Sunday, January 17, 2016

Fine Art Photography — A Personal View (Part 1)

Preliminaries

The problem with any combination of words including the term "Art" is that its meaning is...well, let's call it "flexible". Extremely flexible. Of the many words in our language, few provide as much scope for use—and abuse—as "Art". ("Love" beats it; at least one would think so.)

Add to "Art" the attribute "fine" and, while you're apparently restricting the scope of the word, you're actually opening another can of terminological worms. And if you apply that to photography, which by many is definitely not considered an art form—and even less so today when everybody has a damn smartphone and can call themselves a photographer...well, you can see where that leads.

So, what then is the scope of the combination of the three terms "Fine Art Photography"?

Wikipedia, despite is general flakiness and limitations, provides a good first step into the quagmire. To save you looking up the link, I here shamelessly quote some extracts:

Fine art photography is photography created in accordance with the vision of the artist as photographer. Fine art photography stands in contrast to representational photography, such as photojournalism, which provides a documentary visual account of specific subjects and events, literally re-presenting objective reality rather than the subjective intent of the photographer; and commercial photography, the primary focus of which is to advertise products or services.

In reference books

Among the definitions that can be found in reference books are:

  • "Art photography": "Photography that is done as a fine art -- that is, done to express the artist's perceptions and emotions and to share them with others".[2]
  • "Fine art photography": "A picture that is produced for sale or display rather than one that is produced in response to a commercial commission".[3]
  • "Fine art photography": "The production of images to fulfill the creative vision of a photographer. ... Synonymous with art photography".[4]
  • "Art photography": A definition "is elusive," but "when photographers refer to it, they have in mind the photographs seen in magazines such as American Photo, Popular Photography, and Print, and in salons and exhibitions. Art (or artful) photography is salable.".[5]
  • "Artistic photography": "A frequently used but somewhat vague term. The idea underlying it is that the producer of a given picture has aimed at something more than a merely realistic rendering of the subject, and has attempted to convey a personal impression".[6]
  • "Fine art photography": Also called "decor photography," "photo decor," or "wall decor," this "involves selling large photos... that can be used as wall art".[5]

In scholarly articles

Among the definitions that can be found in scholarly articles are:

  • In 1961, Dr S. D.Jouhar founded the Photographic Fine Art Association, and he was its Chairman. Their definition of Fine Art was “Creating images that evoke emotion by a photographic process in which one's mind and imagination are freely but competently exercised.
  • Two studies by Christopherson in 1974 defined "fine art photographers" as "those persons who create and distribute photographs specifically as 'art.'"
  • A 1986 ethnographic and historical study by Schwartz did not directly define "fine art photography" but did compare it with "camera club photography". It found that fine art photography "is tied to other media" such as painting; "responds to its own history and traditions" (as opposed to "aspir[ing] to the same achievements made by their predecessors"); "has its own vocabulary"; "conveys ideas" (e.g., "concern with form supersedes concern with subject matter"); "is innovative"; "is personal"; "is a lifestyle"; and "participates in the world of commerce."

On the World Wide Web

Among the definitions that can be found on the World Wide Web are:

  • The Library of Congress Subject Headings use "art photography" as "photography of art," and "artistic photography" (i.e., "Photography, artistic") as "photography as a fine art, including aesthetic theory".
  • The Art & Architecture Thesaurus states that "fine art photography" (preferred term) or "art photography" or "artistic photography" is "the movement in England and the United States, from around 1890 into the early 20th century, which promoted various aesthetic approaches. Historically, has sometimes been applied to any photography whose intention is aesthetic, as distinguished from scientific, commercial, or journalistic; for this meaning, use 'photography'".
  • Definitions of "fine art photography" on photographers' static Web pages vary from "the subset of fine art that is created with a camera" to "limited-reproduction photography, using materials and techniques that will outlive the artist".
A mixed bag, as was to be expected, and one may wonder why I bother to write about it at all. The question "What could I possibly add to everything that's already been said/written?"

This, of course, brings us to...

Why am I writing this?

Ultimately the motivation is mercenary. I have taken many, many many photos during my life, and I'm thinking "Which of those is 'Fine Art'?" After all, many fall within the scope of the classifications/definition listed above. And the next question then is "What to do with them?" And there will be other question, to be discussed in Part 2 of this blog post.

But the readers of this are likely to be visual people, and so, to provide something else than words here, let's look at some of the stuff that's provided under the label "Fine Art Photography". And, yes, there will be some naked or near naked people in here as well!

Examples...

... of the kinds of definitions/categories listed above. When images are hot-linked to sites, the URL will be included. If I can't hotlink, I'll still supply a URL for the source.

I randomly picked examples from the web that appeared to align with the definitions.

Note: Copyright to all images belongs to the current legally recognized owners of the images. Use of these images is purely for illustrative purposes.


"Art photography": "Photography that is done as a fine art -- that is, done to express the artist's perceptions and emotions and to share them with others".

Since I mention Ansel Adams below, I won't do so here. Instead I'm going to go into tread-carefully territory, namely nudes. That was prompted by the turn of phrase "artist's perceptions and emotions and to share them with others". With few exceptions—at least in the 'Fine Arts' domain—I think you can't really get much close to your own perceptions and emotion than when you're dealing with anything sexual. 

Way I see it, all nude photography is sexual, though just which aspect of sexuality is being addressed differs from case to case—starting with the emotions of the photographer and ending with the effect on, or communicated emotions to, the viewer. The border between Fine Art Nudes and Soft Porn is hazy and depends very much on those emotions and effect; whether intended or not. 

A cross-section of Fine Art Nudes can be found here (chosen by a male). And here's an interesting 500px blog by a female photographer. 

The source of the image below—definitely keeping it firmly in the 'Fine Arts' section—has an interesting comment on the copyright owner's take on the subject: "What is considered fine art nude photography? For me, it’s the way the model is posed and lit using studio lights and the way the final images are retouched and presented to the viewer."

Good point, though it completely avoids, maybe deliberately, anything having to do with the definition over this section. Is this another way of looking at it maybe? Deliberate clinical detachment from the sexual aspect and making it all about light and shadow and technique? 



"Art photography": A definition "is elusive," but "when photographers refer to it, they have in mind the photographs seen in magazines such as American Photo, Popular Photography, and Print, and in salons and exhibitions. Art (or artful) photography is salable."



"Artistic photography": "A frequently used but somewhat vague term. The idea underlying it is that the producer of a given picture has aimed at something more than a merely realistic rendering of the subject, and has attempted to convey a personal impression". 

I think it probably applies best to anything 'portrait', mainly because if you don't aim for more than a realistic render of the subject, you've failed.

 © Brian Smith 


"Fine art photography": "A picture that is produced for sale or display rather than one that is produced in response to a commercial commission". 

This is bogus. One can produce 'fine art' even though it's been commercially commissioned. In fact, the production of commissioned fine art is a tradition we can trace back for literally thousands of years. Photography just follows in the steps of that tradition. 

You can also create 'fine art' without aiming for sale or display—though one may argue that all 'art' ultimately must be destined for the world outside the artist's immediate universe. Without it, what could be its purpose, except navel-gazing contemplation of oneself by oneself and for oneself? But that's a completely different issue, beyond the scope of this brief article.



"Fine art photography": "The production of images to fulfill the creative vision of a photographer".

I'm going to go traditional here and stick to Ansel Adams, who once said or wrote: "A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed." and "Art implies control of reality, for reality itself possesses no sense of the aesthetic. Photography becomes an art when certain controls are applied."



"Fine art photography": Also called "decor photography," "photo decor," or "wall decor," this "involves selling large photos... that can be used as wall art".

These really aren't my cup of tea. The term 'decor' makes me shudder. They invariably distinguish themselves by oversaturation, and border on, or step well into, eye-sore inducing color-porn. But there's obviously a market for them, and some of their producers have received significant awards, and a making a very good living out of them. More about that in Part 2.

BTW, I kind-of apologize for coming down so hard on this, but it's one form of so-called 'art' that makes me look away almost immediately. Images of that kind are almost always panoramas, and while there's absolutely nothing wrong with panos per se—I do a lot of them myself!—there are ways of using that technique that don't end up as OMG!–Really? 'Art'.



Having vented my feeling about some of this stuff, I should add that not all of this 'art' is terrible or outright kitsch. If you look here, you'll find some better quality product, even though I am at a loss to explain how some of the images being flogged there can possibly fetch the prices they're asking for them. I may have more to say about this in Part 2 of this blog.


"fine art photography" (preferred term) or "art photography" or "artistic photography": "the movement in England and the United States, from around 1890 into the early 20th century, which promoted various aesthetic approaches. Historically, has sometimes been applied to any photography whose intention is aesthetic, as distinguished from scientific, commercial, or journalistic; for this meaning, use 'photography'"



"Fine Art": “Creating images that evoke emotion by a photographic process in which one's mind and imagination are freely but competently exercised."

We have to distinguish here between 'emotive' and 'aesthetic' exercise of the mind and imagination. The two aren't necessarily identical or connected.

The nude above is probably more of an exercise in the 'aesthetic'. One can appreciate the light and shadows and how they play with the human form, but I think 'emotion' is not really the aim here. And that's perfectly OK. The stimulation provided by the exercise of the 'aesthetic' has its own rewards. But at least nudge on 'emotion' maybe we need a bit more.

So, here's another nude; still on the 'Fine Arts' side I think, but moving away from 'aesthetic' territory a bit—and, in the eyes of some, arguably thereby enriched. It certainly still plays with light and shadow, but adds a certain...well, let me call it "form factor", which is absent in the example above.


About Part 2

After this rather extensive preamble, Part 2 will have more to say how all of this actually affects me and my plans for Owlglass Photo. I suspect that some of the questions and issues I have to deal with, in the commercial and creative realms alike, will be shared by enough others to be of potential interest.

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