Fine art is an enigmatic concept, especially in photography. To me, fine art photography is photography that embraces expression, contemplation, and beauty. It is photography that is meticulously printed, and that when displayed, can create moments of awe, or cause a viewer to ponder the intention of the artist. Here, I want to take a moment to sketch out what I believe to be the essential characteristics of fine art photography.
I’ve heard of photography being described as a “democratic medium” in which everyone can participate. This is a captivating concept. Anyone can have a camera, and everyone can be a photographer of some sort. This is empowering – it allows photography to be a communicative form, an expressive form, and so much more.
But the democracy of photography is also an instant challenge to the entire concept of fine art. If photography is democratic, isn’t then fine art anything enough people say it is? Perhaps. But echoing many other photographers, I believe that fine art photography is something created to embrace expression, contemplation, and beauty. Fine art photography has other qualities:
Vision. In his written work, Ansel Adams frequently emphasized the idea of “pre-visualization” of photographs – a task for the photographer to observe their subject and visualize how it will be portrayed. This act of contemplation is essential in fine art photography. It’s also what creates a divide between the “easy” democracy of photography and a contemplative, fine art process.
Message. Like A. Cemal Ekin, I think that a fine art photograph is incomplete or unfinished without a message to guide its creation and interpretation. This message needn’t be a manifesto for social change, but there should be something that explains why the photo was made and why it should be regarded. There is a degree of intentionality to making a photography with a message, to visualizing how this message will be portrayed, that makes fine art photography different from snapshot or accidental photography. When combined, message and vision in fine art photography also act as a differentiator from the representational nature of photojournalism. It’s a fine dividing line, but I believe it’s there.
Style and technique. To me, another characteristic that makes fine art photography different from other uses of the medium is the artist’s style and technique. While I don’t intend to mean perfect technique from a defined “correct and proper” standpoint as intentionally misusing shutter speed, focus, and other technical details can in and of itself become a style, that there is a conscious engagement of the photographer with his or her technical skills is essential. Photographers develop a visual language of their own – and this is an element of their style. Engaging this in concert with vision and message is something that sets fine art apart from other kinds of photography.
Printing and presentation. Fine art photography is also essentially photography that has been made to be displayed. It could be displayed on an iPhone, on an Instagram account, or printed on silver gelatin paper, mounted, and framed on a wall. But fine art photography has been made to be shared, seen, and engaged with. The care and contemplation taken in making a photograph is also present in printing and presenting a photograph – and can be taken in radically different directions with a photographer’s style and technique.
My definition of fine art photography is above. It’s biased, and it’s perhaps completely wrong. It is, however, my approach to the work I do. I’m pleased to take time and effort and make photos that tell stories that touch you, move you, and make you think.