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Related Resources

Building a Collection: Photography at the National Gallery, Lecture by Sarah Greenough, senior curator and head, department of photographs

Curators

Sarah Greenough
Senior Curator and Head, Department of Photographs
National Gallery of Art, Washington

Diane Waggoner
Associate Curator, Department of Photographs
National Gallery of Art, Washington

The Nineteenth Century: The Invention of Photography

In 1839 a new means of visual representation was announced to a startled world: photography. Although the medium was immediately and enthusiastically embraced by the public at large, photographers themselves spent the ensuing decades experimenting with techniques and debating the nature of this new invention. The works in this section suggest the range of questions addressed by these earliest practitioners. Was photography best understood as an art or a science? What subjects should photographs depict, what purpose should they serve, and what should they look like? Should photographers work within the aesthetics established in other arts, such as painting, or explore characteristics that seemed unique to the medium? This first generation of photographers became part scientists as they mastered a baffling array of new processes and learned how to handle their equipment and material. Yet they also grappled with aesthetic issues, such as how to convey the tone, texture, and detail of multicolored reality in a monochrome medium. They often explored the same subjects that had fascinated artists for centuries — portraits, landscapes, genre scenes, and still lifes — but they also discovered and exploited the distinctive ways in which the camera frames and presents the world.