Before the National Portrait Gallery began to display photographs in the 1970s, a remarkable collection of over 10,000 photographic portraits was created documenting leading figures in British society from World War One up until the 'Swinging Sixties'. The National Photographic Record was started in 1917 during the first World War at the instigation of Walter Stoneman, the chief photographer for the long established firm of Russell & Sons. Stoneman was succeeded on his retirement by Walter Bird (active 1958-1967) and then by Godfrey Argent (active 1967-1970).
In 1972, Roy Strong as Gallery Director abandoned the National Photographic Record in favour of a new approach which focused on acquiring the best photographs from leading photographers. In the late 1980s a return was made on a selective basis to commissioning photographs for the collection. Among the first of the new commissions were the photographs of Daley Thompson and Diana Princess of Wales.
In 1998 the Gallery adopted a more proactive attitude to photographic acquisitions by commissioning a photographic diptych of Stuart Hall from Dawoud Bey, and a series of photographs of chefs, restaurateurs and cookery writers from Barry Marsden. This was followed by other commissions, designed to overcome particular weaknesses in the collection: gardeners and garden designers by Tessa Traeger in 2000, children's writers by Maud Sulter in 2001 and leaders in Telecommunications by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin in 2005.