Discover the history and development of film, a merging of science, technology, business, and art, and one of the most widely experienced mediums.

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Advent of Cinema

Scientists and inventors set photographs into motion—and make movies.

Experimentation with Sound

Sound technology breaks the silence of the movies and revolutionizes filmmaking.

Documentary and Propaganda

Filmmakers turn their cameras onto real life to make documentaries, or attempt to mold real life to an ideology through propaganda.

Experimentation in Film / The Avant-Garde

Seeing untapped artistic and, sometimes, revolutionary potential in film, artists and filmmakers take motion pictures into entirely new territory.

The first motion pictures flickered to life in Thomas Alva Edison’s New Jersey laboratory in the early 1890s. Within two decades, movie theaters had sprouted across North America and Europe (with much of the rest of the world soon to follow), their seats packed daily with audiences consuming melodramas, comedies, newsreels, and animation. Then, in 1927, sound came to the big screen. For the first time, audiences heard actors’ voices and thrilled to the new dimension this brought to the experience. From cumbersome beginnings, sound technology—along with camera, film, and projection technology—steadily improved and films became increasingly sophisticated. It is now hard to imagine a time when films were not central to popular culture.

But what is film? Theories about this medium abound: it is a collaborative art; mass entertainment; a form of language and communication, which can be both constructive and destructive; a cultural document that reflects society.

On a technical level, a film is a series of still photographic images shown in rapid succession to create the illusion of seamless motion. Anyone who has gone to the movies, however, knows that a great film can transport us well beyond the science that makes it possible. Unless the filmmaker effectively breaks film’s illusion (and varied attempts have been made to do just that), the wholeness of the world that a filmmaker can create is deeply affecting. Iris Barry, who laid the foundations for MoMA’s Film department and film studies, was a tireless champion of the medium, which she saw as humanizing: “The cinema helps us to live complete lives, in imagination if not in fact. And I cannot help thinking that knowing is the same thing as sympathizing.”1

Iris Barry, quoted in Richard Brody, “Iris Barry: The Secret Heroine of the Cinema,” New Yorker, October 10, 2014,

1. A drama, such as a play, film, or television program, characterized by exaggerated emotions, stereotypical characters, and interpersonal conflicts; 2. Behavior or occurrences having melodramatic characteristics.

An unreal, deceptive, or misleading appearance or image.

A person who directs or produces movies.

1. A series of moving images, especially those recorded on film and projected onto a screen or other surface (noun); 2. A sheet or roll of a flexible transparent material coated with an emulsion sensitive to light and used to capture an image for a photograph or film (noun); 3. To record on film or video using a movie camera (verb).

An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

The customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.

The materials used to create a work of art, and the categorization of art based on the materials used (for example, painting [or more specifically, watercolor], drawing, sculpture).

Related Artists: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel, Joseph Cornell, Alan Crosland, Maya Deren, W. K. L. Dickson, William Heise, Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks, David Wark Griffith, Barbara Kopple, Fernand Léger, Louis Lumière, Bill Morrison, Edwin S. Porter, Yvonne Rainer, Leni Riefenstahl, Murray Roth, Jack Smith, Paul Strand, Charles Sheeler