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History of the Art of Photography  

Karen Lee McSorley Explore the history of photography from its humblest beginnings in the brave hands of individual inventors to its ubiquitous presence in our modern everyday life. Discuss the medium’s evolution from unprecedented objectivity to artistic subjectivity across two centuries. Arrive at an understanding of photographers’ place amongst the pantheon of “fine artists.” In this class we will explore, discuss, and understand photography as unique contributor to the history of art. WEEK 1 Explore the birth of photography and the invention of the camera. We’ll wind our way through the evolution of photography and distinguish its three evolving functions: (1) Photojournalism, (2) Commercialism, and (3) Fine Art. Discussion: PBS video History of Photography (approx. 10 minutes) WEEK 2 Delve into photography as a democratic medium. Discuss the 5 ways in which artists express themselves in as personal a manner as painting and sculpture: (1) Message, (2) Intentionality, (3) Choice, (4) Technique, and (5) Print. Discussion: Roland Barthes reading assignment WEEK 3 Dig deeply into several major photographers’ biographies and catalogues. To be examined: Niepce, Capa, Steiglitz, Adams, Weston, Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, Cameron, Arbus, Gursky. (List subject to change based on students’ interests.) Discussion: Students’ personal photo submission for class review WEEK 4 Consider photography as a means to help shape history. Investigate photography as an “art of chance” especially in light of disaster, war, and death. Discuss the evolution of film from Muybridge to the iPhone 7. Discussion: Susan Sontag reading assignment WEEK 5 Contemplate photography’s position within the larger art historical context. Develop an understanding of Modernity movements (or “isms”) in light of new technology. Create visual pairings from disparate media. Discussion: Jacques Ranciere reading assignment WEEK 6 Engage, educate, and entertain fellow classmates with a mini-presentation surrounding your individual visit to a local photography show. Either a general exhibition review (thumbs up, thumbs down) or in-depth analysis of a single work (why is it your most or least favorite) is encouraged. Class will be structured along four primary discussion topics: Collecting, Architecture, Portraits, and History. Additional Exploration opportunities: Visit the photography collection at either the DeYoung Museum or the Legion of Honor (approximately 90 minutes across multiple session options). Consider the myriad alternatives to display photographs in an exhibition and add to the enrichment of in-class discussion. Karen Lee McSorley can recall her early art experience to regular weekend visits to The Met as a very young child. Since then, she has earned advanced degrees in Art History and Economics from both Northwestern and Yale. Her passion for these combined fields is seen across her decade-long service at SFMOMA.


  • Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at San Francisco State University
    835 Market Street, Sixth Floor, San Francisco, CA 94103
    Phone: (415) 817-4243 Website: