What is a photograph? How do we define its history? This exhibition, compiled mostly from NOMA’s permanent collection, examines many forms of photography from the 1840s to the present, in order to explore these questions. Over the past 190 years, photography has infiltrated almost every aspect of modern life, from birth to war and science to religion. During this time, the photograph has taken many forms, such as the daguerreotype, cyanotype, and gelatin silver print. Scholars and historians have often found it difficult to write a history that gives equal weight to each of these distinct forms, but recent technical developments in photography have made it even more complicated. With the advent of the digital era, it appears that we must once again begin rewriting photography’s history to include not only images on metal plates, paper, and cloth, but also images on laptop screens and handheld devices, images that have no physical support and may never physically exist at all. It has become clear that a history that narrowly defines photography as one medium is insufficient. Photography, it seems, is not one medium, but many.

This exhibition describes and includes many of the most common photographic processes (daguerreotypes, salted paper prints, gelatin silver prints, and inkjet prints), but it also includes objects, artifacts, and practices that have typically been considered marginal to the history of photography (reproductions of photographs in ink, negatives, camera-less photographs, cartes-de-visite, color processes, and even a piece of jewelry). These disparate works invite you to consider what—if anything—links them together within the history of photography.

What is a Photograph? will be on view from April 20 to August 19, 2012 in the Templeman Galleries.

Digital Scores VII (after Nicephore Niepce)


Andreas Muller-Pohle

Archival inkjet print

80.0 x 80.0 cm

Courtesy of the artist

Shepherd Struggling with His Goat


Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot

Cliche-verre on paper

17. 5 x 12.7 cm

Museum purchase, Friends of Prints and Drawings

Portrait of Young Female Child (Mourning Bracelet)

Circa 1855


Gift of an anonymous donor

Portrait of Young Female Child (Mourning Bracelet)

Circa 1855

Daguerreotype mounted on inside of bracelet locket with the initial "C" woven out of human hair under glass on the opposite side

Gift of an anonymous donor


Circa 1845


25.8 x 20.3 cm

Museum purchase, General Acquisitions Fund