Seminal Photography Shows

Seminal Photography Shows

Discover some of the historic photography exhibitions that shaped the medium during the 19th and 20th centuries. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, was a hotbed for these seminal moments – providing a platform for key new developments and soon-to-be renowned names.

1858 Exhibition of the Photographic Society of London

This was the first photography show to be held in any museum. Over 1000 photographs were on view – taken by members of the Photographic Society of London and its French counterpart, the Société française de photographie. Charles Thurston Thompson captured the first known images of a purely lens-based exhibition, demonstrating the breadth of its subject matter. Portraits, landscapes and architectural views were all on display.

The Family of Man, 1955

Held at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, The Family of Man was an ambitious undertaking. It was organised by Edward Steichen as “a declaration of global solidarity in the decade following World War II,” bringing together hundreds of images from across the world. Steichen wanted to articulate, in his words, “the gamut of life from birth to death.” The show attracted more than nine million visitors after touring the world for eight years.

Photographs by William Eggleston, 1976

William Eggleston’s colour images marked a turning point when this exhibition opened in 1976. They were met with criticism, with the most famous comment coming from landscape photographer Ansel Adams: “I find little substance,” he said. Colour had largely been associated with advertising and the commerical world. Eggleston opened up the possibilities of colour film – making saturated compositions out of the everyday landscape. Cars, motel rooms and ceilings all became scenes for serious consideration.

New Documents, 1967

In 1967, photographers Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand were relatively unknown. This MoMA show established them as key voices in the field. Their work was a new, fresh and intriguing. It stood apart from images taken by the previous generation, instead capturing life as it was, as it happened. The street became a testbed for observation and experimentation. As curator John Szarkowski explained: “Their aim has been not to reform life but to know it.”


Lead image: William Eggleston, Greenwood, Mississippi, 1973.
2. Three on a Bench, Detroit River, c 1952, by Bill Rauhauser
3. William Eggleston, Memphis, c. 1969.
4. Diane Arbus, “Young Man in Curlers, West 20th Street, N.Y.C.,” 1966.
5. Diane Arbus, “Triplets in Their Bedroom, New Jersey,” 1963.