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What Is Fine Art Photography?


Any definition of fine art photography is merely to serve as a loose working notion of what might differentiate certain photography as art.

From its very origins, photography has contained an unresolved tension between the mechanical, scientific tool of the camera and the natural desire to use it for the creation of beautiful images. Essentially, the term fine art photography is used to refer work created with such a desire in mind, to articulate an impression, a feeling about, or relationship with the world.

Galleries and museums, particularly those dedicated to modern art, have done much over the decades to ensure photography's spot amongst the other arts. But quite when, how and why it can be confidently categorised in this way remains an open, if fairly pointless, question.

I really don't think it's worth getting too exercised over the attempt to deliniate a mark between different categories of photography, and arrive at a fixed definition of fine art photography.


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Often people confuse what is the craft of photography with its artistic value. I have read many articles proposing that where a photographer is closely involved in the process of actually creating a physical image, leaving their mark at each stage - from selecting the exposure to adjusting tones in the darkroom - they can be more readily called an artist. The assumption being the more visible the photographer's hand, the less an image's value is attributable to a mechanical device.

But this seems to be fighting an uphill battle. You might as well paint over the photograph once it's developed or printed just to preserve its artistic integrity beyond any doubt! It's a view that led Pablo Picasso to remark:

Two of the most frustrated trades are dentists and photographers - dentists because they want to be doctors, and photographers because they want to be painters.


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What would be the danger were the entire skill involved in creating an image contained in the motion of the index finger as it depresses the shutter button? The concert pianist Ansel Adams had become rather more adept at using his fingers than this, when he decided to trade his musical career for a photographic one. Indeed, Adams keenly anticipated the arrival of 'electronic', digital photography, which has since become totally dominant and seen the time-consuming craft behind the photographic process recede further.

Just as photography has become more accessible and egalitarian - when even phones capture arresting images that can be whipped around the world's media in hours - photographs often seem to find their way into our general consciousness as iconic statements of the time, in a way that pickled sharks or geometric squares have failed to.

It's true that the physical qualities of a well produced photograph and the literal, non-artistic, accuracy with which a camera can document the world, are in themselves beautiful. But these things are not why some photos hang around.

Stretching all the technical possibilities of a camera to the limit, and mastering every detail of Photoshop doesn't in itself bring anyone a step closer to creating original art. But, a fantastically skilled painter or sculptor is no more capable of producing work that moves on the strength of their craftsmanship alone.

Andy Warhol remarked:

Photographers feel guilty that all they do for a living is press a button.

But rather than feel guilty about it, the best photographers embrace the fact that it all happens in an instant, attaching little importance to anything beyond that split second.

Actually, I'm not all that interested in the subject of photography. Once the picture is in the box, I'm not all that interested in what happens next. Hunters, after all, aren't cooks. Henri Cartier Bresson

It's far better to express something pertinent and meaningful that takes no time to create, than labour over something vacuous. Any art that a photograph might claim is contained in the pre-existing vision, or disposition of the photographer.

This is apparent, for instance, in the landscape photography of someone like Charlie Waite or Ansel Adams. There is such a precise selectiveness in capturing somewhere at just the moment when the natural elements combine in revealing a place full of colours, lights and contrasts as to match and articulate what can only be the photographer's internally developed impression.

The same is true for the meticulously constructed photography of Annie Leibovitz, where models, props and lighting are used to project the photographer's vision on to an image. Henri Cartier Bresson's spontaneously seized pictures exhibit both an innate sense of compositional balance and his own unique sensitivity to the essence of events as they constantly unfold in fleeting instances. photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude. Susan Sontag

A photograph is not an accident - it is a concept. Ansel Adams

Photography is nothing - it's life that interests me.Henri Cartier-Bresson

I have always been very interested in photography. I have looked at far more photographs than I have paintings. Because their reality is stronger than reality itself. Francis Bacon

So a definition of fine art photography might construe it as the art of seeing. This could seem a little contradictory, almost the sort of phrase that would be used to describe appreciation of art, not the creation of it. Particularly coupled with the inability for any vagary or abstraction when using a camera, does this limit photography to didactic statements of observation, 'look at what I've seen!', precluding all artistic subtlety and suggestion?

The painter constructs, the photographer discloses.Susan Sontag

I hate cameras. They are so much more sure than I am about everything. John Steinbeck

Well, I don't think so. Selecting what to disclose of life perhaps implies a lighter touch than constructing an alternative reality entirely. Photographers have to work hard at developing an aesthetic eloquence through the use of light, tone, composition and contrast, but are accountable in terms of subject matter to the real world around them, with all its ambiguities. That's not to say photographs cannot be very self-evident or one dimensional, but they can also often be full of tension and challenging.

I trust pictures, but no pictures made in my world - because I know what goes on. Naomi Campbell

In the end, photography belongs somewhere amongst all of the mediums that are available to us as tools for inquiry, documentation and creative expression. The fact that we often respond to it as art, but also hesitate in defining it as such, only deepens its value as a cultural phenomenon capable of posing questions. Photos just are what they are, and who really cares about some definition of fine art photography?

Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Susan Sontag

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Here's a quick review of Susan Sontag's 'On Photography', which I thoroughly recommend for anyone thinking about the theory of photography and the definition of fine art photography.

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