It shouldn’t be a surprise that photography became a vehicle for art and opened-ended experimentation in record time compared to painting and sculpture. After all, as a medium of the industrial age, photography is the child of invention. The techniques used to produce images evolved quickly, from daguerreotypes, tintypes, and ambrotypes in the middle of the 19th century to the gelatin silver prints that came to dominate the form throughout most of the 20th century. In contrast, the methods of applying oils to canvas and chisels to marble remained static for centuries.
Similarly, the subjects deemed suitable for photographs quickly moved beyond the novelty of portraiture to encompass journalism (Mathew Brady’s photographs of dead soldiers on Civil War battlefields), landscapes (Carleton Watkins introduced the world to Yosemite more than half a century before Ansel Adams), urban milieu (Jacob Riis shocked politicians into action when he shot the slums of New York City), and abstractions (Edward Weston’s work is so deliberately composed, you often forget you're staring at fruits and vegetables). Along the way, photographers learned to see the difference between merely documenting the subjects before their lenses and capturing the beautiful, disturbing, and sublime. Honing an eye for that difference was a critical step in the subsequent proliferation of art photography.
In the United States, one of the first advocates for the artistic possibilities of photography was Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946), who trained his lenses on clouds, the cityscape of Manhattan, and the body of his lover and future wife, painter Georgia O’Keeffe. As the publisher of “Camera Work,” Stieglitz promoted the work of photographers like Edward Steichen and Paul Strand, while he produced exhibitions for nature photographers such as Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter. That legacy helped prepare audiences for the less celebratory work of Richard Misrach, best known for his hauntingly poetic Desert Cantos series.
Also not surprising is the fact that one of the most important patrons of art photography was a photography technology company, Polaroid, which supplied its black-and-white Type 55s, color SX-70s, and large-scale 20-by-24-inch cameras to artists as varied as Ansel Adams, Lucas Samaras, Andy Warhol, and William Wegman. Adams used Polaroid's technology to shoot the unforgiving granite face of El Capitan in Yosemite, while Samaras played with the emulsion contained within an SX-70 print to distort and degrade his images as the photographs actually developed. As for Wegman, the large-scale Polaroid camera has proven the perfect device to capture the seemingly slow-motion antics of several generations of the artist's pet Weimaraners.