(After reading this article, you may want to read a follow-up post I wrote.)
(On September 12, 2017, Martin Bailey wrote an article agreeing, disagreeing with various points on this article, and expanding the discussion of fine art photography. Thanks.)
Photography is a democratic medium, everyone can take photographs. They may not be great photographs but the process of taking pictures has become exceedingly easy. This is both good and bad.
It is good because it allows anyone with a creative mind to express her or his ideas without being bogged down with technique, like learning how to paint. This will present a great opportunity to those creative individuals. On the other hand, everyone snapping another picture, to clutter the closet, or more recently, the computer storage takes a little wind out of the photographic sail. This apparent ease of making pictures erroneously creates the impression that photographic art is easy. Quite the contrary.
So, what makes a photograph a “fine art photograph?” This is not an easy question to answer. Many have tried to explain it in a roundabout way, a road that may be wise to follow. I would like to suggest some attributes that put a photograph in the domain of fine art. Before presenting my ideas I should point out that they will reflect my biases, so please take them for what they are: an attempt to understand the concept of fine art photography and make you, the reader, think about these matters consciously. Upon evaluating my position you may decide that this is nonsense, which is perfectly fine. The challenge then is for you to think about a way of describing the phenomenon. I would love to hear your thoughts.
First, and foremost, a fine art photograph begins with a message, an idea. With this, I do not mean a social commentary, something extraordinarily profound, but a meaning encoded into the photograph is essential. Many people have ideas, many people can produce photographs, those who can bring these attributes together produce memorable fine art photographs.
The next thing I look for is intentionality. By this, I mean the intentional execution of the photograph should come across with reasonable force. The choices (see next) the photographer has made will be clearly visible in the photograph and be so consistently. This separates the accidental snapshots from artistic expressions, at least that’s the way I see it.
Note added on 12/05/2007. After discussing these ideas with friends, I believe further explanation of “intention” is necessary. I use the term here in a limited sense which does not include “I intend to shoot a photograph” usage. I used the word to express the opposite of “accidental” with a clear implication of “repeatability”. In other words, the body of work needs to show that the photographer can, and has achieved results consistent with the intention. If it were accidental, this level of consistency would likely lack. To illustrate this point during a conversation, I used Garry Winogrand and how his style came through in even seemingly random shots. One can also think of Walker Evans and his subway series as an example. The frame, which is part of the choices he or she makes, is not the sole indicator of this consistency. I directly refer to the non-accidental nature that I seek in the body of work. In Evans’ subway series, the framing is done without looking through the viewfinder of the camera as it was hidden. However, his intention of showing people as they were, without being aware of being photographed comes loud and clear in the photographs and his style evident in them.
“Choice” is the third element that brings a photograph closer to the fine art domain.It conveys the choices the photographer has made, not only in choosing the elements in the structure of the photograph but also choosing a particular frame from among several or even many. Of course, the way it is presented is part of this dimension as well as the appearance of the photograph, printed-down, high key, low or high saturation, film choice, and so on. These are the result of the photographer making a series of choices, which should all be intentionally presented. This also forces the photographer to commit to the way the photograph will be presented.
Note added on 12/05/2007. The first choice the photographer makes is probably at the idea level. From among many, he or she chooses one. Then in executing the idea, the photographer makes a choice from among an infinite number of frames and placement of elements. These may drive the choices that follow in the size and type of print, toning, etc.
Technique, or Craft
The fourth characteristic I look for is technical excellence. If the photographer wanted to make the image look faded, distressed, torn, or otherwise manipulated, I consider the proper execution of these as part of technical excellence.
Note added on 12/05/2007. I would like to emphasize my main point as the method and tools used to encode a message into the photograph. As such, these tools and methods should be subservient to the image rather than dominating it.
Unencumbered enjoyment of the art is important to me, without requiring gear set up to enjoy the art. So, I favor prints for fine art photography. A print also shows the choice the photographer has made more strongly than a slide or a digital photograph on a monitor. Now, this will go against those who enjoy a good slide presentation, either simply going from one to the next or a more elaborate one with effects and music. I will enjoy a presentation like that too, but for me, the process of setting up the gear to enjoy the art removes some of the critical choices I mentioned above, a sign of commitment to the idea and its execution. If a slide does not generate the desired response, keep changing it until it does, which is not an artistic choice but more or less a reactionary process. I appreciate the “installations” that museums have where photography may be a part. To me, the “installation” is the art, and photography is on the periphery. Further, the “show” becomes art, if it does that, which is distinctly different from looking at a single fine art print. (I told you I would show my biases!)
One last thing I would like to mention, I don’t need to like a fine art photograph. Liking does not make it fine art, its content does. But I fully appreciate the work displayed presenting the choices the photographer has made. After all, this is her or his message.
Note added on 12/05/2007. I would like to expand on the idea of content as the message encoded in the subject. I am intentionally separating here “subject” from “content”. To me, subject refers to the object depicted in the photograph. It may be a few fresh fruit or a few prunes. What they stand for is what I call the “content”. This is a separation that helps me understand the structure of a photograph and it may very well not be a proper way of looking at photographs. As I learn more, I may add more notes.