A while back I wrote a post “Fine Art Photography” to convey my thoughts on this elusive subject. Since its publication in March 2007, it has become by far the most read post on this site and still gets 30-50 hits every day. It is probably due to not much being written or said about the subject, or articles in plain language. Whatever the reason, the subject remains popular and thanks to all those who have visited that page. (Look around, there is more at KeptLight.com!)
Yesterday evening I got a chance to revisit the subject at a round table discussion at the Film Photographers Association. I get two invitations every year to facilitate conversation about various subjects, and yesterday’s topic was fine art photography. We started the conversation with the question: “what is art?” I would like to provide a summary of the evening as well as to wrap up some loose ends for the benefit of all of us. Also, please keep in mind that photographs do not necessarily fall into one exclusive category. Therefore, a journalistic photograph may only be that, a fashion photograph may remain in that domain, or they may cross into the art by conveying the intent of the photographer no matter how simple or complex it may be.
Art As Communication
Art being an effort to communicate through creative means is closely tied to the process of communication. If you have nothing to say, how can you communicate? That was the first observation following a brief discussion of art in general, one needs a message to convey. Just as one cannot write a story by saying “look, look, see, look, ….” the same applies to photography. The message need not be anything profound, it may simply be “the elegance of the lines formed by cracks on the road” or more elaborate “human intrusion into nature.” This is the nature of art. Sometimes it is a complex message, at other time it may simply share a moment interrupted and grabbed from the stream of life. Photography as art delights, moves, connects with the elements the photographer keeps in the frame. Just as the message of a novel is in the scribbles on the surface of the paper, the message of a photograph is presented the same way, scribbled on the surface of a paper. Read the photograph to enjoy it even more.
The intent is a fundamental element of art and it applies to photography as well. By that, I do not mean to say “I intend to take photographs” but more like “I intend to talk about the destruction of nature.” As Mike Zeiss pointed out, this may not be a predetermined and clearly articulated project concept until after a long passage of time and many photographs having been taken. As I suggested to Mike last night, although he did not see or articulate a formal project intent, his mental process pushed him to photograph similar and complementary subjects; an implied intent perhaps.
The choice the photographer makes, from the selection of the lens, vantage point, exposure and the like, to the arrangement of photographs in a sequence to enhance their communication power, are all integral parts of art making. Photography is an analytical form of art where the photographer makes choices of the above and presents us with a frame, or frames picked from the world. As the frames are picked, the photographer, consciously or subconsciously, considers what is in the frame as well as what is left out. What we include in the frame ends up being some marks on printed photograph, scratches on paper. The relationship among the elements within the frame is the result of the choices the photographer has made. Just as you have arranged your living room with a couch, tables, chairs, rugs, etc., the photographer arranges the lines, textures, shapes, forms, color in the frame in a manner that facilitates saying what the photographer has in mind. Often times this is called composition, but I prefer the term “structure” for we are not generally at liberty to move objects to compose a scene except in some settings.
Technique or Craft
The excellence in technique facilitates the communication the photographer is trying to achieve and, in my opinion, it should remain subservient to the photographer’s vision, intent. Look at a Gregory Crewdson photograph and notice how his lighting, exposure, the detail, camera position, etc. are just right. No sooner than you notice that, it will quickly disappear, fall back to the background and push his vision forward. A well-executed photograph generally looks great yet effortlessly done.
And the final point I mentioned to close the loop on fine art photography was the importance of the print. Unencumbered enjoyment of art is important of course, but a print achieves something more than that, especially in the world of digital photography. On the screen, in digital format, the image can be changed based on the reaction it receives: “Too bright? I can darken it.” “Not saturated enough? How’s that now?” But a print shows the full commitment of the photographer to a particular version of the image at that point in time. Can it change in the future? Of course! Only to be locked in on another print.
As the conversation went on we touched upon other matters, such as art becoming art when it is seen. The viewer is an integral part of the communication process inherent in art. But, what if the viewer “doesn’t get it?” Well, the enjoyment of the art requires an active and informed participation of the viewers to decode the message encoded into the photograph or photographs. In order to be able to do that, the viewer needs to learn the language of photography as much as the photographer. Reading photographs, using its inherent language can indeed be learned and the rewards are well worth the effort.
I also brought up the “artistic” concept and how some think altering photographs by smudging or applying textures may elevate the photograph to the domain of art. If the applied texture adds to or emphasizes the message or intent, by all means, use it. I may appreciate the irony in adding water texture to a photographic series of Flint, MI. But, I have a difficult time decoding the wood, stone, sand, or other similar textures applied to flower photographs, baby pictures, female portraits; sorry! And, don’t even touch that “Craptalius” plugin button. These do not make the photograph “artistic” nor are they “creative.” Here is an imaginary conversation between Van Gogh and Gauguin; see if you agree how silly it sounds in painting.
Although there were a few brief points when “meaning” and “narrative” were used in relation to photography, I believe we all came to the conclusion that these were assigned to photographs mainly by the viewer. When the photographer’s intent coincides with the understanding of it by the viewer, at that juncture there is commonness of our minds, there is communication. By all means, ask “what is this photograph about?” But also put the necessary effort to decipher the code and develop an understanding of it for it is as much about your enjoyment of what you see as it is of the photographer to put the things in the photograph.
What Exactly is “Fine”
The word “fine” is probably a contributor to the confusion about “fine art photography.” It does not refer to a “higher quality” or “refinement” in the execution but it is a way to put a distinction between “art created for aesthetic purposes” and “art created for practical purposes;” or fine arts and decorative, or applied arts. This distinction now seems to be confined to the museums and academe where it may serve some purpose. But in daily use, the distinction between “art” and “fine art” is probably refined semantics. If a work is created to convey the emotions of the artist, then we call it art; adding “fine” prefix does not make it better.
Is there photography after art? Of course, there is! But all photographers, at least on occasion, should try communicating their emotions, their intent rather than sticking with high-quality descriptive photography generally remaining on the craft side. As I mentioned earlier, learning the language of photography to apply it to your work is as rewarding as it is for the viewer to understand and enjoy it. After all, how many stories have you read that simply go “look, see, look, look, wow, look, ….?”
Here are some that may be fun to read. Note the structural similarities between André Kertesz’s Chez Mondrian and Walker Evans’ Alabama Farmers Kitchen. The Three Fish-Gourds by Weston is “composed,” and also structured in the print. Look how Chaplin casts a larger than life image on the screen behind him. Do you really need to know who the cellist is to imagine his music in the environment presented? Don’t you think the “adult in the room” is the monkey in Robert Doisneau’s photograph? Does he not try to convey a sense of life in Paris in his humorous way? Pay attention to the Un Regard Oblique, and the man “walking” his dog! All The Girls In The Window in Ormond Gigli’s photograph are contributing to immortalize a building a day before its razing, including a Rolls Royce! And more to read in this collection.
Enjoy! And let me know what you think and how you read some of these photographs.