This section is going to look like the other two About sections with short summary blocks and thumbnails as the accordion thing just doesn't work as it should for long pages. The basic content here is rough and will change and expand as the intro blocks get done and visuals are added.
For me, the simplest and shortest answer is this:
A fine art photograph is a work that originates in a camera and is intended for permanent display. Of course to succeed as a fine art photograph, someone must also want to display it.
The accomplished landscape photographer, Alain Briot, has written an excellent book, “Marketing Fine Art Photography,” and in it he offers a much more in-depth answer listing numerous creative and technical criteria that define fine art photography. On the creative side, he starts with the view that it is first about the artist, then about the subject and last about technique. I agree these are the core essentials. He also argues that the fine art photographer must think of him- or herself as an artist. This has always been a little tricky for me because I feel it’s really up to others to decide if I’m an artist or just a competent craftsman. The main thing is to keep doing the work, to learn from trial and error and feedback from others, as well as the work of other photographers. If you create images that are interesting to yourself (very important to me) and to others, and if you present them using long-lasting (archival) materials in a way that looks “finished,” then I think you’ve achieved a measure of success.
Briot’s next most-important point is that the artist must control the creative process and the final outcome. I think this is absolutely true in the sense that good photographs are the result of intention and the countless decisions that go into the finished image. Early in my photography career (college years) I hatched the idea that “the things that make a good photograph great are the things you never notice.” The idea is that all the decisions a photographic artist makes about composition, cropping, tonal and color adjustments, etc., just leave the viewer with a feeling of “huh” or “wow” without calling attention to themselves. The image makes an emotional and/or intellectual connection with the viewer that is moving in one way or another.
Briot raises a number of other good points like the difference between images that are purely documentary versus those that are interpretive or impressionistic, as well as the importance of emotional content, sophisticated composition and the power of visual metaphor. These are certainly good things for any artist to be thinking about during the creative process, but I’m not convinced they’re boxes that must be checked on the way to creating a fine art photograph. Whether great, good or not so good, all images speak for themselves and it’s up to the viewer to judge what an image has to say.
For more about Alain Briot and his work visit www.beautiful-landscape.com.
Some people think photography, especially digital photography, is a less-worthy art form than, say, painting. Both are used to create two-dimensional images, albeit with decidedly different materials and techniques. A survey of painting since the Renaissance will show an enormous range of subjects and styles. This isn’t surprising since the works of Botticelli and Picasso were separated by 450 years. Are they different? Yes. Do they both qualify as art? Absolutely.
But photography has been around for less than 200 years, and has been most widely used as a way of literally documenting people, places and events. Early cameras and darkroom techniques made it difficult to do much else. But today the tools available to photographers are powerful indeed, and creative boundaries continue to expand exponentially. Major contemporary art galleries around the world regularly feature photographic artists and collections with an amazing array of subjects and styles.
My view is that painters freely create whatever reality they conceive and have the skills to render in a way that’s pleasing to others. Photographers begin with a captured image (staged or encountered, via film or digital sensor) and proceed to “develop” the image using tools appropriate to the method of capture. Ansel Adams (like so many others) was very skilled in the field, hauling his large cameras and glass plates to amazing vantage points and waiting for the perfect light. But his creative mastery was in the darkroom, as a printer, where he painted with light and manipulated chemistry to create images that matched his vision. Adams himself likened the negative to a composer’s score and the print to its performance. Creating successful prints in the digital realm involves exactly the same process but with different tools. We are still painting with light.
A number of excellent photographers still work with film and a few of them argue that their work is more valid or creatively authentic than anything created with digital techniques. One claimed that his images were more expressive because the film itself was physically “present” at the moment the shutter was snapped. Others think say that film is able to capture nuance and atmosphere more accurately than a good digital sensor. I think much of this is self-serving hype. While there are very real differences in terms of technique, a comparison of the image rendering capability (tonal range, color and resolution) of a frame of 35mm negative film and a like-sized full frame digital sensor will show that digital is as good and, by some measures, better. It’s also interesting that many film photographers now use digital printing techniques, so their film captures are scanned to digital files for finishing and printing. If you want to read more about this very technical subject, here’s a good Wikipedia article.
As digital photography has grown in popularity, so, too, has confusion about the tools involved and their proper use.
I recently read a post by a print seller talking about how he/she doesn't believe in "manipulating" the images that come out of the camera. Other photographers go out of their way to assure (a little defensively) that they “limit” image adjustments to basic tone and color corrections. Some go so far as to avoid cropping altogether. Anyway, the idea is that downstream editing somehow detracts from an image’s creative value. I think this is nonsense. At a recent gallery opening (my work), a woman asked if I "manipulated" my images before printing. I explained that I did lots of things to focus composition, adjust color and tone, and otherwise "finish" the image in a way that I felt was right according to the image and what I was hoping to say convey with it. I went on to explain that this idea of "finishing" is not at all new, that many of the greatest photographers (like Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and W. Eugene Smith for example) were not just good with cameras and capturing remarkable subjects, but were also master printers who used elaborate darkroom techniques to render images according to their vision.
Much of the hoopla about image manipulation has come from the world of journalism where people have a legitimate expectation that photographs are real, that they “tell the truth.” We’ve all read about "doctored" photographs where the changes have been made for the purpose of misleading or misrepresenting. But I don’t think this is what creative photographers are doing at all. What goes on in the digital darkroom really isn't any different (tools and techniques, yes, creative intent, no) than what great photographers have been doing for a long time. And speaking of editing, if a plein air painter is rendering a lovely landscape that happens to have a microwave tower in the background, is it wrong to not paint it in? I don’t think so.
Here is a great example of how digital techniques and terminology can become so misunderstood and confused that they take on a life of their own. In a nutshell, the term was coined by Jack Duganne, a printmaker at Nash Editions (as in Graham Nash of music fame), a true pioneer in the realm of fine art digital printing. The story goes that they were looking for a way to describe their then-revolutionary printing process without using words like “digital” or “inkjet” or “computer generated.” The result was giclée, which is based on gicleur, the word for “nozzle.” The related verb form is gicler, “to squirt.”
Some people seem to think that giclée refers to some esoteric process, but it’s really just another way of saying “good-quality inkjet.” And today’s professional-grade printers coupled with archival pigment inks, are nothing short of miraculous in terms of their potential image quality.
Here are links if you care to read more about Nash Editions and the giclée story.