What is Fine Art Photography?

August 16, 2012  •  15 Comments

How to Lose Friends...

I am about to launch an ongoing series of Guest Photographers here on the blog and before I showcase the first, I want to set out a sort of manifesto that puts some structure around what gets shown and why I think it's good. To do that, I need to spend a few paragraphs holding forth about what makes my eye and brain happy in photographic imagery and why I think that a lot of contemporary photography is uninspired, unoriginal and uninteresting to anyone but the photographer. Which is fine. Most people who pick up a camera don't intend to challenge Steichen, the Bechers, or Arbus. But there's also a lot of stuff around calling itself art when it isn't and holding itself up for a critique that in reality it is not prepared to hear.

My rough yardstick for wanting to own a photo made by someone else, or to make one of my own available for sale as a Fine Art print, is that I have to believe that if it hangs on a wall for a long time, it will continue to have something to offer. Clearly this largely excludes images of loved-ones, pets, homes, holidays etc. but there are of course shots of these subjects that have something to say which is larger and more universal in visual impact than the photographer's personal relationship to a particular family member. The work of Sally Mann and Elliott Erwitt comes to mind.

 

What is Fine Art Photography?

I think that quite a lot of what is offered as 'Fine Art Photography' is at best merely pretty, and at worst garish*. Of course there's also a lot of wonderful work out there - stuff that has a profundity of perception, intent and effect far beyond the pictorial - but it is in the minority and it is too often lumped into the Fine Art category alongside material which should really be placed elsewhere on the spectrum that runs from unoriginal cliché to artistic genius.

For the sake of concision I am going to concentrate mainly on landscape photography from hereon in: but the ideas are the same, whatever the specific genre.

In the largest producing and consuming nation of FAP, the USA, the norm seems to me to be overly dominated by the twin shadows of Ansel Adams and by the output of those who lead workshops to Slot Canyons and similar. I saw a photo recently, taken by a workshop participant, which zoomed back from the scene itself (a desert, viewed from a high ridge at about sunrise) to show an ant-like cluster of around thirty participants, tripods a-ready, perky zooms pointing into the landscape. All taking approximately the same photo. Which will probably look very similar to the one on the front of the website or brochure used to advertise the workshop.

There are key places in the USA for those shots: parts of the midwestern desert; those bloody slot canyons; El Capitan in Yosemite, etc. etc. etc. and I am 100% honest when I say that I frequently recognise shots of the exact same individual rocks (not rock formations or dolmens, just small rocks) taken by different people on different days or even in different years.

In the UK we have the Northumberland coast as the pre-eminent amongst a variety of other tripod littered wildernesses. 

Having found the 'right scene' (i.e. one in which other people have Taken Lots of Nice Shots) it becomes necessary to emulate 'the look'. This involves

  • Perfectly Focussed Foreground Interest with...
  • ...an Almost Impossible Depth Of Field, through which run....
  • ...Lead-in-Lines towards...
  • ...Perfectly Focussed Mid- and Far-Grounds, themselves topped by...
  • ... skies stained by graduated filters in unlikely colours (in theory to 'Protect the Highlights': in fact, to add some artificial colouring to bland food)
  • All of the above marshalled into place by the Rule of Thirds grid in Lightroom

Add some Sci-Fi HDR effects, round-trip through Nik filters, make sure that any water in the frame is made dreamy by using a slow shutter speed and you have the finished product: a 'Fine Art Photography Landscape'. 

Now this is, of course, satire. But only to a degree. And I would be the first to add that there are some very accomplished photographers who can use one or even all of the above techniques and still make work that is inspired and original. The key is subtlety (even when seeking a dramatic effect), moderation, and not throwing the kitchen sink into the bath with the baby.

Photographerds

The problem is that there are so many magazine covers with lurid images in this vein, so many books and workshops that promote variants on it, that it becomes hard to see the world differently. So while I find little visual stimulation in work which merely 'photocopies the world', I am downright disheartened by work which photocopies the work of others and then bumps up the saturation slider. Copying is fine as part of the learning process but in the end, good photographerds must move on and become good photographers, if they want their work to be, and to be recognised as, truly original and genuinely creative.

There's a distinction that struck home with me in a book called ‘The Philosophy of Art’ by Theodore Gracyk: that between Popular and Fine Art. My personal feeling is that an awful lot of what is generally referred to as Fine Art photography would better be termed Popular Art photography. It is often pretty (though generally in a sugary way), always conventional, and very rarely original.

There was a thread on roughly this subject recently on the excellent OnLandscape website (subscription but very worth paying for). It started with a very good article by David Ward entitled Giving Beauty a Bad Name, in which he discussed an image of the above mentioned El Capitan by Thomas Struth. But this one wasn't an Ansel-a-like, it wasn't pretty and it had attitude. This article formed the nucleus of a very mature and long-running discussion about the elitism of the artistic establishment versus the aesthetic tastes of the masses, roughly characterised as 'clever-versus-pretty', a false opposition which was recognised as such in the debate but which proved useful. Other ways of putting it might be 'conceptual-versus-pictorial' or 'aesthetic-versus-antiaesthetic'.

My contribution to the thread included the following paragraph, which came after a few comments similar to those I have made above.

"On the other hand, the an- (or anti-) aesthetic school, with its lack of ability to unpack beauty from the bourgeois, running scared of making the former for fear of being accused of the latter, misses a number of possible tricks. Those who follow in the photographic footsteps of the Bechers... run the risk of being slavish to a different convention than that which ensnares the ‘foreground interest’ crowd. But it is still a convention. Much traditional Japanese art made hay in this territory, forcing enormous tension of perception into the simple, haiku-like conventions of their form; but unlike the photographic in-crowd they did not fear beauty."

The thread went on for weeks, and was very civilised, thoughtful and respectful, and in the end, the majority of the participants saw both sides of the aesthetic argument and quite a few felt as I do. So I know I'm not alone in being bored with the Practical Photography Magazine Cover Look but also wary of stuff which is so clever that it has little visual appeal. When it comes to 'conceptual lens-based art', I suspect the emporer isn't always wearing knickers, however clearly visible his trousers are.

So I do like to look at work, especially landscape work, which is primarily photographic in addition to stuff which is more 'Tate and Moma' in its ambition. I love Steichen and Kander, and Burtynsky but I'm quite partial to Gursky too, and to the Bechers. On the other hand I have never been totally convinced that Gregory Crewdson isn't quietly 'going commando' - or wearing the artistic equivalent of a thong.

To summarise an answer to my own question, therefore, I see 'Fine Art Photography' as having the following characteristics:

  • It has to have extended 'wall hang appeal'
  • It has to be more ambitious in conception and effective in execution than the merely pictorial
  • It needs to be visually or intellectually original
  • It should avoid Novelty Techniques unless it really understands why it is using them
  • If it uses the tropes of the genre it should do so quietly, or ironically

There are a lot of photographs, and I would include the current work of Gursky in this, which are in my opinion primarily art, not photography. They just happen to have been made with a camera. The work of Tacita Dean is another example of this. It is a tough distinction to make between this sort of work and work which fits my Fine Art Photography definition and there are clearly areas of shade and grey where the two meet but I hope my attempt at a distinction is clear nonetheless.

In traditional art media, I love Rothko, Heron, de Stael, William Gear, Adrian Heath, a host of others, very often abstract or on the exploratory edge of abstraction. I dislike, vehemently Fragonard. Torture for me would be having The Swing suspended on my wall for eternity. Which is a pity because it hangs in the Wallace Collection, the nearest museum to where I live.

So over the coming months, when you see a photographer featured here, it's usually going to be because their work is the kind of thing I'd like to hang on my own wall, or work I wish I had made myself. Stuff, maybe, that wonderfully evokes how a scene feels, rather than how it looks, or worse, how the photographer thinks other people think it should look.

 

* For an extreme example (and I thought long and hard about whether to include this link but even the photographer himself agreed with a comment made by someone else saying, "You are correct, there's no accounting for taste,") take a look at this.


Comments

16.Tim Ashley Photography
Thank you William,
It is good to find a Kindred Spirit! I am afraid, however, that I don't have an email list for this site - but there is an RSS feed. However, with the way RSS is going I will indeed put an email list together at some point!
15.William Manning(non-registered)
Tim,
An excellent article Tim, I appreciate you taking the time to write this and not side stepping what defines fine art photography, all though we all may have slightly different definitions. I get tired of looking over photographers galleries and seeing the word fine art and discovering the photographer used a few plug-ins like Topaz, Nik Software, etc... and they label it fine art. I do believe there is a time and place for these plug-ins but I wish photographers would label them illustrations as this is what 99% of the images are, and just like the crowd mentality at the scenic overlook so are the majority of the photos created with these plug-ins, they all look alike, HDR being a great example. Most HDR images have the same subject make-up, (old abandoned buildings, broken glass, graffiti, old trucks in an over grown field, on and on. Occasionally I come across one that catches my eye but not often.

Thanks again and please put me on your email list
14.Donovan(non-registered)
Just found your site looking for useful RX1 reviews (curiosity and procrastination - I can't really justify the cost), and got sucked into reading more - really great and lots of posts like this that are far more useful to me than the average technically oriented photo site.

I love taking photos, and have worked professionally full and part time at times, but recently feel like I've fallen prey to the machine-gun digital habit and many of my own photos bore me (partly because I fit rushed photography into a too full life, and often because my partner is waiting impatiently). Apart from questioning what is art, your list here seems like a rally good reality check before taking almost any picture, or at least when keeping/deleting after a shooting session. They are all perhaps somewhat obvious once you think about them, but somehow one doesn't.

Ten years ago I spent 6 months in Peru and nearby, volunteering for on a research project in forests of the Tambopata-Candamo Reserve and travelling all over Peru and a little into neighbouring countries. It was interesting to see how much higher my hit rate of really good and meaningful images was, despite not processing a single film until I got home. I had the time to really plan almost every image, and a financial and practical budget of a fixed number of films.

This was a useful reminder that it's time for me to take fewer pictures, more carefully and print more.

I think I'll start using your points as a photographic mantra (excluding point 4 which comes naturally).

Thank you.
13.Tim Ashley Photography
Hi Kwasi,

About the D800, I will be writing a blog post about this soon. It is amazing when you get it right but there are a lot of obstacles: finding lenses that are reliable and consistent is very tough. So far, the 85mm F1.8G, the 20-200VRII and the Leica R 50 Cron with adaptor are wonderful, the 28mm F1.8G is close to wonderful (slight mid-field weakness and tricky field curvature) whereas the 24-120, the Tamron 24-70VC and the Nikon 24mm PC-E are all 'difficult'. I also still have left AF issues. However, with the right glass - fabulous!
12.Kwasi(non-registered)
The intent is the key - I'm probably a little too far on the expansive side, but I would call those photography because the capture of light in some way is critical to the work. I wonder what will happen if holograms become easy to capture and reproduce - that might do for photography what it did for painting.

The life drawing point is a good one - I wonder how much of that is down to the participants' intent going into such a class versus attending a workshop?

On a more prosaic note, how are you finding the D800 now the new and shiny effect is (long?) gone? :)
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