photographers such as Paul Strand and Albert Renger-Patzsch captured the stark beauty of architectural forms and industrial landscapes, highlighting the aesthetic qualities of modernity. Their works reflected the influence of movements like Cubism and Futurism, showcasing the dynamic and fragmented nature of the modern world.

Social Documentary Photography

The 1900s also saw a surge in social documentary photography, as photographers used the medium to shed light on social issues and document the realities of everyday life. Lewis Hine, for example, focused on the plight of child laborers in the United States, using photography as a means of advocacy and social reform. His powerful images brought attention to the harsh working conditions endured by children and contributed to the eventual passing of child labor laws.

Similarly, Jacob Riis's groundbreaking book "How the Other Half Lives" used photography to expose the living conditions of impoverished communities in New York City. Through his images, Riis aimed to raise awareness and bring about social change by revealing the hardships faced by the city's marginalized population.

The Impact of World Events

The 1900s was a tumultuous time marked by significant world events that had an impact on photography. The First World War, for instance, led to the widespread use of photography as a means of documenting the war effort and capturing the realities of conflict. Photographers such as Ernest Brooks and Robert Capa risked their lives to record the experiences of soldiers and civilians, creating a visual record of a devastating chapter in history.

Additionally, the rise of mass media, including illustrated magazines and newspapers, played a pivotal role in disseminating photographic images to a broader audience. Images became a powerful tool for communication and shaping public opinion, further cementing the importance of photography in capturing and conveying significant events.


The 1900s was a transformative era in the history of photography, marked by artistic experimentation, technological advancements, and a growing recognition of photography as a powerful medium of expression. From the Pictorialist movement's emphasis on aesthetics and subjective interpretation to the emergence of modernist influences and social documentary photography, the photography of the 1900s reflected the dynamic and evolving nature of the world.

Photographers of the time pushed the boundaries of the medium, exploring new techniques, styles, and subjects. Their work continues to inspire and influence photographers today, highlighting the enduring impact of the photography of the 1900s. By capturing moments, documenting social realities, and exploring artistic expression, these photographers shaped the art form and contributed to its evolution into the diverse and vibrant medium it is today.


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