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 intwined 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
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
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.
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
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.
Unseen: Unpublished Black History from the New York Times Photo Archives
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
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.
Instant: The Story of Polaroid
You have probably noticed that Polaroid cameras are once again cool. This tale of Polaroid—written by Christopher Bonanos of New York Magazine—begins in 1937 with founder Edwin Land and continues through the heyday of instant photography. A profile of a giant in technology and art, this is a must read for those who like a good story.
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.
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.
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.
Eyes Wide Open! 100 Years Of Leica
Beginning in the 1920s, Leica established themselves 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.
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.
National Geographic: Stunning Photographs
National Geographic is known for their 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.
Photography: The Definitive Visual History
Combining profiles of cameras, photographers, and famous images, this work covers all the popular highlights of the history of photography—plus some episodes you probably never heard of. Sleek and modern, it makes a great gift for someone looking to deepen their knowledge in the art.
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 thier place within the realm of biased American advertising.