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The history of photography in pictures

Published: 8 March 2017

Explore the development of western photography through these special selections from our collection.

The earliest known surviving negative; a seminal portrayal of poverty by Dorothea Lange; humour and pathos captured by Tony Ray-Jones, Richard Billingham and Martin Parr.

From 1835 to the early 21st century, our curators have picked some of the most important and memorable images in our care, providing a fascinating glimpse into the history of photography.

19th century

Latticed Window at Lacock Abbey, 1835 William Henry Fox Talbot, Science Museum Group collection
Latticed Window at Lacock Abbey, William Henry Fox Talbot, 1835

William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) is a key figure in the history of photography: he invented early photographic processes and established the basic principle of photography as a negative/positive process.

In 1834, five years before the public announcement of the daguerreotype, Talbot developed a process which produced a negative image on sensitised paper. The negative could then be used to create multiple positive photographs by contact printing. This photograph, Latticed Window at Lacock Abbey, taken in August 1835, is the earliest known surviving negative.

In September 1840, Talbot made a further vital breakthrough when he discovered that invisible, or ‘latent’, images were formed on sensitised paper even after relatively short exposure times. These images could be made visible, or ‘developed’, if treated with chemicals. By inventing the processes needed to make latent images visible and ‘fix’ them to stop them from fading, Talbot made the future development of photography possible.

A photograph of a book with a light blue cover illustrated with white floral patterns Anna Atkins, Science Museum Group collection
Cyanotype, from Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns, Anna Atkins, 1851

Anna Atkins (1799–1871) was one of the first female photographers and is known for having produced the first photographically illustrated book in Britain. Entitled British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, the three-volume publication appeared in instalments over a ten-year period from 1843 onwards. The completed work contained over 400 photographs of British algae. Sir John Herschel had invented the cyanotype process in 1842, and Atkins used it to make her images.

Cyanotypes, also known as blueprints and commonly used by the engineering industry, were made using chemically photosensitive paper. Relatively cheap and easy to produce, cyanotypes became very popular in 19th century amateur photographic circles.

Atkins made her images by laying specimens directly onto sensitised paper and exposing them to sunlight. Once exposed, the prints needed only washing and drying, as no further chemicals were required in the production of the images.

Atkins went on to produce several more cyanotype albums featuring many striking images, mainly of ferns and other plants. This particular image dates from 1851 and bears the inscription ‘From the great conservatory, Chatsworth’. It is now kept in the National Science and Media Museum collection, along with the rest of the album.

Reginald Southey and Skeletons, 1857, by Lewis Carroll Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), Science Museum Group collection
Reginald Southey and Skeletons, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), 1857

Although known primarily as the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1872), Lewis Carroll (1832–1898) was also a mathematics lecturer at Oxford University, a Deacon at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford and an accomplished photographer. Carroll, christened Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, practised photography for over 25 years and photographed hundreds of sitters in his Oxford studio.

This image shows Carroll’s great friend and photography teacher Reginald Southey with human and monkey skeletons and skulls. It appears to be a reference to the debates regarding Darwinism and theories of evolution which were raging at Oxford at the time. It may perhaps suggest Southey’s intellectual position on the theory.

Carroll was a fine photographer whose skills were respected among his circle and beyond. His creativity was particularly evident in his composition and camera angles. Along with his technical skill, it resulted in the production of many striking photographs, particularly during the 1860s.

Carroll’s preferred photographic genre was portraiture, and he is noted for his careful poses and groupings. His favourite subjects were children—in particular girls, whom he photographed regularly, sometimes in costume and sometimes naked. Many questions and concerns have been raised regarding these photographs.

Iago, 1867, Julia Margaret Cameron, Science Museum Group collection Julia Margaret Cameron, Science Museum Group collection
Iago, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879) was one of the most influential and creative photographers of the 19th century, and is a seminal figure in the history of photography. She is known for her enigmatic, often allegorical, portraits made using atmospheric lighting, long exposure times and soft focus techniques.

Cameron favoured literary, historical and religious themes. Her negatives were made on large glass plates. Exposure times were long, and the resulting images have a romantic and spiritual quality. She often aimed to portray innocence, piety and wisdom through her photographs, or to depict figures and scenes from religion or literature. Cameron’s unconventional portraits usually featured her household staff, friends and family members, although she also made many distinctive portraits of prominent figures in the arts and sciences including Sir John Herschel, Charles Darwin and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. This photograph of Angelo Colarossi, a professional model hired by Cameron, makes a direct reference to literature, Iago being a character in Shakespeare’s Othello.

Cameron took up photography at the age of 48, having been given a camera by her daughter as a present. For the next eleven years, photography dominated her life. She used it as both a creative and a money-making tool—she was a shrewd businesswoman who worked hard to market her work. Today, her images are recognised as having outstanding artistic value and are credited with having had a huge impact on the development of modern photography.

Close, No. 46 Saltmarket from Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow, 1868-1871, Thomas Annan, Science Museum Group collection © Science Museum Group collection
Close No. 46 Saltmarket, from ‘Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow’, Thomas Annan, 1868–1871

Thomas Annan (1829–1887) is best known for his photographs of Glasgow’s slums. His striking and often moving images, produced between 1868 and 1871, were made at the request of the City of Glasgow council, who commissioned Annan to make a record of the housing conditions in the old town prior to their demolition as part of an urban improvement scheme.

Widely regarded as the first photographs of inner city slums, Annan’s photographs were indicative of a growing public concern for the poor and dispossessed in society.

Recognition of the need for reform to help tackle the disease and ill health caused by overcrowding and insanitary living conditions in the cities was increasing, although it would not be properly addressed until the Public Health Act of 1875.

Camera technology was also improving quickly. However, while taking photographs in narrow and very badly lit sites such as Glasgow’s Old Closes was finally possible, exposure times remained lengthy. Some degree of staging is evident in Annan’s photographs, as is blurring, created by the movement of some of his subjects.

Closes were enclosed yards, accessed by long narrow lanes and often surrounded by tenements. In the background of this photograph stands a large tenement block, home to perhaps hundreds of people, with no running water or indoor sanitation. These damp, dirty, crime and disease-ridden blocks became infamous for their dreadful conditions and were considered to be among the worst slums in Britain. Several groups of children have been posed for this photograph. Annan, a Victorian gentleman photographer toting cumbersome equipment, would have been a peculiar visitor to the close and the object of the children’s curiosity. In this evocative image he demonstrates his skill with light and composition, balancing the scale of the foreboding tenement with groups of its young inhabitants and other foreground details.

The Horse in Motion, 1878, Eadweard Muybridge, Science Museum Group collection Eadweard Muybridge, Science Museum Group collection
The Horse in Motion, Eadweard Muybridge, 1878

Originally acknowledged for his series of large photographs of Yosemite Valley, Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904) is now much better known for his motion studies of people and animals. In 1872 Muybridge was commissioned by the American politician, railroad tycoon and racehorse owner Leland Stanford to photograph a horse in motion. Stanford aimed to resolve the question of the exact position of a horse’s legs during a gallop, and, specifically, whether all four hooves were off the ground at the same time.

Muybridge developed a shutter mechanism which could achieve a speed of 1/500th of a second. Working with a battery of between 12 and 24 automatically-triggered cameras, Muybridge captured a series of split-second photographs of the horse as it passed in front of each lens. By 1877 Muybridge had answered Stanford’s question by producing a photograph of a galloping airborne horse.

From 1884 to 1887 Muybridge continued his studies, this time working with the University of Pennsylvania and a local zoo, where he used his technique to photograph both animals and human beings in motion. The results of his studies—totalling 100,000 images presented as 781 plates—were published in 1887 in the book Animal Locomotion, a landmark in the history of photography.

The Wool Exchange, Bradford, 1895 by Francis Frith Francis Frith, Science Museum Group collection
The Wool Exchange, Bradford, Francis Frith, 1895

Francis Frith (1822–1898) was a Victorian topographical photographer who ran a large photographic business. He specialised in producing photographic prints of British beauty spots and other tourist views including landmark buildings, as shown in this example. Frith set up his business in 1860. By the time of his death in 1898 he had opened branches all over the world.

Interest in topographic photographs grew in line with other developments that characterised the Victorian age, particularly travel and the growth of the railways. In addition, new legislation introduced mandatory holidays for working people for the first time, enabling them to vacation at the coast or in the country. Set against the background of imperial expansion, this growth in tourism, coupled with the emergence of the new middle class, prompted a powerful new desire for knowledge—to see new things and experience more of the world.

This photograph shows one of Victorian Bradford’s most significant buildings, the Wool Exchange. Now a Grade 1 listed building, it was important not only for its impressive Gothic Revival architecture but also for the crucial contribution it made to maintaining the city’s prosperity in its role as the centre of the wool industry.


Ellis Island Italian Madonna, 1905, by Lewis Hine Lewis Hine, Science Museum Group collection
Ellis Island Italian Madonna, Lewis Hine, 1905

Lewis Hine (1874–1940) was a seminal American photographer, best remembered for the contribution he made to the reform of American child labour laws. He is also known for the work he undertook on behalf of the National Child Labour Committee, which aimed to help protect children from exploitation and danger in the workplace. Originally trained as a sociologist, Hine’s first photographic project documented European immigrants as they arrived at Ellis Island, New York. Hine always imbued his subjects with dignity, communicating a sense of the immigrants’ individuality and challenging the prejudice they faced.

Hine is regarded as an important early social documentary photographer. His work crosses genre distinctions, operating effectively as both impactful documentary and dignified portraiture. Hine’s twin requirements for his photographs ensure that his work operates in a wide range of social and cultural contexts, and remains an effective representation of the human condition.

This iconic and evocative image portrays the uncertainty of arriving in a strange land, and a mother’s need to ensure the safety of her child. These two people were among the hundreds to arrive at Ellis Island that day, who in turn were among the thousands that arrived in the early years of the new century, looking for a better life in a new country. Hine’s determination to depict their individualism is nonetheless emphatic.

The Steerage, 1907 by Alfred Stieglitz Alfred Stieglitz, Science Museum Group Collection
The Steerage, Alfred Stieglitz, 1907

Hine’s countryman Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) played a major part in developing a new, modern aesthetic for photography in the early 1900s. Initially involved in Pictorialism, a late 19th century movement which promoted photography as an art form, Stieglitz later became a key player in the development of the modern art movement, which profoundly affected the practise of photography in both Europe and the US.

Stieglitz founded and edited the influential photography magazine Camera Work from 1902–17 and founded the Little Galleries of Photo-Secession at 291 Fifth Avenue in New York. Stieglitz also later established another gallery in the same premises, known simply as ’291’.

This photograph, The Steerage, was a turning point for Stieglitz in his move towards a modern aesthetic. His work started to become more closely aligned with photography’s inherent qualities: sharp focus, good contrast and full range of tones became important to him, and replaced the fuzzy lines and dappled surfaces favoured by the Pictorialists. This change of emphasis became known as ‘straight photography’.

Modernists depicted the everyday symbols of modern life: machines, urbanisation and the city. Modern concerns such as line, shape and tone became important. The Steerage, with its striking graphic of the gangplank cutting the composition in two, shows a society which is economically divided—those who can afford to be accommodated on deck, and those who have to settle for the steerage below.

Gloria Swanson (lace), 1924, by Edward Steichen Edward Steichen, Science Museum Group collection
Gloria Swanson (lace), Edward Steichen, 1924

Edward Steichen (1879–1973) was born in Luxembourg in 1879. His family emigrated to America while he was still a baby, and Steichen became a naturalised US citizen at the turn of the century. A successful and diverse photographer, Steichen worked for various influential publications including Vogue and Vanity Fair, as well as the Photographic Division of the US Expeditionary Forces and the Naval Photographic Institute, both of which he directed during the First World War.

Steichen is known in particular for his collaboration with Alfred Stieglitz at the 291 Gallery, his founder-membership of the Photo-Secessionist movement, and his directorship of the Photographic Department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1955, at MoMA, Steichen organised the exhibition The Family of Man, now regarded as one of the most important exhibitions in photography’s history. 

Early in his career Steichen was associated with pictorialism and its soft focus style, although he gradually abandoned this in favour of ‘straight’ photography. Straight photography was aligned with modernism, which favoured clean lines, clear compositions and an overall sense of design and was gaining ground at the time, particularly in Europe.

This glamorous photograph, taken by Steichen in 1924, is one of a collection of celebrity portraits commissioned by Vanity Fair in the 1920s. At once chic and elegant, Swanson boldly gazes at the viewer. Her power is accentuated by the directness of Steichen’s portrait and his use of the lace’s pattern to frame her lips and chin.

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936 by Dorothea Lange Dorothea Lange, Science Museum Group collection
Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, Dorothea Lange, 1936

Dorothea Lange (1895–1965) did much to define the course of documentary photography in the 20th century. Along with Walker Evans, Lange worked for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the Great Depression in 1930s America. The FSA was established to help combat rural poverty, and the photographs Lange and Evans produced helped to bring the plight of poor and dispossessed farm workers and their families to public attention. Lange’s photograph Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California is the quintessential image from the period, and an icon of the era.

The tightly-composed, highly-concentrated composition is a powerful and empathic portrayal of the human tragedy brought about by the economic collapse. It has become one of the most reproduced images in the history of photography, its emotional impact arising from a universal understanding of the parent and child relationship, and the commonality of experience between human beings. 

Townswomen Dressed for Market, c.1937, by Humphrey Spender Humphrey Spender, Science Museum Group collection
Townswomen Dressed for Market, Humphrey Spender, c.1937

Humphrey Spender (1910–2005) was a British photographer who worked for Picture Post magazine and the Daily Mirror during the 1930s. Working under the name ‘Lensman’, Spender also worked for the Mass-Observation team from 1937 onwards. Helped in part by the development of new, smaller cameras, Spender became famous for his ability to maintain a low profile, and photograph scenes with minimal disruption.

Mass-Observation was an anthropological project, founded in 1937, which set out to study the lives of the people in the town of Bolton, Lancashire. Known as the ‘Worktown Project’, a team of paid investigators went into a variety of public situations—meetings, religious services, sporting and leisure activities, in the street and at work—and recorded people’s behaviour and conversation in as much detail as possible. The material they produced is a varied documentary account of life in Britain. Mass-Observation continued until the 1950s and has since been awarded ‘Designated’ status by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, in recognition of its outstanding national and international importance.

Dessau, Germany, 1945, by Henri Cartier-Bresson Henri Cartier-Bresson, Science Museum Group collection
Dessau, Germany, Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1945

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004) is a well-known figure in the history of photography, renowned for his photographs of French society and his distinctive ‘street style’ approach to documentary. He was also a co-founder of the prestigious photographic agency Magnum Photos. Cartier-Bresson recorded many of the ‘little moments’ in everyday life, often capturing subjects absorbed in activity, however minimal or idiosyncratic that action may have been.

His fascination with society and close observation techniques helped him to identify the ‘decisive moment’ in order to create meaningful glimpses of society. The ‘decisive moment’ refers to the point at which action and aesthetic blend to create the most impactful and visually effective representation of a scene.

Cartier-Bresson took this photograph in 1945 at a transit camp in Dessau, Germany. Transit camps were used to temporarily house refugees, political prisoners and prisoners of war shortly after liberation by the Allies. This image records the moment at which a Gestapo informer is recognised and exposed by a young Belgian woman.

Carmen Face Massage by Horst P. Horst Horst P. Horst, Science Museum Group collection
Carmen Face Massage, Horst P. Horst, 1946

Horst P. Horst (1906–1999) blazed the trail that 20th century fashion photographers followed. Mostly remembered for his work with Vogue during the 1930s and 40s, Horst’s career spanned sixty years. His name became synonymous with dramatic lighting, classical styling, elegance and romance. He is regarded as a master of light and shadow and is noted for his bold, experimental approach.

Horst began his association with Vogue in 1931, when his first photograph was published in the French edition. In the same year he met Cecil Beaton, another influential fashion photographer. In 1932 he began photographing celebrities, which further established his work and reputation.

Sometimes abstract, Horst’s modernist compositions represented a major development in fashion photography. His surrealist influences and interest in classical imagery and poses are evident in this photograph. 

The Wrestlers, Kordofan, Sudan, 1949, by George Rodger George Rodger, Science Museum Group collection
The Wrestlers, Kordofan, Sudan, George Rodger, 1949

British photojourmalist George Rodger (1908–1995) is known primarily for his shocking photographs of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and for his role in the establishment of the influential agency Magnum Photos.

Rodger is also recognised for the photographs he took in Africa in the years immediately after the Second World War. This photograph of two wrestlers was taken in the Nuba Mountains in Kordofan, central Sudan, while Rodger was working for National Geographic magazine.

In 1949 Rodger produced a large and unique documentary project, of which this image is a part. After a difficult journey to the remote, hard-to-find Nuba, he lived among the tribespeople for six weeks, photographing their daily lives, rituals and routines. The project proved controversial: Rodger’s photographs ultimately brought the tribespeople unwelcome attention that eventually destroyed their traditional way of life.

Nonetheless, the photographs themselves preserve the dignity of the tribesmen and avoid any recourse to sensationalism or voyeurism. Placing himself as an observer rather than an interpreter, Rodger produced a sensitive portrait of the tribe. This image was included in Edward Steichen’s 1955 MoMA exhibition The Family of Man.


Beachy Head Tripper Boat, 1967, by Tony Ray-Jones Tony Ray-Jones, Science Museum Group collection
Beachy Head Tripper Boat, Tony Ray-Jones, 1967

British photographer Tony Ray-Jones (1941–1972) is best known for his project A Day Off, which portrays the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the English way of life. His photographs are imbued with warmth and humour, catching his subjects relaxed and off-guard.

Ray-Jones’ work sits within a larger tradition of photographs of Britons at leisure, starting with Sir Benjamin Stone in the 19th century and later including Paul Martin and Homer Sykes among others. His unique compositions have in turn influenced a later generation of photographers that most notably includes Chris Killip and Martin Parr.

Tony Ray-Jones was born in 1941 and spent his childhood in London. After an initial tenure at the London School of Printing, he moved to America to study photography at Yale University. At Yale he found that photography was taken seriously as an art form and as a tool for personal artistic expression. In America he met and took inspiration from a range of influential practitioners including designer Alexey Brodovitch and photographers Joel Meyerowitz and Garry Winogrand. They introduced him to the then-new form of ‘street’ photography, which had a profound effect on his practise. On his return to the UK, Ray-Jones began using a similar approach to document the English at their leisure, and developed a particular interest in the English seaside.

He returned to the United States in 1971 to teach photography but was diagnosed with leukaemia shortly after his arrival. Tragically, Ray-Jones died in 1972 at the age of 31.

Jack of Diamonds playing card hit by a .30 calibre bullet, 1970, by Dr Harold Edgerton, one of the images featured in our history of photography Dr Harold (Eugene) Edgerton, © Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Science Museum Group collection
Jack of Diamonds playing card hit by a .30 calibre bullet, Harold Edgerton, 1970

Dr Harold Edgerton (1903–1990) is famous for his split-second photographs, which reveal actions that are too fast for the human eye to see. 

Edgerton was the first photographer to use stroboscopic lighting to capture rapid movement. He became famous for his dramatic photographs of falling milk drops and speeding bullets. He found that the stroboscope could illuminate a subject through repeated and rapid bursts of light. His photographs presented views of high-speed motion for the first time and became popular with the public.

Bradford, 1970s, by Don McCullin © Don McCullin/Contact/nbpictures, Science Museum Group collection
Bradford, Don McCullin, 1970s

Don McCullin (1935–) is a British photojournalist with an international reputation for hard-hitting photographs taken in war zones and other areas of conflict. From 1966 to 1984 he worked with the Sunday Times Magazine and covered various nationally and internationally important events, including the Vietnam War, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and the African HIV/AIDS epidemic.

McCullin is also known for his compassionate and powerful photographs of unemployed and impoverished members of British society. These photographs, taken over a 50-year period, bear witness to McCullin’s anger at a system in which compels some people to live in acute poverty and deprivation. An exhibition of McCullin’s work from Britain, drawing from his books Homecoming (1979) and In England (2007), was shown at this museum in summer 2009. Also titled In England, the exhibition contained many images taken in Bradford in the 1970s. Shocked by the hardships and distress he found in the city, McCullin produced a series of images which still resonate today. This photograph, simply titled Bradford, is a testament to the longevity of the social and racial troubles which the city still endures.

Living and working in Somerset, McCullin now concentrates on landscape photography.

Youth on Wall, Jarrow, Tyneside, 1976, by Chris Killip Chris Killip, Science Museum Group collection
Youth on Wall, Jarrow, Tyneside, Chris Killip, 1976

Chris Killip (1946–) is known for his powerful and moving black and white photographs, which chronicle industrial decline in the north-east of England in the late 1970s and 1980s.

The series from which this photograph is drawn was published in the book In Flagrante (1988). In Flagrante has been described as one of the most important photography books of the 1980s, on account of the impactful and resonant nature of the photographs. It is generally regarded as an important record of life in the north-east of England during the Thatcher years. Characterised by high levels of unemployment brought on by policies of deindustrialisation, the period was a dramatic era in social history. An acute sense of melancholy pervades Killip’s photographs: they are careful personal observations rather than calls to action. Killip’s work helped to establish the now-familiar tradition of documentary photography located in the context of fine art.

Heptonstall backlit, Yorkshire, 1978, by Fay Godwin Fay Godwin, Science Museum Group collection
Heptonstall backlit, Yorkshire, Fay Godwin, 1978

Fay Godwin (1931–2005) is regarded as one of Britain’s finest landscape photographers. She is known for her black and white photographs, which reflect the diverse and changing nature of the British landscape. She possessed a special ability to portray the essential characteristics of land, sea and sky. Her work often draws attention to the detrimental effect that past and present generations have had on the natural environment, which she increasingly began to portray as polluted and inaccessible as her work progressed.

Sensitive, subtly political and unsentimental, her work was published in several books, the most influential of which was Land (1985). Land featured photographs taken over a ten-year period, many of which were taken while Godwin was in receipt of a major Arts Council grant that she had been awarded in 1978.

In 1987 Godwin was awarded the Bradford Fellowship, hosted jointly by this museum, Bradford College and the University of Bradford. During the term of her fellowship, Godwin’s experiments with colour photography culminated in the exhibition Bradford in Colour

A subsequent book, Our Forbidden Land, was published in 1990. In it, Godwin focused on the environmental damage caused by road builders, developers, the forestry industry and the Ministry of Defence.

This photograph, Heptonstall backlit, Yorkshire 1978, illustrates her masterful use of light and shade and striking compositional ability. This, along with a full range of mid-tones, creates an evocative scene and emphasises the enormity of the Yorkshire landscape.

Agecroft Power Station, Salford, 1983 by John Davies John Davies, Science Museum Group collection
Agecroft Power Station, Salford, John Davies, 1983

John Davies (1949–) is a prolific, internationally recognised photographer, famous for his striking black and white images of both urban and rural landscapes.

Because he records the effects of industrialisation on the landscape, Davies has often been described as a political photographer. Incongruous elements are often present in his work: industrial buildings in rural settings or ancient buildings flanked by flyovers. These contrasts emphasise the effects of development and how these structures are put to different uses over time. In this photograph, the landscape is dominated by the colliery and its close neighbour the power station, whose four huge cooling towers occupy the middle distance. Behind the towers, pylons stand as evidence of the transition from coal to electricity.

Taken during the Thatcher era, only a year before Agecroft miners participated in the National Union of Mineworkers strike in 1984–85, this photograph shows the effect of the industry on the landscape. In the foreground are typical Sunday league football pitches, and adjacent is detritus—abandoned cars and other litter. A tethered horse completes the melancholic scene.

Woman in Headscarf, DHSS Waiting Room, Bristol from the series Beyond Caring, 1984, by Paul Graham © Paul Graham, Science Museum Group collection
Woman in Headscarf, DHSS Waiting Room, Bristol from the series ‘Beyond Caring’, Paul Graham, 1984

Paul Graham (1956–) is best known for his groundbreaking colour documentary work in the 1980s. His series Beyond Caring, from which this image is drawn, depicts the offices of the Department of Health and Social Security and was published as a book in 1985. The great theme of the decade, particularly in the north of England, was poverty and deindustrialisation. The dismantling of the mining industry and resultant strikes was the dominant story.

Graham was the first person to make significant use of colour in social documentary photography. Documentary photography had been dominated by black and white, with colour mainly confined to advertising and domestic work. Graham’s use of colour as a tool for personal expression in social documentary photography transformed British photography and remains influential today.

From 'The Last Resort', 1985, by Martin Parr Martin Parr, Science Museum Group collection
From ‘The Last Resort’, Martin Parr, 1985

British photographer Martin Parr (1952–) is one of the most significant artists in the modern history of photography. His extensive body of work has brought him fame and made a deep impression on those who have followed in his wake. Parr is famous for his unorthodox, often humorous style and his interest in mass tourism, consumerism and globalisation. His work is frequently perceived as being critical of England and the English and as such is often received with ambivalence, regardless of its impact on the medium and obvious quality,

A member of Magnum Photos, Parr works with brash colour to portray a world apparently full of vulgarity and wastefulness. His first large-scale project was The Last Resort, a series of photographs of the run-down seaside resort of New Brighton on the Wirral. Published as a book in 1986 and exhibited widely, The Last Resort became notorious for its shocking, garishly colourful portrayal of modern society.

The Last Resort is an uncompromising project that turned an unforgiving spotlight on Thatcher’s Britain and prompted questions about the depth of the divides within British society. This photograph, drawn from the series, shows two small children with ice creams dribbling down their hands, faces and clothes. Their messy appearance implies careless and neglectful parenting, further emphasised by the way they’re positioned alone on the kerb.

Suzie Smoking, 1988, by Nick Knight Nick Knight, Science Museum Group collection
Suzie Smoking, Nick Knight, 1988

Internationally celebrated British fashion photographer Nick Knight (1958–) is known for his challenges to conventional ideals of beauty and for his work on magazines including British and French Vogue, Dazed and Confused and i-D, He was also the picture editor of the latter title for ten years.

Knight has published several books of his photographs and been featured by prestigious institutions including the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Saatchi Gallery, Tate Modern, The Photographers Gallery, the Hayward Gallery and the Natural History Museum. He has produced campaigns for prominent fashion houses including Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. In 2000 he set up the award-winning fashion website SHOWstudio.

This image, Suzie Smoking, 1988, was shot for the avant-garde Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto. Featuring the model Suzie Bick, the photograph was exhibited widely, most notably in the 1989 exhibition Out of Fashion at the Photographers Gallery, London.

From Friendly Fire, 1989-1994, by Anna Fox Anna Fox, Science Museum Group collection
From ‘Friendly Fire’, Anna Fox, 1989–1994

Anna Fox (1961–) came to prominence during the 1980s when she began producing colour photographs in a style that became known as subjective documentary. Influenced by the new colour work produced in the US in the 1970s and Britain in the 1980s, Fox’s first project Workstations: Office Life in London (1988) chronicled British office culture. Characterised by harsh flash and accompanied by satirical captions, this project was a critical look at the aggressive and competitive work politics of the 1980s and was produced in the context of other important documentarists from the period, including Paul Graham, Tom Hunter and Martin Parr.

Subsequent project Friendly Fire was undertaken from 1989 to 1994 and documented paintballing and other weekend war games. The photographs feature a variety of locations, some indoors and some outdoors. Again the images are characterised by harsh flash, which heightens the sense of irony in the work. Playing the role of war photographer, Fox satirises the motives of the participants as they attempt to foster team spirit through mock battle.

Untitled, 1995, by Richard Billingham © Richard Billingham, Science Museum Group collection
Untitled, Richard Billingham, 1995

Richard Billingham (1970–) was born in Birmingham. His breakthrough came following the publication of photographs he took of his family, who lived in a tower block in the city. The book Ray’s a Laugh (1996) depicted the chaotic lives of Billingham’s alcoholic father Ray, mother Liz and younger brother Jason.

The garishly-coloured, badly-focused photographs were shot using a cheap 35mm camera. They were made initially as studies for paintings while Billingham was studying fine art at the University of Sunderland. Reminiscent of family snapshots, the remarkably frank images depict a life of poverty but are tempered by moments of intimacy between Liz and Ray. In this photograph, which is at once humorous, desperate and cruel, Ray is seen throwing the family’s pet cat across the room.

Part photo-diary and part documentary, Ray’s a Laugh has received international acclaim and notoriety. It has been exhibited at many venues, including at this museum in 1996, and was part of the famous Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1997. Billingham won the prestigious Citibank Photography Prize in 1997 and was shortlisted for the Turner prize in 2001.

Untitled, 1997 by Hannah Starkey Hannah Starkey, Science Museum Group collection, courtesy of Maureen Paley, London
Untitled, Hannah Starkey, 1997

Hannah Starkey (1971–) creates large, staged photographs which invite the viewer to speculate about the thoughts and intentions of their subjects. These enigmatic colour photographs act as dramas, often quiet and subtle, hinting at some unspoken occurrence, known only to the characters. The viewer is drawn in and encouraged to participate and hypothesise.

In Starkey’s large-scale tableaux, the subjects—usually women—are engaged in some mysterious scenario. They seem to suggest that we have stumbled across the scene by accident; the context and narrative remain elusive. 

In this photograph, the main character seems to have been caught unawares, mid-daydream, contemplating a moth which has come to rest on the large mirror. She appears to be in her own world, oblivious to the presence of another woman, who watches her with apparent and unexplained malevolence.

21st century

Kabul Road, 2001, Luc Delahaye, Science Museum Group collection Luc Delahaye, Science Museum Group collection
Kabul Road, Luc Delahaye, 2001

Luc Delahaye (1962–) is known primarily for his series of photographs History. Representing sites of war and their aftermath, History is a series of monumentally-sized panoramic photographs that use painterly conventions to present subject matter typically associated with photojournalism.

Created with a panoramic camera and reproduced on a grand scale, these precise, detailed images exude a formality and gravitas normally only associated with paintings. Part of their resonance results from their ability to provide a view of war that differs significantly from the usual images created by the mainstream media, as this image, Kabul Road, demonstrates.

From Afghanistan: Chronotopia, 2001-2002, by Simon Norfolk Simon Norfolk, Science Museum Group collection
From ‘Afghanistan: Chronotopia’, Simon Norfolk, 2001-02

Simon Norfolk (1963–) is also known for his large-scale colour photographs of the aftermath of wars. Ruined landscapes, buildings and local communities are typical themes, as Norfolk surveys the desolation left behind after conflict. This photograph is taken from one of his most important series, Afghanistan: Chronotopia, and shows a balloon seller standing in front of a former teahouse in Kabul.

The war in Afghanistan has left an unfamiliar landscape in its wake, with many residents living among ruined buildings. Norfolk produces beautiful and detailed images, often bathed in rich sunlight and sometimes including distant mountain ranges, which emphasise the scale and history of the land.

Romantic history painters of the 18th and 19th centuries are referenced in Simon Norfolk’s photographs, through the dramatic skies, the colours and the scale of the works. The ruined landscape has been aestheticised—perhaps a memorial to what has been destroyed.

Here, the shape of the building is emphasised by the camera’s low viewpoint, and its outline is almost silhouetted against the sky. The muted colour palette focuses attention on the balloons, which, in turn, become peculiar representations of mainstream popular culture.