When UK museums shut their doors for lockdown three, among the closures were major photography exhibitions: Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Unearthed, tracing two centuries of the camera through botanical stills; scenes of war forming what their creator calls “the worst possible kind of living theatre” by Don McCullin at Tate Liverpool; Zanele Muholi’s grave, arresting portraits of South Africa’s black queer community at Tate Modern; news from the classroom in Steve McQueen’s “Year 3” project at Tate Britain.

A typical season’s photographic crop, then: history and geography, war and peace, art and documentary. Today such range and quality is familiar; 20 years ago it would have been astonishing — Tate’s inaugural photography show was in 2003 — and 30 years ago, unimaginable.

In his book How Photography Became Contemporary Art, Andy Grundberg tells the story of the recent “remarkable rise of photography from the margin of art to its vital centre”. As an analysis of the forces shaping a world where images “in effect replaced reality as we once knew it”, it is the most astute, resonant cultural history I have read in 11 months of experiencing art — and much of life — more or less virtually. Made to be reproduced, photographs, unlike paintings, thrive online. Grundberg, a former New York Times critic, unpicks how they work, the evolving ways in which they matter.

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In Grundberg's “pilgrim’s tale”, photography is a lone bold character setting out to carve a role beyond its obvious documentary function. It tries to imitate established media — Henry Fox Talbot called his process “the art of photogenic drawing”, young pictorialist Alfred Stieglitz made photographs that looked handmade, like paintings — before finding its independent voice. Claiming acceptance on its own terms, photography is so successful that it revolutionises the entire concept of what art can be.

Initially photography sneaked into painting: Andy Warhol’s silkscreens, the collages of Robert Rauschenberg trying to “act in the gap” between life and art. Then it became a tool of record for new media: land art — Michael Heizer’s “Double Negative” (1969), Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” (1970) — and 1970s feminist performances such as those by Carolee Schneemann, Ana Mendieta. In tandem, as artists began to use photographs, photojournalists and fashion photographers — Richard Avedon, Irving Penn — migrated into museums. Hierarchies began to dissolve. Certainly postwar art’s overriding narrative of democratisation spun out from the rise of photography and its engagement with everyday existence.

‘Martinique, January 1’ by André Kertész (1972)

Conceptually, what lit the fuse was Marxist-inflected semiotics, imported from Paris via Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and Derrida to an America whose consumption of images in advertising and entertainment was insatiable. Post-modernism sanctified “photography’s singular status as a singular kind of sign”, with deconstruction the ever-giving gift, for “if existing images . . . are not fixed representations but capable of being refashioned and reinterpreted to yield new critical meanings, then the entire universe of pictures is a subject for artists”. Enter the age of simulacra: appropriation art by Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger among hundreds; Cindy Sherman’s self-conscious fictionalising; Nan Goldin’s performed realism such as “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”.

In 1990 Grundberg advised John Szarkowski, MoMA’s distinguished photography curator, that Sherman and Goldin were “what’s happening”. Szarkowski’s rigorous modernist prism — showing documentary pioneers from Lartigue and Brassai to Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand, their aims defined as “not to reform life but to know it, not to persuade but to understand” — had long shaped MoMA’s approach. He was both dismissive and brilliantly predictive. “What’s happening?” he replied. “People are taking three million photographs a year of their cats”.

‘Sunday New York Times’ by Tina Barney (1982)

Grundberg ends his lively account in 1991, when he left the New York Times and Szarkowski quit MoMA, but he posits that today “contemporary art has become photography, if by that we mean not the medium itself but its function as a messenger of contemporary life”. An effect, inevitably, is to prize content over form, and especially to license the rise of identity politics in art in both current practice and historical interpretation: the Barbican’s Masculinities last year, the Metropolitan Museum’s forthcoming New Woman Behind the Camera.

It is not the only way to consider images. The Grand Palais’s much-awaited, thrice-postponed survey Noir et Blanc: une esthétique de la photographie finally launches this month as an online exhibition tracing “aesthetic, formal and sensory perspectives” across two centuries: graphic contrasts, plays of shadow and light, rhythmic composition. Visual delight is intense, almost tactile: deep velvety blacks such as Alexandre Vitkine’s industrial silhouettes in “Building Site” (1972), machinery abstracted into dizzying patterns; the silvery shimmers of Pierre Boucher’s soaring diagonal fronds in “Palms at Marrakesh” (1935); Toni Catany’s nuanced greys and paler shades in the calotype “Nude and Leaf” (1981).

Untitled by Jan Groover (1978)

All these were new names to me: the show offers real thrills of discovery, though it is as successful as an introduction to famous greats. Rodchenko’s celebration of the camera “Girl with a Leica” (1934), with its extreme angles and light filtered in a criss-cross design, attests to photography’s connection to constructivism. Cecil Beaton’s “Balenciaga Dress” (1967) proves that fashion shots can also be geometric stunners. André Kertesz’s “Satiric Dancer” (1926), the model caught mid-movement, four limbs hurtling in opposite directions, has the wit of a Surrealist sculpture coming alive.

If colour, as Grundberg’s glossy examples demonstrate, tends to fix images in time and place, black and white is nostalgic, mysterious, yet timeless, probably because of the strong formal qualities. The works by more than 200 artists in the Grand Palais show come from the supreme collection of Paris’s Bibliothèque Nationale, beginning with Charles Marville’s 1850s Paris streets and Nadar’s piercing portraits. Twenty-first-century works include a dreamy blur of a child in a long avenue of trees from Jean-François Spricigo’s “Romanza” series (2010) and Ellen Carey’s polaroids “White Monochrome” and “Black Monochrome” (2007). Their aesthetic is continuous with the interwar European avant-garde, and as optimistic in spirit. They suggest different ways of bearing witness — not necessarily literally.

‘Immigrants Istanbul, Turquie’ by Mary Ellen Mark (1977)

Viewing from home inflects our responses. Photographs have always brought the world to our doorstep; in the solitude of lockdown we connect to their emotional currents more intimately, and of course with an almost visceral attraction to depictions of crowds. I lingered on Edouard Boubat’s “Jardin du Luxembourg” (1955): stark bare trees as dark verticals, a carpet of snow luminous beneath, chairs piled up for the winter as spiralling arabesques, their stillness offset by hordes of children playing. The happiness is studied. In 1943 Boubat was sent as forced labour to Nazi Germany; on his return he sought and depicted quotidian joy, becoming what poet Jacques Prévert called a “peace correspondent”. This marvellously upbeat show is an unmissable consolation in constrained times.

‘How Photography Became Contemporary Art’ by Andy Grundberg is published by Yale, (£30)

‘Noir et Blanc: une esthétique de la photographie’, from February 20, grandpalais.fr