How Art History Has Shaped Modern Photography

You may not realize it, but the art of photography has been around for centuries. The first known photograph was taken back in 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. Since then, photographers have been experimenting with new techniques and styles, constantly pushing the boundaries of what is possible. And as you might expect, much of this experimentation has been inspired by art. Here’s how art history has shaped modern photography.

The Daguerreotype

One of the earliest examples of this can be seen in the daguerreotype, a photographic technique popular in the early 19th century. The daguerreotype was named after its inventor, Louis Daguerre, who was heavily influenced by the paintings of Jacques-Louis David—one of the most prominent French artists of the time. Like David’s paintings, daguerreotypes were often highly polished and meticulously detailed. Some early daguerreotypes even featured hand-painted highlights to make them look more like paintings. Here are some fields of photography that use the daguerreotype technique:

Portrait Photography

The daguerreotype technique plays a massive role in portrait photography, as it was one of the first ways to capture a person’s likeness accurately. However, many 19th-century portrait photographers were also trained painters, blending the two art forms further.


Photography in the early 20th century saw a significant shift with the rise of Surrealism—an art movement centered around dreams and the subconscious mind. This style heavily influenced experimental photographers like Man Ray and Salvador Dalí, who used darkroom manipulation and double exposures to create otherworldly images.

A woman taking a picture of something

The Impressionists

In the late 19th century, a group of painters known as the Impressionists began experimenting with light and color in ways that had never been done before. This new approach to painting had a profound impact on photography, as evidenced by the work of Alfred Stieglitz—one of the most influential figures in early American photography. The Impressionists profoundly influenced Stieglitz, and he sought to capture their ephemeral quality in his photographs. To do this, he frequently used long exposures and soft focus, two techniques that are still employed by photographers today. Here are some fields of photography affected by this kind of art:

Landscape Photography

When taking a landscape picture, capturing the sense of atmosphere and emotion evoked by the scene is crucial. This need for atmosphere can be traced back to the Romantic painters of the 18th and 19th centuries, who were known for their dramatic depictions of nature. Their influence can be seen in the work of 19th-century photographer David Octavius Hill and 20th-century photographer Ansel Adams, who are impressionists. Both Hill and Adams sought to convey the grandeur and drama of the natural world in their photographs, just as the Romantic painters did in their paintings.

Newborn Pictures

Impressionism can produce lifelike images without affecting the light or color in the photographs. This has made it a popular aesthetic in photography for newborns, where photographers strive to capture the innocence and vulnerability of infants without sacrificing their lifelike features. These photographs often feature soft focus and dreamy lighting—elements that were central to the Impressionist painters’ work. This style evokes a sense of tranquility and warmth, making it perfect for capturing the delicate beauty of a newborn baby.


In the early 20th century, a new artistic movement known as Modernism began to take hold. Modernist artists rejected traditional values and instead embraced abstraction and experimentalism. This radical new approach to art had a profound impact on photography, as evidenced by the work of Man Ray—one of the most influential figures in early avant-garde photography. Ray’s photographs often featured strange and surrealistic images that challenged traditional notions of what a picture could be. He also frequently incorporated found objects into his paintings, another technique that would become popular among subsequent generations of photographers. Here are some fields of photography that use Modernism as a technique.

Abstract Photography

Modernism plays a significant role in abstract photography, as the movement’s rejection of traditional forms paved the way for experimentation with shapes and colors. As a result, abstract photographers often use unusual perspectives and camera techniques to distort reality and create unique compositions. They also frequently incorporate textures and found objects, just as Man Ray did in his work.

Documentary Photography

Modernist photographers also played a crucial role in the development of documentary photography. These photographers pushed the boundaries of traditional documentary practices by incorporating abstract elements and personal perspectives into their work. For example, photographer Diane Arbus is known for her provocative and unsettling portraits that challenge conventional notions of beauty and normalcy.

As you can see, art has profoundly impacted photography since its inception. Photographers have always looked to art for inspiration, from the meticulously detailed daguerreotypes of the early 19th century to the surrealistic images of Man Ray in the early 20th century. And as we move into the 21st century, it’s safe to say that this trend will continue—after all, there’s no shortage of artistic movements to draw inspiration from!

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