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Explore the many different ways photography has been used to document and interpret the modern world.


Some photographers pose their subjects, others capture people in candid moments. Sometimes, it's hard to tell the difference.

Photography and Public Image

Photographs of public figures or celebrities often reinforce their personas rather than reveal the real person behind the public image, but sometimes photographers manage to break through the facade.

Photography as Witness

Photographs of news stories and major events can often shape collective memory and how history is written and understood.

Sets, Stories, and Situations

Throughout photography’s history, photographers have staged images to evoke literature, films, real events, and, sometimes, the artifice of the medium itself.

The Photographic Record

Since its inception, photography has helped build a collective archive of human experience.

In its early decades, photography was considered a valuable artistic tool—especially by painters who based their compositions on photographs—but not necessarily a fine art. By the mid-19th century, photographers and artists became eager to demonstrate that the medium had serious artistic potential and that photographs could be on a par with the long-established arts of painting and sculpture. Among the ways they did this was to stage and photograph tableaux based on literature or Biblical stories, which were historically the province of painters and sculptors. Other photographers restaged well-known historic events that they were unable to capture in real time because of the technical limitations of early cameras and negatives.

Building and reflecting upon the legacy of early staged photography, many contemporary artists make their own elaborately structured photographs—with a twist. Their images are carefully constructed and meticulously photographed, but in ways that consciously reveal their artifice. By showing the ease with which images may be set-up or manipulated, these artists challenge the commonly held perception of photography as an objective medium.

To explore more, click on each artwork thumbnail, then click again on the larger image that appears in the box above.

One who uses a camera or other means to produce photographs.

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

Deception or trickery.

One who applies paint to canvas, wood, paper, or another support to produce a picture.

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

A three-dimensional work of art made by a variety of means, including carving wood, chiseling stone, casting or welding metal, molding clay or wax, or assembling materials.

A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).

A type of photography that captures subjects in candid moments in public places.

A previously exposed and developed photographic film or plate showing an image that, in black-and-white photography, has a reversal of tones (for example, white eyes appear black). In color photography, the image is in complementary colors to the subject (for example, a blue sky appears yellow). The transfer of a negative image to another surface results in a positive image.

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).

The arrangement of the individual elements within a work of art so as to form a unified whole; also used to refer to a work of art, music, or literature, or its structure or organization.

Questions & Activities

  1. Imagining a Character

    Imagine. Develop the identity of a character in one of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills. What is the person’s name, occupation, and personal history? What happened just before the scene pictured and what happened just after?

    Write. Write a brief one-page description of your character.

  2. Street Seen

    Using what he calls “near documentary,” Jeff Wall plays with the tradition of street photography by directing and photographing models to reenact scenes he witnessed on the street.

    Observe. Look for an interesting action on the street or in another public space. Write a brief description of the moment and why it was memorable.