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History of Commercial Photography: Understanding the Art Behind the Ad

History of Commercial Photography: Understanding the Art Behind the Ad

Commercial photography didn't just happen overnight. Learn more about the fascinating (yes, it is fascinating!) history of commercial photography and why it is so important for advertising.



If you've ever seen glossy advertisements in magazines, then you've seen commercial photography. You've probably even admired commercial photography, though most people differentiate commercial and fine art photography.

But a photograph doesn't have to be a "fine art photograph" to be beautiful.

And commercial photography has just as rich a history as art photography. Here, we're breaking down a bit of photography history to help you better understand the art (and usefulness) of commercial photos.


The Daguerreotype and Eastman Kodak


It all begins with the daguerreotype.

The daguerreotype was the first successful form of photography, produced in 1837 by Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre. At the time, it was restricted to daguerreotype studios because photography was rare, cumbersome, and technically demanding.

As such, the only photographers (or rather, the only people who owned cameras) at the time were professionals or particularly wealthy and savvy hobbyists.

Because of this, photography was viewed as an art and a formal process in which the photographer was considered the authority on how to capture life's most important moments.

Later developments like the ambrotype left the daguerreotype to fade from public view as cameras became more portable and easy to use.

This brings us to the Eastman Kodak Company, now known simply as Kodak. These days, Kodak is fighting for a future beyond film, but back in the day, they were the innovators who invented film, revolutionizing the world of photography.


The Rise of Fashion Photography


Even as cameras became more accessible to the average person, there was always something rewarding for the savvy hobbyist and professional--the sense that photography is an art in its own right.

It makes sense, then, that photography and fashion became intricately connected.

In the pre-photography age, fashion magazines included engraved illustrations but had limited readership. The first serious fashion photographs were taken in 1911 by Edward Steichen and printed in Art et Decoration.

It followed quickly on the heels of a little company called Conde Nast buying the social magazine Vogue in 1909.

Vogue was transformed from a small social magazine into a high-class fashion powerhouse with international aspirations, all thanks to the pairing of innovative photography and glamorous models--photography we would now call commercial.


The Digital Age


Over time, through the World Wars and shifting ideals, advertising shifted to reflect new cultural ideology.

Postwar advertising, for example, focused more on middle-class families, while ads of the 60s and 70s echo social movements that changed ideas of 'cool'. The Marlboro Man is a classic example of concepts of masculinity reflected in advertising.

The digital age, especially the social media age, has radically changed our relationship to photography.

For one thing, photographs became far more available as photographers had a platform to share and disseminate their images faster than ever. The barrier to entry is also far lower, as most people have a camera built into their phone and computer.

In the age of Instagram--a medium devoted solely to photos, often taken by amateurs snapping a picture on the fly--there has come to be a crucial distinction between photography and taking pictures.

But if you've ever seen the wildfire success that can sprout from a single photograph, then you understand the continued power of photography.


The Commercial Photography You Need


There's a difference between photography and taking pictures. If you want commercial photography that will help your campaign succeed, then you need a professional.

Click here for a walkthrough of our process behind product photography, or take a look at our portfolio. If you'd like to get in touch about a project, use our contact page.


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