What is Fine Art Photography Exactly?
Every so often a discussion appears, on on a prominent website somewhere, asking for people to comment on what they consider to be fine art photography and/or fine art photographers. The latest one that I have come across is on Linkedin. (Unfortunately it is within a locked group so there is no point linking to it). Right off the top I want to say that I have never and never will refer to myself as a fine art photographer. The words hold no meaning for me and what follows is an attempt to explain why.
Fine Art? – That depends upon the artist’s intent.
As I’ve mentioned on more than one occasion I came to photography via other, more established, visual arts such as painting and drawing. Within these disciplines the term fine art has a very specific meaning that has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of work produced. It means, simply art that has no purpose other than being art – art that is its own reason for existing. In other words it is art that is not intended to sell something, i.e. commercial or to decorate something or to do anything else other then be looked at.
One thing the term fine art most definitely is not is a measure of quality. It is instead related to of the intent of the artist. To qualify, the intent would have to be to produce something that has no specific purpose outside of itself. Of course the piece produced may be put up for sale and could even make the artist a bucket-load of cash but this is very different than the production of a piece of commercial art, say as part of an advertising campaign for example, where there is a specific function in mind from the outset.
Many photographers get very confused when it comes to modern art in general and conceptual art in particular. For some reason they cannot understand that, by the above definition, a shark in formaldehyde or an unmade bed are every bit as much fine art as is the Mona Lisa. I believe that this confusion comes about due to the conflating of the term fine art and a certain style of very technical representational painting.
This happens due to the relative newness of photography as an art form and the relatively recent acceptance of photography as equal to the other visual arts. Personally I would like to see photography adopting common language and usage of terms with the other visual arts – this would stop a lot of confusion and allow photographers to communicate much more effectively with both the public at large and perhaps more importantly, other photographers.
Many photographers refer to themselves as fine art photographers and I can see a few reasons for this – one being marketing and another being a a lack of understanding of the term fine art. I do not take issue with the former as much greater wrongs are committed in the name of marketing. I do, however, think that such a marketing strategy could well prove counterproductive as at says little and is easily shown up for the empty thing that it is.
The second reason, the lack of understanding is more troubling. I presume photographers use the term to imply that their work has reached a certain level of quality – that they are above the common herd. My question to them, notwithstanding the fact that the designation fine art is not a qualitative but rather a functional one, is where is the bar set and who sets it? Do you have to win a certain number of awards or does the recognition come in other forms ? Complimentary terms preceding a profession usually come across as a bit hokey to my mind.
Better in my opinion to just call oneself a photographer preceded by specialty be it abstract, macro, lansdcape, portrait, studio, wedding or any one of a hundred others but please leave the fine art thing alone. If you really need to use the term save it for personal projects as, by definition, it cannot be used for commercial work. It is worth bearing in mind that the vast majority of painters prefer the simple designation painter even to artist let alone fine artist!
By way of a final thought I would like to emphasize that there is stunning work being done in all genres and the fact that it is not technically fine art does not detract from it one iota. Across the visual arts much of the best work is done to serve a non-arts based purpose – one only has to look at the quality of a lot of advertising imagery to see this. I also think that there is plenty of mediocre work being put out that does qualify as fine art by the definition given. It really is not a quality thing.
An interesting discussion about this post can be found here