What is Fine Art Photography?

The poll this week will be another open-ended question rather than a click-and-vote. The last time I ran one like this, we had some awesome answers and I highlighted them in a follow-up post the next week. So we’ll do the same here.

The question this week spawns from my own involvement with fine art photography. I find photography in general to be a highly subjective topic — what’s good, what sucks, what works, and what doesn’t is typically a matter of taste amongst other things. Fine Art Photography tends to be even more subjective since it’s a narrow slice of photography as an artistic medium.

So, What is Fine Art Photography?

How would you define it? What makes a photo Fine Art rather than something else? Can photographers really call themselves Fine Art Photographers? And what conditions would make it feasible for a photographer to include themselves in this category? Offer up your thoughts, take the discussion where you wish, and I’ll pick out some of the more insightful comments for an upcoming featured article.

And since we’re on the topic of insightful polls, be sure to check out the results and comments from last week asking the question “Do You Take Photos or Make Photos?” It looks like a majority “take photos” rather than “make photos”, and a good portion also says they “do both”. Several commentators also hit on the topic of what these terms really mean, so be sure to check that out.

18 thoughts on “What is Fine Art Photography?

  1. Neil Creek

    Coincidentally I had a conversation on this very topic with a friend of mine who is doing fine art at tertiary level (college). She said that her photography instructors would only consider photography “fine art” if it’s experimental or ‘out there’, and not ‘realistic’. If it’s representative of the world, it’s not art, it’s realism. Beautiful landscapes wouldn’t cut it.

    I don’t agree with that defintiion. My rule of thumb definition would be “if I’d be happy to hang it on my wall” it’s fine art. But that’s probably too broad a definition for most.

    I think the key thing is that “fine art” is completely subjective. Noone will agree what is fine art, but it might be easier to get consensus about what isn’t. In fact recently there was a controversy in Australia about a famous art photographer’s exhibition which had some (artistic I would happily say) photos with a nude 12 year old girl. You can imagine the cries of “it’s not art!”.

    If you NEED a definition of fine art – as we do Brian with the Fine Art Photoblog – it’s probably best to take your definition from your market. Find out what they expect fine art to be, and cater to that.

  2. My Camera World

    Fine Art Photography

    There are 2 words that clearly describe what it means. That Photographic tools play a large part in the creation of works of fine art.

    The adjective I think is Fine-art, one word and this has an understanding in the artistic and commercial world. This nomenclature is restricted to certain forms of works of art such as painting, sculpture, printmaking, theatre and architecture.

    Notice how photography is not fine-art just by itself, but shows up when we actually produce prints. It is the actual output or visual art that becomes the fine art.

    I am not sure that displaying on an LCD screen would be considered fine art unless we specific the specific display to be used and have calibrated the quality output.

    Fine art is also being used to describe a level of quality and sophistication about one’s work. This is more of a marketing tool as there are no standards that apply to this term.

    For my own works both photography based and painting it is about creating visual presentations that will evoke emotive responses with a audience. Not that every person has to feel the same thing, but that the images I have destined to be fine art hopefully will convey a unique experience from viewing my works of art.

    With fine art photography I have no problem combing other image elements or vector work, or other digital media into my art work, provided that each element was whole created by me and my tools. I will never use pieces of other photography that were not taken by me.

    I will also wholly control the output process. If am not the printmaker then I have final say on output quality and if it doesn’t meet my standards thenit will never be released as a piece of art work.

    Niels Henriksen

  3. Norbert

    Fine art is a field in which the photographer makes the image. Those who just shoot to shoot really do not qualify to be called fine artist. As one who works extremely hard to create I can say that it is the insight and eye that creates the art. I may not come back with what I initially thought I was going to shoot but that is due to the change of the elements and this change also is the process of creating art.
    There are a few print publications that promote the fine arts where one can really see the difference in the concept of making art. One being Black and White and the other more effective one is Carrie Leigh’s Nude. Black and White exhibits more of a Ansel Adams style where the artist uses the existing setting and makes the best image while Carrie Leigh’s Nude utilizes the Edward Weston approach by working with photographers who manipulate the setting to make the best art. Either way to answer your question, I believe the fine art is to Make the Photo because making the photo is creating the art.

  4. Scott Ward

    I believe fine art encompasses two things…

    1. The photograph should be a “good” photograph. It should be well composed, sharp, evoke an emotional response, etc. This can also be very subjective and market-driven. If a photograph is technically perfect, but no one likes it, is it fine art? I agree with Neil when he said above “would I be happy to hang it on my wall.”

    2. The media makes a difference. If I am looking to invest in a fine art photograph, I don’t want one that will begin to show noticeable fading in 25 years. I want a print that will last a lifetime and beyond if possible. I believe that fine art is an investment that will raise in value over the years, but it will not if the actual print will not give it time to accrue value. I am not saying that all fine art will raise in value as the years go by (that is market-driven). What I am saying is that the media must give it a chance.

    A fine art photographer would be one, then, to create such works.

  5. dawn

    I think that this is completely subjective. It can range from photojournalistic photography to completely photoshopped photography that doesn’t even resemble photography anymore.

    However, it is going to be upscaled photography that definitely pays attention to the canons of photography: lighting, composition, focus, etc. It will be photography that is aesthetically pleasing (even if it means that it is hard to look at because the subject matter is controversial). It can be blurry or sharp, but that this quality works well with the composition and lighting. It can be dark or blown out, but again, this would work in conjunction with composition and focus.

    In the end, though, fine art is completely subjective. How many people say that they could do what Jackson Pollock did? But how many can really do it? How many considered it fine art at the time? How many do right now?

    If someone is willing to pay for the photography and they want it hanging on their walls, then they probably consider it fine art.

  6. My Camera World

    Some good comments:

    I unfortunately can’t support that fine art is subjective. The fact that you like a fine art piece or not is purely your opinion even though others may share this view.

    Fine art it what the artist creates. The longevity, investment potential or even if pleasing to the eye are additional attributes, but in no way define fine art.

    Museums, curators and galleries all have their definition of Fine Art and their purpose is to instil a higher value for works deemed to be fine art.

    The one definition which seems constant from all sources is that fine art is for beauty’s sake (the artist for sure, others?) and not for commercial purposes.

    Therefore I feel and photographer who decides to create works of art for his enjoyment or torment (some historical artists) with their camera can designate the photographs as fine art .

    The others who may designate a photograph as fine art all have commercial interests in the articles, such as art stores, galleries, museums etc and therefore they have a vested interest in the definition and may not be truly unbiased.

    Niels Henriksen

  7. Chica

    For me it’s simplicity with a punch. Something that when you look at it, you just know that it is something more. You cannot wrap my mind around it, your awed, and inspired at the same time. I rarely come across photos like these. There are many kinds of art photographs that I consider amazing, but rarely something I’d label “fine”.

    You inspired me to look through Wikipedia for the answer, and really there isn’t an answer. The most I got out of the small bit of research, is that fine art photography doesn’t tell a story you’d see on the news, and it won’t be in an ad somewhere for shoes, (hey that rhymes!) it is “primarily as an expression of the artist’s vision” As quoted there by Wikipedia.

    Who’s to say what fine art is? It can be generalized, but not defined. 🙂

  8. JS Nature Photos

    I tend to agree with Niels, in that Fine Art is the image (in this case) that the artist creates – art for beauty’s sake – and is completely separate from the media it is finally transferred to. It is a kind of dangerous definition, I suppose, to say that the artists designates his own work as fine art, but then I don’t know of any absolute metric that can be used.

    The “academic” art world certainly can’t be the arbiter of what is Fine Art, as they (like everyone) have their own agendas which they are promoting, as Neil describes in the first post.

    The situation that Neil describes is precisely the reason I have come to realize that I have no real appreciation for “Fine Art” as it is often defined. What I have an appreciation for is beauty, and I appreciate art only as it intersects with beauty.


  9. Chris Lohman

    It’s funny that this topic came up. Just the other day I posted a pic on a “Critique My Photo” blog for Fotki. The pic was my attempt at Fine Art Photography. The title of the post was simply “Fine Art?”. I received a wide variety of responses and not alot on my pic. Rather the debate was about what is “Fine Art” …??? One of the best post was the following:

    Fine art photography refers to photographs that are created to fulfill the creative vision of the artist. Fine art photography stands in contrast to photojournalism and commercial photography. Photojournalism provides visual support for stories, mainly in the print media. Commercial photography’s main focus is to sell a product or service.
    The final creative reason for a fine art photograph is the photograph itself. It is not a means to another end, except perhaps to please those besides the photographer who beholds it.
    Fine art photography is created primarily as an expression of the artist’s vision, but has also been important in advancing certain causes. The work of Ansel Adams’ in Yosemite and Yellowstone provides an example. Adams is one of the most widely recognized fine art photographers of the 20th century, and was an avid promoter of conservation. While his primary focus was on photography as art, his work raised public awareness of the beauty of the Sierra Nevada mountains and helped to build political support for their protection.

  10. Alessandro Rosa

    When I thought about your question of what fine art photography is, the word crafted came to mind. The dictionary definition for crafted (v.) helps explain my viewpoint: “To make or construct (something) in a manner suggesting great care or ingenuity.”

    So I would say that to be considered a fine art photograph, the image needs to be crafted by the artist, or to restate it I would say that my definition of a fine art photograph is an image that is made in a manner suggesting great care, ingenuity and skill.

    So subject, lighting, composition and idea are well thought out, display a mastery of the craft of photography and are executed to produce an image of superior quality. Unfortunately, I don’t think that there is anything that can really quantify what the quality is, it is one of those “I’ll know it when I see it things.” Such is art.

  11. Brian Auer Post author

    Wow… good golly! Lots of great answers and insights here. I’m going to have a hard time picking just a few for the article.

  12. Pixie

    I believe that fine art photography is less about product, and more about the artist’s vision- a commentary of sorts. Yes, the photographer needs skill, in lighting, composition, exposure etc. but not as much for the purpose of creating a “good” photograph but because to be an artist one must have the skill to effectively communicate one’s vision. Photography is about communication- Photojournalism is about communicating a story, an event, etc. Commercial/Advertising photography is about communicating a product or a service to consumers, and fine art photograph is about communicating an idea (generally the ideas or views of the artist).
    I have to completely disagree with those who say that it is about what sells- that may be essential in stock photography for example, but I believe that the artist that is solely producing work because it is what the consumer wants to see has lost sight of their own artistic vision (I’m not opposed to creating photography just because it sell- you have to pay the bills somehow- I just believe that that cannot be a defining factor in whether or not something is art).
    I also disagree that longevity or print type have anything to do with defining art. Look at the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who are instillation artists- their work by nature is temporary, finite, but that only adds to the artistic quality of their instillations.
    I also disagree that beauty is a defining factor in fine art- once again it is about vision, concept, and that concept may not always be beautiful. There are a number of fine artists whose work I would never choose to hang on my walls. John Baldassari and Nan Goldin both have work which (at least in subject) are not traditionally beautiful, and Fredrick Sommer has work that would be better described more repulsive than beautiful, yet these images are treasured as Fine Art Master Pieces.

  13. Harley Pebley

    I don’t have anything to add regarding the definition, but do have a recent conversation to relate that I thought was interesting. A friend and I were leaving an annual arts festival featuring local painters and sculptors; all sorts of styles and skill levels. One of these things where you pay a fee and you’re in. I commented on the lack of photographers and suggested it might be interesting for us to try to put something together for next year. I was told we wouldn’t be allowed since photography isn’t fine art.

  14. Pingback: Defining Fine Art Photography

  15. John Mullis

    You ask,
    What is fine art photography?
    You say you find photography in general to be a highly subjective topic.
    It is, and fine art photography is even more so.

    Selection and a mastery of that selection are always needed, at every step.
    The subject matter is as vast as the world is.
    A selection of something true is always good, and now you need to be able to capture it.

    The aproach to the subject matter is vast. Contrasts, reality, shades, variations, colors, lack of colors, lines, shapes, textures, feelings. Truth comes in many shades.

    I think that art should speak heart truths. It is hard to define art, but I define it as at least speaking some heart truth.

    Sometimes the equipment can limit the vision. Though these days a lack of vision is probably not due to a lack of equipment.

    Finishing up an image, in photography is important. The image means nothing without your heart meeting others. This means defining the output medium, and producing an image technically well, that will be received in a way that someone can be impacted by your heart truth.

    Hey, I am a software engineer in Silicon Valley, but I did get my first degree from the University of California at Santa Cruz, in Aesthetic Studies, Photography in the early 70’s. Hopefully this gives me some ability to speak about art truths.

    Selection: I have photographed everything, I am amazed at the amazing beauty in the worl d, and want to capture every moment of it.

    My current Selections: I have photographed many images of Nature, nudes and travel. These are images that are easy for me, and which give me an ability to express the truths in my heart.

    Equipment: I am lucky, equipment has not limited my vision. In the past I shot mainly medium format cameras, an amazing Bronica, a Hasselblad Super wide camera, doing fast stuff with a Canon F1, and a Canon D20 digital camera.

    My current Equipment: I have been moving to larger format cameras. I am shooting with a 4×5 and 8×10 Linhof, and a panoramic Linhof 6×17 camera. I have taken some amazing images with these cameras, but I am still a baby at knowing what is possible with them. That is photography, knowing and getting what you can from the equipment and the subject.

    Finishing: Is important. The final image is all that anyone sees. I spent many of years of my life thinking this was the most important step. I spent hours in the darkroom, and sometimes could turn images from poor to great. Hey over the years I have learned that it is easier to turn a great image into an amazing image in the darkroom, then it is to turn a poor image into great.

    Finishing more: I processed my own color photography images for a while. I loved them, hey many people loved them, some have prints I made in the early 70’s still hanging in their house. Mistake, I never new Color, and anyone who knows color knows, I do not know color. I do know Black and White. So I print in Silver and Plattinum and Palladium, the chemicals I know, so I know how to do magic with them to express my truth.

    What is Fine Art Photography. I think it is photographing truth, hopefully in some technically sane way. Making it from subject to a truth that stands.

    Select things that are true for you, and understand your selections completely, and you can be free to create. Know your subject, know your equipment, know your processing, know your intent.

    Just my thinking, John

  16. DaCosta

    To me it’s the photograph that makes one pause just for a moment and visually “touches” them; having a “one on one conversation” with the viewer. It gives the viewer pause and makes him/her stop a moment. Fine art photography makes you lose a moment in time and leaves an impression on your visual memory.

  17. oljuscha

    I just want to say I really appreciate John Mullis thoughts on the subject of what is fine art.
    For me too, great art is an artists purest expression of Beauty and Truth –

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