Documentary series about photography are few and far between and when a well produced one comes along it makes you wonder why. BBC Four’s 2007 production, The Genius of Photography is one such series.

‘In the course of our 170 year relationship, photography has delighted us, served us, moved us, outraged us and occasionally disappointed us. But mainly, it has intrigued us by showing the secret strangeness that lies beneath the world of appearances. And that is photography’s true genius.’

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Camera Obscura "The Genius of Photography" BBC Four

Camera Obscura "The Genius of Photography" BBC Four


The series is comprised of 6 episodes and chronologically follows the major developments in photography. Technological advances, key practitioners and changes in style and subject are all interwoven to give a well balanced and engaging overview of the medium. Commentary is provided by photographers, curators and historians, each of whom has a distinct point of view and the key moments within the field are defined by seminal images. Episodes 1 and 2 explore the beginnings of photography and it’s rapid evolution from hobby of the elite to tool of the people. One such ‘amateur’ is the Frenchman Latigue whose eye for detail and prolific output show the power of  photography to document the look of the time.


Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Bichonnade Leaping, © Jacques-Henri Lartigue Foundation

Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Bichonnade Leaping, © Jacques-Henri Lartigue Foundation


As the series develops, it explores the role photography inevitably comes to play as a documentary tool for the rapid changes that are occurring within the political and social landscape. In tandem with the rise of the family snapshot, comes the rise of serious attempts to visually document the underprivileged, the unnoticed, the undone. Walker Evans shots for the FSA of the Alabama sharecroppers are rightly cited as seminal images in the history of photography, but they also introduce the idea of subjectivity and the idea of ‘truth’ in photography as a historical record. This debate becomes even more relevant as photography joins the world as it goes to war. Photographers begin to play a critical role in the way in which events both near and far from home are transmitted to the wider public with unprecedented levels of immediacy and vividness. W. Eugene Smith is one photographer who documented not just the war in the Pacific, but also events closer to his home in his epic study of the city of Pittsburgh.


US Steel Pittsburg, 1955 W Eugene Smith © Magnum


The later episodes progress rapidly through the developments and implications of the invention of colour film and the simultaneous opening up of the world around us. Documentary photography becomes more personal, more subjective. The grand tour becomes the road trip, the landscape of war is replaced with the landscape of the street and the everyday. Meyerowitz and Shore explore the pavement and the open road and in doing so begin a dialogue about changing social and economic conditions in the West and the role photography plays within this evolving landscape.

From the modern landscape of the USA, the series follows photography’s move into the bedroom and living room. Intimate family and personal portraits, both tender and raw show photography’s changing role from that of objective documenter to confessor. The rapid developments in photographic technology is matched only by the breadth of subject and purpose it now has the ability to convey.


Liz Shaking Fist at Ray Richard Billingham © Richard Billingham


Although rarely repeated on TV, The Genius of Photography series is available for purchase on DVD and there is an accompanying book of the series (please note these are affiliate links)