4 Key Techniques of 20th-Century Photography

The world of 20th-century photography was filled with remarkable technical evolution. Many photographers captured the essence of the rapidly changing world.

Mar 23, 2024By Isabel Droge, MSc Arts and Culture, BA Art History
20th century photography techniques


After the invention of the first photographic process in 1826, photography initially developed as a medium for capturing portraits, landscapes, and city views. Thanks to the invention of various techniques, photography was subsequently used as a documentary tool to capture war scenes or fleeting moments of daily life. Although the medium initially was not perceived as an art form, members of the movement called Pictorialism tried to convince people otherwise. The invention of new photographic processes subsequently aided in giving photography a different, more artistic status. Here are the key techniques of 20th-century photography.


1. Technique of 20th Century Photography: 35- and 120mm Film

1888 and 1889 kodak film boxes
Two unopened Kodak film boxes, one from 1889 that contains a roll of transparent film (left), and one from 1888 with normal film (right). Source: Eastman Museum, Rochester


At the end of the 19th century, the world of photography witnessed the invention of several groundbreaking photographic techniques. Among these was the gelatine glass plate technique from 1871, which, due to its success, would remain in use until the early 1900s. Another significant invention was the first hand-held Kodak camera in 1888 by American entrepreneur George Eastman (1854-1932). The device inspired the rise of photography as we know it today. In addition to these innovations, the late nineteenth century is home to another major invention: flexible, transparent plastic film, which replaced the glass dry plates in 1889. In addition, many types of flexible film were developed in the decades after its invention.


Before delving further, let’s take a closer look at roll film. To begin, plastic film was made of nitrocellulose or celluloid and initially came in the form of a roll with a hundred exposures. Photographers could buy prepared glass plates in multitude, but the hundred exposures on a plastic roll made it even easier to take a series of photos. In addition, the film roll could be loaded onto a camera at once, which was a departure from the previous method of loading individual glass plates. Once the owner of a hand-held camera had exposed all of the hundred shots, the loaded camera would be sent back to the Kodak factory in Rochester. Here, the old roll was taken out for development, after which the camera was reloaded with a new roll and sent back to the customer. This way, he or she could already start taking new shots while waiting for the film to be developed.


the kodak girl
The iconic Kodak advertisement from 1893. Source: Wikipedia


The ease of the hand-held camera with plastic film made this device very popular amongst many new amateur photographers, who loved to take photos of daily life. Many family gatherings, picnics, graduations, and weddings were captured with this camera. Within a few years, Kodak photography had even become a national craze, and the word Kodak entered everyday speech in the USA. Advertisements further contributed to the popularity of the device. The combination of the image of a fashionably dressed young woman and the words Take a Kodak with you and The Kodak Girl marketed the camera as a fashionable accessory.

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Kodak’s popularity subsequently sparked the development of different sizes of film rolls. The first type of plastic film developed by Eastman had a 120mm large format, which allowed for different frame sizes. In turn, Thomas Edison’s 1893 invention of the Kinetoscope, a device for showing basic film loops, marked the beginning of the use of 35mm film. The popularity of this film format was then boosted further by the French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière’s adoption of it for their 1892 motion picture film camera, called the Cinématographe. By 1909, 35mm film had become the standard motion picture film. It quickly gained popularity and became known as a film needed for making still photography between 1905 and 1913.


cinématographe lumière brothers
The Cinématographe, invented in 1895 by the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière. Source: Wikipedia


As a result of the invention of film and the success of the handheld camera, the 20th century saw the rise of various brands and types of film, as well as different film cameras. Some of Kodak’s early film types were Cine Negative Film Type E and F from 1916 and 1917, and the 1921 Cine Positive Tinted Stock in colors like lavender, blue, and yellow. Subsequently, the introduction of the first three color film stocks in 1932, paved the way for the emergence of Kodachrome color film in 1935. This remarkable achievement marked the debut of the first commercially successful amateur color film in 16mm for motion pictures. Interestingly enough, the credit for this invention goes to two musicians, Leopold Mannes and Leopold Godowsky, who collaborated with Kodak in its development.


Apart from Kodak, the German company Agfa also developed a color film in 1936, which was called AGFACOLOR-NEU. After World War II, when the previously secret details of Agfa’s research became publicly available, other companies introduced color film based on similar fundamentals. The latter paved the way for the subsequent development of color film for still photography, which was manufactured not long after. Nonetheless, it was not until the 1970s, following a price decrease, that color film became widely adopted by the general public.


20th century photography leica i 1925
The Leica-I from 1925, designed by Oskar Barnack. Source: Meister Camera


The invention of film also sparked the development of different film cameras. The first publicly available cameras that used 35mm cine-film were the Tourist Multiple19 from 1913 and the Simplex from 1914. However, the first commercially successful 35mm camera was designed by Oskar Barnack at the Ernst Leitz Optische Werke in Wetzlar, Germany. The prototype device of Barnack’s camera became known as the Ur-Leica, with ur meaning prime in German. After many prototype designs, the Leica-I camera was finally brought onto the market in 1925.


Some features of the Leica-I were an all-metal housing, a collapsible lens, and a focal-plane shutter. In addition, the Leica moved film horizontally, which increased the frame size of the vertically oriented cameras. After the Leica, the twentieth century saw the rise of many other 120mm and 35mm film cameras. Some iconic ones that you might know are the Mamiya 645 series, the Pentax 6×7, the Hasselblad 500 series, the Canon AE-1, and the Pentax K1000.


During the 20th century, numerous well-known photographers made their mark using 35mm and 120mm film. These include Vivian Maier, Steve McCurry, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Diane Arbus, Saul Leiter, Lee Friedlander, Ernest Cole, and Ed van der Elsken. A century later, film photography is still in use. Many photographers and enthusiasts have rediscovered analog photography and are seeking the best cameras from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.


2. The Autochrome 

anon boy with parasol
Boy with a parasol by an anonymous photographer, c. 1910. Source: Science and Media Museum, Bradford


During the same period in which film photography took off, another photographic technique called autochrome was developed. The two people behind this method were the same Lumière brothers who boosted the use of 35mm film. The two patented the autochrome method in 1903, and in 1907, the commercial manufacturing of autochrome plates began at the Lumière Factory in Lyon, France.


The color photographic process of the autochrome involved a few steps. First, a glass plate was coated with a layer of sticky varnish and then dusted with a layer of randomly distributed, translucent potato-starch grains. These grains, which had been dyed red, green, and blue, were then mixed with fine black carbon dust and varnished once more. After this layer had dried, the plate was coated with a light-sensitive gelatine silver bromide or silver-iodine emulsion. Once dried, the plates could be inserted into a camera and exposed to light.


To create autochromes, photographers could use their existing cameras. The only thing they had to remember was to place the glass plate in the camera with the plain side towards the lens. The latter ensured that the light would first pass through the filter before reaching the sensitive emulsion. The filter, which was yellow, effectively counteracted the emulsion’s heightened sensitivity to blue light, resulting in a more accurate color rendering.


20th century photography mervyn o gorman
A photograph by Mervyn O’Gorman, 1913. Source: The Times


Following the start of commercial production, the first public demonstration of the autochrome technique took place on the 10th of June in 1907 at the office of the French newspaper L’Illustration. After this event, the Royal Photographic Society in London also demonstrated the autochrome technique. An event that, as the Amateur Photographer magazine reported, attracted so many people that the Society was almost unable to cope. As a result of this invention, many enthusiasts and photographers wanted to start taking photographs with the new technique. After all, the option to take color photographs had been the dream of many since the invention of photography and was a giant leap forward.


However, not everybody was able to immediately make use of this new invention, since demand far outstripped supply. By 1913, the Lumière Factory was producing 6,000 plates a day. As a result of its popularity, exhibitions like the annual Salon included many autochrome photographs. Some of the autochrome photographers were Edward Steichen, Etheldreda Laing, Alvin Langdon Coburn, James Craig Annan, and Baron Adolf de Meyer.


etheldreda laing autochromes pose parasol
Janet and Iris by Eltherdreda Laing, 1914. Source: Flashbak


Nowadays, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London holds more than 2,500 autochromes, captured by both professionals and amateurs. Regrettably, the photographs, due to their extreme light sensitivity, can rarely be seen, let alone displayed in exhibitions. Furthermore, technological advancements such as the invention of film and, particularly, color film, eventually made the autochrome technique obsolete. Nevertheless, for a few decades, it served as a fantastic technique for producing color photographs.


3. The Polaroid 

edwin h land polaroid invention
An image of Edwin H. Land demonstrating his invention, the Polaroid. Source: The International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum, Fenton


As a child, Edwin H. Land (1909-1991) was fascinated by light, and in particular, by light polarization. Put simply, light polarization refers to the alignment of light waves in a specific direction. Before trying to invent the Polaroid camera, Land had already worked on the development of a synthetic polarizer. During World War II, he and his colleagues at the Polaroid Corporation, mainly focussed on doing research into and manufacturing technology that could help the United States win the war. However, after his daughter asked Land in 1943 why photos could not be viewed immediately after capturing, he was inspired to explore something very different—instant photography.


After about five years, Land made the first public demonstration of instant photography in February of 1947. This event took place at the Optical Society of America in New York City. In 1948, the Polaroid Corporation subsequently released their first instant camera, called Model 95, as well as corresponding film at a Department Store in Boston. The Polaroid camera was born. After the release in Boston, the cameras sold out immediately, and a new period of instant photography began. However, with the release of the Polaroid, the development of the camera did not come to an end, as there were still things to improve.


20th century photography polaroid model 95
The first instant camera, called the Model 95, released by the Polaroid Corporation in 1948. Source: Etsy


For example, at the time of its release, the Polaroid could only produce sepia-colored photographs, and their quality was not yet the same as those of film cameras. For this reason, Polaroid started to work on a black-and-white version, which they eventually managed to add to their repertoire in 1950. Through this decade, Polaroid also managed to improve image quality. This led to a statement in the New York Times that read “equal in tonal range and brilliance to some of the finest prints made by the usual darkroom routine.”


Something else that Land aimed to improve after releasing the Polaroid’s first model was its functionality. With the development of the Polaroid, Land’s initial goal had been to minimize the time gap between capturing a moment and viewing the final result.


polaroid sx 70
The Polaroid SX-70 model from 1972 by the Polaroid Corporation. Source: Photothinking


However, the first instant camera did not yet deliver an instant photograph by itself. Instead, the photographer had to time the exposure, pull the photograph out of the Polaroid camera after taking a photo, and peel away the top film. In contrast to the lengthy photographic process from the 19th century, the development of the polaroid was very fast and easy. Additionally, it also surpassed film photography, eliminating the dark room. However, the ideal functionality of the Polaroid had yet to be achieved. As a way to compete with film photography, Polaroid’s next challenge was to develop instant color film. However, due to many necessary chemical breakthroughs, like the invention of new dyes, negative films, positive sheets, and developing chemicals, it eventually took about fifteen years to develop a solid version.


andy warhol polaroid
Andy Warhol, polaroid photographs of Dolly Parton in 1985, and Keith Haring and Juan Dubose in 1983. Source: ID magazine


The quest for instant color film started during the 1950s and the eventual product was launched in 1963. Subsequently, with the arrival of the SX-70 camera and Polaroid instant film in 1972, it became possible to take a Polaroid photo with a simple click of a button. After taking the photo, the prints subsequently developed quickly before the eye of the beholder. Just as with the other types of photography, many Polaroid photographers arose during the decades after its invention. A selection of Polaroid artists we still remember today includes Andy Warhol, Maripol, Keith Haring, Chuck Close, Walker Evans, David Hockney, Ansel Adams, William Wegman, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Barbara Kasten.


4. Digital Photography 

1975 digital camera prototype
Steven Sasson’s digital camera prototype from 1975 for Kodak. Source: IEEE Spectrum


During the very same decade that the instant Polaroid camera and film made their debut, the trajectory of photography was already reshaped by the invention of the digital camera. In fact, digital photography, along with several other technical innovations, originated from the United States space program and the Cold War espionage program. Within these institutions, the idea for digital photography already surfaced during the early sixties. The reason for these institutions’ engagement in developing a digital version of this medium was their need for cameras that could travel into space and send back images. Researchers at NASA developed ways to enhance analog signals by computer processing. These signals were analyzed by computers and converted into numerical and digital information that in turn produced clean images. This way, the first version of digital image creation was born.


The first concept for a digital camera subsequently came from Eugene F. Lally. However, his concept came earlier than the technology that was necessary for its production. Nonetheless, Lally continued to develop his ideas and formulate what technology was needed to produce the actual camera. Then, soon after Lally published papers in the American Rocket Society, he was contacted by the company Bell Labs, and together they moved forward on his ideas. When their first developments proved successful, Bell was contacted by another company called Fairchild Semiconductors, who, together with Lally, wanted to create a prototype for a digital camera. However, at the time, Bell was too occupied with the space program to continue his camera project. For this reason, he referred Fairchild to Kodak, a company that undoubtedly had the means and knowledge to produce the prototype of a digital camera.


fuji ds 1p camera 1988
Fuji’s first fully digital camera, the FUJIX DS-1P from 1988. Source: Fotoblogia.pl


While it is widely believed that Kodak’s Steven Sasson created the first digital camera prototype, it has recently become clear that it was his colleague David Lewis who, after experimenting with the Fairchild type 201CCD, created the first version in 1974. Sasson’s version came a year later, in 1975. However, the launch of the first digital camera prototypes did not necessarily mark the birth of digital photography. The first camera that Sasson designed, which consisted of Motorola parts, sixteen batteries, and the Fairchild CCD electronic sensors, was not yet user-friendly. After all, it weighed 9 pounds, captured black and white images on a cassette tape, had a resolution of 0.01megapixel and a shutter lag. Possibly daunted by the challenge that lay ahead of improving the technology, Kodak decided to continue focussing on film photography.


The first digital camera that truly worked was developed in 1981 by The University of Calgary Canada ASI Science Team. Following this achievement, Fuji introduced the FUJIX DS-1P camera in 1988, which marked the inception of the first digital handheld camera. Subsequently, in 1990, the Dycam Model 1 became the first digital camera available for purchase in the United States. This way, the 1990s became the decade of digital photography. By the mid-1990s, the familiar digital camera shape was established. Some of the first photographers who experimented with digital photography were Catherine Chalmers, Gregory Crewdson, Annie Leibovitz, Andreas Gursky, and Thomas Ruff.


20th Century Photography as an Art Form 

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The Beautiful Girl by Hannah Hoch, 1919-1920. Source: Smart History


At the time when the first 35- and 120mm film roles were produced, photography became increasingly seen as an art form, and for some important reasons. During the early 20th century, some important social and cultural changes happened on a rather large and unprecedented scale. Generally, people were affected by new technologies like photography, airplanes, the first motion pictures, radios, automobiles, and so on. Other affairs that made a significant impact were World War I and several political revolutions. Artists responded to all of these developments by creating works that were just as new and radical as modern life itself.


Art movements like Cubism, Futurism, and Dadaism, which arose at this time, used different shapes, compositions, and techniques to reflect on the new reality. Furthermore, by the early 1920s, technology became a vehicle of progress and change, which instilled hope in people after the destruction of the war. As a result, photography now came to be regarded as the perfect medium to capture the new world. After all, this medium formed a part of this world.


andy warhol with a polaroid camera
Andy Warhol (with polaroid camera) by Oliviero Toscani, 1975. Source: Pinterest


In contrast to painting, for which one generally needs time, the pace of capturing images with a camera matched that of the new fast-paced world. Whereas a century earlier, photography had been disregarded as an art form for its quick capturing process, this same characteristic now positioned it as the ideal art form instead. Photography offered more than just a new method of image creation—it offered a chance to change paradigms of vision and representation.


The medium was also promoted as an art form by members of the Pictorialism movement, as well as by various individuals. For example, Alfred Stieglitz’s book Camera Work was made to stimulate the perception of photography as an art form. Regardless of some critics who refused to accept photography as anything more than a mechanism that imitated reality, photography became increasingly used and perceived as an art form. As a result, the 1970s saw many artists use film photography or the Polaroid to take artistic shots. Of course, the use of photography as a documentary medium did not cease to exist with the expansion of artistic photography. On the contrary, social photographic documentation assumed an even greater significance after World War II. The diversity of the medium simply became more apparent and accepted by a wider audience.

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By Isabel DrogeMSc Arts and Culture, BA Art HistoryIsabel is an art historian and writer from Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She holds a MSc in Arts and Culture Studies and a BA in Art History, both from the University of Amsterdam. Isabel’s biggest passion lies with European art from the fin de siècle period. Within this field, her main focuses have been the Art Nouveau and Vienna Secession, the decorative arts, as well as the reception of marginalized artists. Currently, she finds herself very interested in art from the early and mid-twentieth century. When Isabel is not busy writing, she loves traveling, photography, web design, and being in nature.