The History of Photography

By discussing the history of photography, students can learn about this art and its importance in recording major events.

By Daniella Garran

history of photography lessons

The role of photography in history is fascinating, and can be explored from many different angles. Rarely in our digital age do we stop to contemplate the power of a photographic image since we are literally bombarded with them all day long. In the relatively short life of the art of photography, tremendous advances and changes have occurred at lightning speed. From the creation of the camera obscura, and the first permanent image in 1826 to smartphones, which allow users to photograph their surroundings instantaneously, photography is constantly changing. And with such rapidly advancing technology comes great risk as well. Computer programs such as Adobe Photoshop and Picasa allow users to edit their images to the point where people and objects can be erased entirely.

However, the photograph has played a pivotal role in history, documenting people’s greatest joys, people’s deepest sorrows, and people’s everyday lives. Photographs have played a significant part in our understanding and experience of wars, provided a voice for those who have lost theirs ( for example, Holocaust victims), and documented cultural activities and traditions. In short, photography has allowed humans to capture the world they live in from a variety of perspectives. It is interesting for students to contemplate how much more we might know about our ancestors had they had access to cameras.

Any study of the history of photography should include a look at the camera obscura, daguerreotypes, calotypes, box cameras, pinhole cameras and digital cameras.

One way to engage students in a discussion about the power of a photograph is to show them a number of historic images, and talk about the emotions evoked by them and the role that they have played in society’s collective memory and consciousness. Such images include:

  • The attack on the World Trade Center on 9-11-2001
  • Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother”
  • Alfred Eisenstaedt’s  "V-J Day, Times Square, 1945", a.k.a. "The Kiss"
  • Steve McCurry’s “Afghan Girl” which was on the cover of "National Geographic"
  • Malcolm Browne’s “Burning Monk, The Self-Immolation”
  • Will Counts’ photo of Hazel Bryant attending Central High School on the day that it was desegregated
  • Nick Ut’s photo of Phan Thi Kim Phuc fleeing her town after a napalm attack during the Vietnam War
  • Stuart Franklin’s image of the tanks in Tianamen Square
  • Joe Rosenthal’s image of soldiers raising the American Flag at Iwo Jima

Another interesting discussion to have with students is about what constitutes art. Of the images listed above, are some explicitly art and some explicitly documentary? If so, how do students know the difference?

A great activity which teachers can do with their classes is to make pinhole cameras using light-tight boxes like oatmeal containers. For more lessons and activities for teaching students about the history of photography please see the lessons that follow.

History of Photography Lesson Plans:

Immigration and Photography: The Case of Lewis Hine 

This lesson provides an interesting look at documentary photography. The fact that documentary photographs are intended to be objective is an important thing for students to understand. Students learn that taking a picture is a decision-making process that effects not only the photographer, but also the subject. 

Rural Voices Through Photography

This lesson is especially helpful for students studying the Dust Bowl era and the Great Depression. It has students discuss the importance of documentary photography. Students also learn about the literature and music of the era to provide a complete picture of life in the United States in the 1930's. 

Story Telling with Black and White Photography

Through a directed study of artist Wright Morris’ black and white photography, students learn about composition, communication and lighting, and the role that each plays when taking a photograph. Students tell a story visually through their own photographs, and write a narrative to describe their image.

Worth a Thousand Words: The Photography Essay

Students are given the opportunity to pretend that they work for a public relations firm which has been retained to represent the school positively through photography. Students conduct interviews with teachers, students, coaches and administrators to help them develop a photo essay about the school.