25 Awesome Books on the Long History of Photography

Best Books on the History of Photography

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From the 1830s to today, photography has come a long way. We no longer use glass plates to capture negatives, and cameras can take many photos per second. To understand how photography evolved from processes such as the daguerreotype to the iPhone camera, one must read up on the history of the medium. This history is entwined with other developments of the past two centuries—including political turmoil, women's liberation, and the Civil Rights movement. Photography has also developed alongside changing notions of the self and memory, both collective and individual.

Read on for My Modern Met's curated list of the best books to read on the history of photography—you will learn how the photograph has become inseparable from modernity.

Explore the history of photography with these fascinating reads.

A History of Photography: from 1839 to the Present

A History of Photography

TASCHEN | $23.25

What better place to start than at the beginning? This book—published by the renowned George Eastman Museum—takes you on a journey from the invention of photography to present day.


The New Woman Behind the Camera

The New Woman Behind the Camera

Andrea Nelson | $55.80

Published by the National Gallery of Art and written by curator Andrea Nelson, this book features 120 female photographers from the 1920s to the 1950s. This pivotal time in both popular and professional photography also saw a sea change in the lives of women around the world.


A History of Photography in 50 Cameras

This book explores the 180-year history of photography through its technology. Exploring the origins and developments of different cameras—from the Leica M3-D to the smartphone—it's a fascinating way to get insight into the images that we consume.


Victorian Photography, Literature, and the Invention of Modern Memory

The 19th-century beginnings of photography altered forever the way humans approach our own individual and collective memories, according to Jennifer Green-Lewis, an English professor at George Washington University. A scholarly read, this book is fascinating for those who appreciate the intersections of culture, psychology, and photography.


Good Pictures: A History of Popular Photography

Photography Book - Good Pictures

Kim Beil | $32.55

Authored by Kim Beil, who teaches art at Stanford University, this exploration of photographic trends is a visual feast. It will answer your questions, such as why Instagram images are square format and when did instant photography become popular.


Street Photography: A History in 100 Iconic Photographs

Street Photography A History in 100 Iconic Images

David Gibson | $23.25

Trace the history of street photography from pre-war gelatin silver prints to 21st-century digital images, from documentary to abstract, from New York's Central Park to a mountain city in Mongolia. Filled with photos by masterful photographers, each image is accompanied by text that explains its context.


Photography: History. Art. Technique

Photography: History. Art. Technique

Tom Ang | $27.90

This comprehensive book combines information about the history of photography with skill-building tips and tricks to help improve your own photography practice. Beginners will appreciate learning about things like aperture and shutter speed, while those with some skills will gain a valuable resource to hone their craft.


Unseen: Unpublished Black History from the New York Times Photo Archives

Unseen: Unpublished Black History from the New York Times Photo Archives

Dana Canedy | $27.89

Composed by a team of four authors with backgrounds in journalism, this collection of images delves deep into the archives and brings to light beautiful windows into Black history and the history of photography. Behind each photo is a story which, through this collection, is at last receiving the journalistic attention it deserves.


Ansel Adams: 400 Photographs

Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams | $32.54

One of the most famous photographers of the 20th century, Ansel Adams, is known for his stunning black and white landscapes. This beautiful volume explores hundreds of Adams' enduring images which have since inspired generations of photographers.


The Photographer's Eye

Since its first edition in 1966, this title by John Szarkowski sorts and analyses 172 photographs from the last two centuries. Published by the Museum of Modern Art, the book is as good as an art theory course.


Understanding Photography: Interpreting and Enjoying the Great Photographers

Understanding Photography: Interpreting and Enjoying the Great Photographers

Ian Jeffrey | $32.55

Art historian Ian Jeffrey leads readers through the history of photography by decoding single images. From Alfred Stieglitz to Cindy Sherman, the work of top photographers is used as a way to understand the trends and developments of the craft in an easy and engaging way.


The Changing Face of Portrait Photography: From Daguerreotype to Digital

From Dorthea Lange to Richard Avedon, this book uses portraits from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History's Photographic History Collection to assess how our visions of ourselves have evolved with photographic history. Cabinet cards, snapshots, and studio portraits all tell us something special.


On Photography

Photography Book - On Photography by Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag | $17.67

Susan Sontag's classic is a must-read for anyone who wishes to be thoughtful about the photographic age. A collection of essays, it illuminates how photography is now inseparable from the course of human events.


Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Mind's Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers

Learn from one of history's greatest photographers, Henri Cartier-Bresson, by reading his own thoughts and feelings on the craft. For the first time, his essays—some of which were previously untranslated—have been put together in a single publication. Whether further describing his concept of “the decisive moment” or sharing his thoughts on his travel, these essays are a must-read for any photography enthusiast.


Eyes Wide Open! 100 Years Of Leica

Beginning in the 1920s, Leica established itself as a legendary camera brand. While today Leica rangefinders and other cameras are very expensive, this book is a perfect (affordable) way to enjoy the images which have passed through these exceptional lenses and take inspiration from their work.


An Alternative History of Photography

This inclusive look at the history of photography draws on the impressive Solander Collection to a vast collection of inter-connected stories stretching from East Asia to West Africa, from New Zealand to Uzbekistan. Images by legends like Diane Arbus and Edward Weston are seen alongside self-trained practitioners Lady Augusta Mostyn and Major Francis Greeley, and African studio photographers Sanlé Sory, Michel Kameni, and Malick Sidibé.


A Triumph of Genius: Edwin Land, Polaroid, and the Kodak Patent War

Edwin Land founded Polaroid and revolutionized instant photography. This book will appeal to all those who love business in technology, as it follows the economic and legal jostling of the photography giants Polaroid and Kodak in the 20th century.


Picturing a Nation: The Great Depression's Finest Photographers Introduce America to Itself

This look back in time at America's history focuses on the 10 photographers that the Farm Security Administration sent out to document the state of the country during the Great Depression. Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Gordon Parks are just some of the talents that preserved this critical time in history, shooting some of the 20th century's most iconic images.


National Geographic: Stunning Photographs

National Geographic is known for its exceptional images taken by skilled photographers who traverse the globe with no fear. From volcanoes erupting to the deep rainforest, these photographers have seen it all. Now you can, too, with this beautiful book.


The Mass Production of Memory: Travel and Personal Archiving in the Age of the Kodak

Kodak invented the snapshot. With their affordable cameras, everyday people could preserve their memories easily while traveling or at home. History professor Tammy Gordon chronicles the way this new technology was used to construct narratives of travel and resistance.


Hasselblad & the Moon Landing

A Hasselblad camera captured the first ever Earth-rise from the Apollo 12 mission in 1969. The legendary camera brand was custom fitted and stocked with Kodak film for mid-century journeys into space. Learn more about this collaboration with this book, and to see some of the images restored to full glory, check out this article.


The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship

Civil War soldiers were often preserved in early photographic processes such as ambrotypes and tintypes. Many Black soldiers and families are included in collections of portraits from the time. This stunning book collects these portraits with other primary sources such as letters, illuminating the everyday lives and resilience of these communities in a changing America.


A World History of Photography: 5th Edition

With nearly 900 images, this classic work by Naomi Rosenblum encompasses the history of photography from its invention. It also explores themes such as photojournalism, advertising, and portraiture.


The Polaroid Book

From David Hockney to Helmut Newton, legendary artists have used Polaroid film and cameras to capture their visions. The vast collection of Polaroids featured in this book was begun by Edwin Land and Ansel Adams. Explore these archives and read essays about the collection in this tome.



Between 1950 and 1990, massive 60 foot by 18 foot transparent photographs hung illuminated above the main hall of Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Produced by Kodak, these “Coloramas” are a tour through an idealized American life. This book explores the stunning images and their place within the realm of biased American advertising.


This article has been updated and edited.

Related Articles:

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Discover Your Photographic Style: Which Genre of Photography Suits You Best? [Quiz]

The History of Photojournalism. How Photography Changed the Way We Receive News.

18 Famous First Photographs in History: From the Oldest Photo Ever to the World’s First Instagram

Madeleine Muzdakis

Madeleine Muzdakis is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met and a historian of early modern Britain & the Atlantic world. She holds a BA in History and Mathematics from Brown University and an MA in European & Russian Studies from Yale University. Madeleine has worked in archives and museums for years with a particular focus on photography and arts education. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, film photography, and studying law while cuddling with her cat Georgia.
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