What Is Fine Art Photography?
The phrase “fine art photography” is one of the few places where we can still run into the word “fine” in its original definition. “Of high quality” is a good description of this genre, but fine photography is much more than just “really good” photography. What makes a photograph worthy of a gallery or museum spot, collector prices, publication in a monograph, or limited edition print runs is hard to define. Most people could notice the difference between an Ansel Adams and a snapshot from a friend’s vacation, but would have trouble formulating an explanation. Having an understanding of the nuanced conceptual differences between fine art and other types of photography is important, however. It can help one better appreciate the photo works of the greats and be a boon for the creative efforts of photographers themselves.
A Brief History of Fine Art Photography
Photography is one of the youngest artforms, having emerged as late as the 1830s in France. Early photographers used the new medium for a variety of applications from hired portraiture to documenting wars. Those who wanted to utilize photography in a more creative way, however, came up against the established art world who looked down upon the quickness and skill-like qualities of the process. Many photographers were pressured to emulate painting through motion blur, lens filters, and artificial color to convince the art world of their work’s value.
It was not until people like Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams’ f64 group that photography began to come into its own. Advanced compositional and darkroom techniques were developed, building up a unique set of tools and methods which set photography apart as an artform in and of itself.
Through the middle of the 20th century, others like Man Ray, Eliot Porter, and Robert Eggleston pushed the stylistic boundaries of the medium, finally developing it into a full-fledged member of the artistic community.
Today, everyone has access to a camera in their pocket, and finding the line between art photography and everyday snapshots can be difficult. Broadly speaking, we can say that the fine art photographs of people like Adams, Stieglitz, Porter, and others stand apart for three major reasons: conception, composition, and presentation.
Fine art photography begins with an idea; an artist has some concept, feeling, or message which they want to convey through the medium of photography. This premeditation renders this kind of photography distinct from things like snapshots and photojournalism, where the aim is to capture a scene in the moment for the sake of truth and posterity.
Whereas documentary photography treats the medium as an archival tool, fine art photography sees it as a creative one. While a journalist sees an eye-catching scene and snatches it up, the art photographer has an idea and seeks out the bodies, objects, and spaces in the world which can bring it to life. Like the painter or the musician, the photographer is constantly brainstorming new compositions—there is a constant drive for expression and a search for the proper materials to bring the internal world into the external one.
The creative ideas behind a fine art photograph can vary widely. They can be very specific, like in Sally Mann’s collodion plates of the American South—meant to capture the defeat and devastation felt by Civil War veterans upon their return home from the battlefield. They can be vague and emotion-based like Galen Rowell’s portraits of mountain alpenglow—instilling a sense of ineffable wonder and mystery. Or they can be more complex, difficult to parse apart and define strictly. Abstract photography like that of Brett Weston or Harry Callahan could be placed in this category, where forms are distorted and concealer, and interpretation is left entirely up to the viewer. Even if the precipitating idea of a photograph is hidden and opaque, nebulous emotions, pattern searching, and a creative impulse are still at the heart of these more impenetrable works, and forethought is required for their inception.
Ideas are at the center of fine art photography and must be carefully separated from motives. Everyone has a motive for taking a photograph, but it takes a touch of vision to create a photo as a work of art.
As fine art photography requires a conceptual framework, it also demands some sort of methodology to inform the actual process of creation. Photographers work with the world around them, and figuring out how to order (or disorder) that world and the objects within it is another cornerstone of the fine art process.
An art photographer must first decide what kinds of scenery and subjects best convey or embody the idea or feeling they have in mind. Different meanings are better conveyed with different styles such as portraiture, still life, abstract, and landscape. Photographers may switch between these styles from piece to piece, but many will focus on one for the bulk of their careers.
For portrait photographers, the artist must choose the right model with the proper dress and attitude. They must select a suitable backdrop and a lens which provides the desired field of view. Lighting must be set to capture the right mood and the subject must be posed to capture the perfect balance between motion and stillness
Still Life Photography
For still life photographers, various common and unique objects must be carefully selected. They must be placed relative to each other with respect to general geometric rules or in some sort of random order with visual appeal. Lighting and setting must provide a backdrop which either complements the arrangement or is inconspicuous enough not to distract from it.
Because they are less able to control their subject matter, landscape photographers must have a high level of dedication and a sixth sense for things like weather patterns, topography, light, and the seasons. They must be in the right place at the right time in the ideal conditions. This may mean hiking for miles, waking before dawn, and waiting several hours for the perfect shot.
Abstract photographers may take into consideration all or none of the factors mentioned above. Creating an abstract fine art photograph may mean clever arrangement of household objects, lighting a model in harsh or unusual ways, or seeking out unusual geological or meteorological phenomena in the wild. Always, the abstract photographer must be on the lookout for patterns and chaotic dynamics which speak to them and exemplify their particular artistic vision.
Other photographers working in other styles must each face their own unique challenges in bringing form to their artistic conceptions. It is the deep thought which goes into these reifications which mark off fine art photography as unique.
Photography is unique in that an image can be edited after it is created—colors can be tweaked, contrast increased or decreased, size and shape changed, and detail added and removed. This last stage of creative input allows for a degree of precision and finishing which distinguishes fine art photography from other uses of the medium.
In the past, photo editing took place in the darkroom. Negatives could be developed in a variety of different ways by changing the chemicals used, the development time, and the temperature of the water. This could affect grain size, color representation, contrast, and more. Once a negative was created, its image was projected onto photographic paper to create a print. Dodging and burning and different filters could then be used to alter contrast further and brighten and darken different parts of the image. The resulting print might not look like the scene in real life, but could better express the artistic vision of the photographer.
Today, these same alterations are done in photo editing programs like Adobe Photoshop. Though the end goal is still the same, the number of tools at the artist’s disposal is much greater. Advanced technology means images can now be layered, duplicated, squeezed and stretched, and resized, providing many new possibilities for the medium. Contemporary photographers like Jeff Wall and John Goto have used these techniques to create fascinating new styles and compositional methods in an increasingly digital world.
As with the initial composition, the final editing and presentation process requires a level of foresight and creative vision which sets fine art photography apart. What is done in-camera is really only half the story, and it takes just as much skill in an editing program to create a truly great photograph.
A “Fine” Line
These criteria are at the core of what distinguishes fine art photography from the rest of the photographic landscape. However, as is to be expected in the art world, these rules are never fixed and easily broken.
Ideas about the creation of a photograph are held by everyone. We all have a concept about how even the most mundane photo should turn out, whether it be a friend’s birthday or a sleeping pet. Photojournalists travel to the cities and countries they document with a wealth of preconceptions and understandings gained at home and abroad. Compositionally, we all want our photographs to turn out nicely and pay attention to the angle of the camera, the brightness of a scene, and the expressions on people’s faces. Influencers, marketers, and just about everyone else has played around with photo filters and the editing options built into our smartphone cameras. To a greater or lesser extent, we all engage with the ideas stated above, but we are not all fine art photographers.
This paradox is exemplified by the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, known for some of the most eye-catching photographs of the 20th century. Bresson was a street photographer, and most of his shots were taken off the cuff with little forethought or planning. Nonetheless, his images show an attention to detail and compositional precision still unmatched today. Bresson was also well travelled, and much of his work documents his life and experiences in China, Mexico, the Middle East, and elsewhere. He also did little work in the darkroom, content to have interns and printing companies handle most of the final editing work.
Despite deviating from many of the practices and virtues of fine art photography, Bresson’s status as fine art photographer goes unquestioned. Photography cannot, then, be defined according to a checklist. To determine the value of a photograph, one must take into consideration the creative processes which went into it but also acknowledge the character and impact of the final image. Like painting, sculpting, and musical composition, fine art photography is meant to be art, and while looking at concept, composition, and presentation cannot provide the authority to declare a photograph fine or not fine, it can drive us to see the stories and the hard work which set some works apart from and above the rest.