“The 20th Century is the age of photography,” says Mattie Boom, curator of photography at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. “More than painting or sculpture, it is the century’s most influential art form by far. When the first Kodak camera was launched in 1888, it sold around 5,000 units. By the 1960s, Kodak was selling 70 million Instamatic cameras. So photography in the 20th Century was huge. And today we are drowning in an ocean of images.”

We are standing in the middle of Modern Times, a new exhibition charting the history of photography during the 20th Century. From the Rijksmuseum’s holdings of around 30,000 prints in this area, Boom and her co-curator Hans Rooseboom have selected 400 impressive photographs to lend coherent narrative shape to a vast and potentially sprawling subject.

“Now that we have some distance from it, we wanted to look anew at photography in the 20th Century,” explains Boom. “So this exhibition includes many applications of photography: record covers, postage stamps, books, magazines – the whole scope. Photography explodes in the 20th Century – and it also rises as a form of art.”

The exhibition, which is divided into themes such as amateur photography, the rise of photojournalism, war reportage, experimentation, and commercial work, contains pictures by many established masters of the medium, including Brassaï, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, and William Klein. Here is my selection of five standout images that represent important aspects of the show.

Gallop; Thoroughbred Bay Horse, Bouquet (c 1885-87)

The earliest photographs in the exhibition weren’t actually produced during the 20th Century at all. In 1887, the eccentric British-born photographic pioneer Eadweard Muybridge (nee Edward Muggeridge) published his monumental, 11-volume Animal Locomotion, consisting of 781 gravure plates. Among them was this striking sequence capturing the motion of a galloping horse. Hugely influential not only upon successive photographers but also modern artists such as Francis Bacon, Muybridge’s images, which in retrospect seem so prophetic of motion pictures, offered a novel way of visualising the world, more accurate than the human eye. In this plate, for instance, he settled the thorny question of whether or not galloping horses kept one leg in touch with the ground. As you can see, they do not, but instead momentarily “float” in mid-air.

View from the Pont Transbordeur, Marseilles (1929)

One of the most prestigious 20th Century photographs in the collection of the Rijksmuseum is this famous print by the experimental Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy, who taught at the Bauhaus during the 1920s. At first, the image appears almost abstract. Only gradually, aided by the title, does the viewer come to recognise the subject: a view through the steel girders of the transporter bridge of the Pont Transbordeur in Marseilles onto a bright sailboat passing by on the waters below. The unusual, initially puzzling perspective, the interest in dynamic geometrical forms, the celebration of up-to-the-minute engineering: everything about this photograph bespeaks classic Modernist concerns. Moreover, it wasn’t meant to illustrate a book. Here was a photograph that demanded to be considered as an autonomous work of art in its own right.

Électricité (1931)

Moholy-Nagy was not the only Modernist to experiment with photography. The reputation of the inventive American artist Man Ray rests upon his avant-garde ‘rayographs’ (or photograms), which he produced without a camera by placing objects directly onto sheets of sensitised paper before exposing them to light. This sensuous image was achieved by superimposing photograms of ribbons representing electric current (as well as erotic desire) upon a black-and-white print of a nude torso, which resembles a piece of classical statuary but actually belonged to his lover Lee Miller. It was one of two nudes within the portfolio Électricité, which he created for the CPDE electric power company in Paris in 1931. Man Ray, who wanted to downplay his commercial work, did not mention the commission in his autobiography. Still, this seductive, enchanting and dreamlike series, which was printed in a limited edition of 500, offers a reminder that commercial photography does not have to be artistically bankrupt. “I do not photograph nature,” Man Ray once said, “I photograph my fantasy.”

Squatting Girl/Spider Girl, New York (1980)

The American photographer William Eggleston (b 1939) is often credited with forcing colour photography into the precincts of fine art: his infamous exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1976 was derided by The New York Times as the “most hated [photography] show of the year”. Yet his shy, self-taught compatriot, the documentary photographer and filmmaker Helen Levitt, also had a part to play in the campaign to win acceptance for colour photography. In this gorgeous shot, taken in 1980, Levitt captures a tiny girl squatting like a curled-up spider by a kerbside in New York. The subject matter recalls her more familiar black-and-white street photography of the 1940s and 1950s. Thanks to the rapid evolution of portable cameras, street photography, which is characterised by a seemingly casual attitude towards taking pictures, would become one of the medium’s most important and influential genres during the 20th Century.

Giallo (2013)

Viviane Sassen, an exciting Dutch artist who was raised in Kenya, made her name as a fashion photographer: an eye-popping installation featuring around 350 images of her work in this field from the past two decades is currently on show at the Photographers’ Gallery in London. More recently, though, her work as a documentary photographer, which she often funds by accepting fashion assignments, has made her a staple on the contemporary art circuit too – for instance, she was included in the prestigious principal exhibition of last year’s Venice Biennale.

The most recent work in the exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, Giallo, comes from a series of around 50 images in which Sassen documents life for the 4,000 inhabitants of the remote village of Pikin Slee deep in the rainforest of Suriname in South America. “These were people whose ancestors were brought by the Dutch from West Africa as slaves,” she tells me. “They escaped from slavery and fled into the woods where they made their own settlements, and that’s how villages like Pikin Slee were founded.”

Like Man Ray, whose work she admires (“He was an interesting example of how photography can cross different fields,” she says), Sassen is able to straddle the potentially antagonistic worlds of commercial photography and fine art. “A lot of people still have this idea of an artist being someone who has to be true to some higher calling,” she says, “as if we should all be suffering in our little attics making amazing artworks. At the same time there has always been this crazy commercial side to art as well. I just try to do what I like to do – and that is making pictures. My art is what is closest to my heart, what I feel strongest about – while fashion is more of a playground in which I keep myself busy because I just love to photograph.”

Alastair Sooke is art critic of The Daily Telegraph

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