Monochrome photograph of two women sitting in a wooden rowboat on the floor of a photography studio. One woman wears a dress and a hat and looks at us, while the other wears a coat and a cap and looks down. Both woman have cigarettes in their mouths. A backdrop of a wooded area hangs on the wall behind them and a small dog sits in the boat.

An example of pictorialist photography. Marie Høeg and Bolette Berg, Marie Høeg og Bolette Berg i båten, ca. 1895-1903. Preus Museum, Norway.

Reader question: “My question is related to photography. More specifically movements in photography. For example, in paintings we have romanticism, surrealism, minimalism, etc. Are there anything similar in photography or are there anything specific to photography in this regards?”—asked by Phaisal

That’s a great question, and my short answers are: yes, photography was often part of those art movements (once it was invented), but also, yes; there are a couple of movements that are specific to photography.

(Sidenote: “Art movements” are often there to help us understand a large range of influences, aims, and styles that were happening in a certain period of time, but it’s also of course true that not all art belonged to a movement. In this early blog post, I answered the question “Are all artists and their works classified as part of a particular movements?”, which could be useful reading for this topic as well.)

  1. Photography in ‘non-photography’ art movements


Man Ray, Rayograph, 1922. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris 2018

I’ll get to the “photography-only” movements below, but first, I want to quickly make the point that lots of other art movements involved photography as well. Ever since it was invented in the early 19th century, photography became deeply integrated into the art world. It served as inspiration for movements like Naturalism and Impressionism, but there was also photography in movements like Romanticism, Surrealism, Dada, and many more. Well known photographer Man Ray, for example, participated in both the Dada and Surrealist art movements. He created “rayographs”, a type of cameraless photography in which he placed objects directly on a sheet of photosensitized paper and exposed them to light. That’s how he created the above work, The Kiss, by using hands, darkroom trays, and two heads kissing as stencils.

As well as being part of art movements, photography has also been an essential component of many art forms that aren’t just photography. There are, for example, the photographic collages of Dada and Pop art, and the photographic documentation of performance art throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. A great example of this is the Beijing East Village performance artists. In the early 1990s, they started staging intense happenings in which they would use their bodies in extreme ways. The performance 12M2 by Zhang Huan, for example, involved him sitting in an outdoor toilet covered in honey and fish oil for 45 minutes. The performances were primarily documented by photographs, which have become just as much a part of the art as the performance was.

  1. Movements that were unique to photography
Sepia-toned photograph of a woman sitting on the floor with a piece of floral fabric on her lap. She is surrounded by sewing boxes and fabric and is busy sewing the fabric in her lap. She is dressed in traditional Japanese garments. Certain parts of the photo, such as the fabric, have been painted by hand in bright colours.

Ogawa Kazumasa, Woman sewing, ca. 1880.

I’m going to focus here on two recognised art movements that were completely unique to photography: pictorialism, and “straight” or “naturalistic” photography.

Pictorialism and straight photography both emerged in the second half of the 19th century, and were basically two opposing views on what photography should be and what it should look like. Straight photography championed the idea that photography should be a simple, direct depiction of reality, while pictorialism suggested that photography should be used more artistically. Both movements came about in Europe, around the time that photography was becoming more and more accessible and popular.

Monochrome photograph of two men outside in a field. One of them is standing on a wooden rowboat in a small river holding an armful of reeds, while the other stands on a small hill, picking reeds.

Peter Henry Emerson, “Ricking the reed”, from Emerson’s first photographic album Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads, 1886.

Straight photography was more related to the initial view of what photography was: a completely objective, faithful, and almost scientific depiction of a scene. The main aim was to improve photographic technology to create sharper images that could even more faithfully depict reality. British photographer Peter Henry Emerson advocated for straight photography in his 1889 book Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art with the phrase “beauty is truth, truth is beauty”. In many ways, the book was a direct attack on photographers who manipulated or staged their photographs. Emerson took all of his photos in a single take and without any retouching.

Monochrome photograph of an older woman sitting on a chair facing two younger women. One of the younger woman sits with her eyes closed on a chair, while the other stands behind her. Behind them is a large window partly covered by heavy curtains. A man stands looking out of the window with his back facing us.

Henry Peach Robinson, Fading Away, 1858. George Eastman Museum.

Pictorialism, meanwhile, stated that pictorial photography’s main aim was to be symbolic or allegorical, and that manipulation of the image was actually encouraged to better communicate the message of the image. Emotional impact was also a key component. This view was first articulated in British photographer Henry Peach Robinson’s 1869 book, Pictorial Effect in Photography: Being Hints On Composition And Chiaroscuro For Photographers. He was a big proponent on a specific way of manipulating photographs called ‘photomontage’, in which multiple different photographs were combined to create fictional scenes.

Monochrome photograph of a man and woman sitting close together. The woman leans her head on the man's shoulder with her eyes closed, and the man holds her hand and leans his head against hers. He is dressed in chain mail and she is wearing a long white dress.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Parting of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, 1874.

British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron was another well known 19th century photographers who staged and manually manipulated her photographs, creating symbolic or allegorical scenes such as Parting of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere above. She would, for example, make deliberate ‘mistakes’ like having prolonged exposure or a slightly out-of-focus lens to get the effects she needed.

Pictorialism later also gave rise to the American Photo-Secession movement in the early 20th century, which also promoted photography as a fine art with the viewpoint that the artist’s manipulation of the image was the most important part of photography rather than what was in front of the camera lens.

There are lots of other photographic “styles” and “genres” that could possibly be classified as movements (I mean, what even is a “movement”? Am I right?) like conceptual photography, travel photography, photojournalism, and street photography. The reason I’m not really including these is because the terms tend to not be as time-specific—conceptual photography, for example, emerged during the conceptual art movement, but is still being applied to photographs produced today.

Monochrome photograph of a small town surrounded by a desert landscape. A few people can be seen in the foreground. Two people stand next to a camel. The words

Karimeh Abbud, Postcard of Cana in Galilee, ca 1920.

Overall, there aren’t as many clearly delineated art movements that are unique to photography as there are to paintings and sculptures. I’d say that’s most likely because photography came pretty late in the game—most bona fide, widely acknowledged art movements, after all, were named decades or even centuries after they happened, in attempts to delineate and classify art history.

So, maybe in a few hundred years there’ll be more photographic art movements out there. Until then, let me know what your favourite style/genre of photography is! Or favourite photographer! (Mine are, respectively: 19th century studio portraits and, right now, probably Zanele Muholi.)