12 Sep 2017 What Makes a Photograph or Print Fine Art? (Podcast 589)
Today I’m going to share my thoughts on what makes a photograph or a print “fine art”. This is something that I’ve seen various takes on, and frankly, nothing I’ve read over the years really resonates with me personally, for reasons that I’ll explain.
The impetus for today’s episode comes from a comment on my recent post about The Balance Between Healthy Learning and Analysis Paralysis. Listener and workshop participant Glady Klip asked the following question.
Nowadays you see so often the term ‘fine art photography’ and ‘fine art printing’. I was wondering what exactly is the definition of ‘fine art’ in photography and when do you call work fine art and where is the line of entering fine art photography? Do you call your work fine art? I was just wondering if you have any thoughts on this subject.
Thanks for the question Gladys. I’ve been thinking of tackling this subject for some time, as it’s something that comes up in conversation, but to be totally honest, the thought of talking about this has been a somewhat scary prospect. I’m not the artsy-fartsy type, and I don’t have a solid foundation in art history from which to pull a plethora of facts and fancy words, but as a photographer trying my best to make art that means something to me and hopefully also to other people, I do have thoughts and opinions on this subject, so I’m going to overcome that bit of anxiety that I’m feeling, and get this out.
My goal with this post is not to tell you exactly what fine art photography is. If your thoughts differ, please share them in the comments section, and we can discuss our ideas to hopefully all become more comfortable with this subject.
Before we jump into the main topic, I wanted to just answer the question, if I call my work fine art? The answer is, it depends on the work. I don’t generally consider myself a fine art photographer per se, but I believe that some of my work is of a standard that could be considered fine art, by at least some people, but as we’ll see, I also think this is a very subjective decision.
What is Fine Art
To start with, let’s think about Fine Art in general. According to Wikipedia, Fine Art is art developed primarily for aesthetics or beauty, distinguishing it from applied art that also has to serve some practical function, such as pottery or most metal work. Right away, having been deeply moved by some of the pottery that I’ve come across here in Japan, I find that statement somewhat repulsive.
The article about Fine Art on Wikipedia goes on to mention that in addition to the main fine arts of painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and poetry, today the fine arts also include film, photography, video production and editing, design, sequential art, conceptual art (as in conceptualism) and printmaking.
It’s tempting to include more lengthy quotes from Wikipedia, but rather than doing that, do check out their post on Fine Art for yourself. I’ll summarize some of the key points to form a basis for some of my own thoughts as we progress. The article goes on to say that fine art is a visual art considered to have been created primarily for aesthetic and intellectual purposes and judged for its beauty and meaningfulness and that the perception of aesthetic qualities of a piece of art requires a refined judgment that is usually referred to as having good taste.
“Fine Art” by Taste
I consider myself to have relatively good taste, but I am also a practical person. When I view a set of images I’m going to have a different opinion to others and may consider something that other’s might categories as fine art as total tat. Conversely, I might consider something that others don’t give a second glance fine art, and I’d be perfectly OK with that because, by its very nature, the designation of a piece as “fine art” is totally subjective.
Now, one could argue that my tastes are not refined enough to make that decision, but that idea riles me too. If we go back to the beginning of the definition of Fine Art, one of the key elements is that it is art developed primarily for aesthetics or beauty, and we all know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What we find aesthetically pleasing or beautiful depends very much on each individual.
Attempts to Categorize
If you do a search on the web for “What makes a photograph fine art?” one of the top hits will be a ten-year-old post from photographer Cemal Ekin, in which Ekin attempts to put some structure around the attributes a photograph might display to be classified as fine art photography.
I believe Ekin’s post and subsequent follow-up post are important contributions to this conversation and as far as I’ve been able to find, there have been few other original attempts to put any structure around what makes a photograph fine art, so hat’s off to Mr. Ekin for this.
I’m not going to regurgitate the post directly because I’m not into plagiarism, so please visit the original post if you are interested. What I would like to do though is give my opinion on some of the key aspects mentioned. The categorization starts with the statement “First, and foremost, a fine art photograph begins with a message, an idea.” While I agree that some fine art will contain a message of sorts or an idea, I can’t fully agree with this statement for two reasons.
Evocation Over Message
First of all, for some time now I’ve struggled with the popular idea that for a photograph to be successful it has to carry a message or an idea. For sure, some images will have a strong message, and that definitely contributes to their success, but I don’t think that has anything to do with whether or not they could be considered fine art.
Indeed, I can recall many still life photos that I would consider to be fine art but they do not contain any obvious message. An example from my own work might be this photograph of a dahlia that I shot in a park three years ago, and I fell totally in love with after getting home and processing it into the photograph below. I consider this to be fine art, but there is no message to be seen.
What I would propose is that it is much more important for an image to evoke some kind of constructive emotion. By constructive emotion, I’m talking about happiness, awe, love, optimism, serenity, and admiration etc. but in addition to these, sadness, grief, apprehension or perhaps even fear could still be considered constructive if they help me to understand a cause or feel empathetic towards some one or some thing.
Emotions that I think would stop me from being able to consider a photograph as fine art are annoyance, disgust, loathing, and terror. I don’t consider these emotions to be constructive, and therefore in my opinion, they would get in the way of my appreciation of a photograph. When we look at an image though, if we feel a constructive or positive emotion, the deeper and stronger that emotion is the more likely we are to fully appreciate the photograph.
I’m not going to try and tell you that my Dahlia #3 photograph moves me to tears, but it does make me happy when I look at it. I can’t say for sure why, but when I look at this photograph I feel its beauty, and it changes my emotional state, making me feel happy in an additive sense. If I’m already happy, it makes me happier. If I’m feeling down, it raises me up a little.
Weston’s Pepper No. 30
When I think of still life fine art photographs though, for me the one photograph that always springs to mind first and foremost is Edward Weston’s Pepper No. 30. I’m sure you already know the photograph, but if necessary, you can see it also on Wikipedia along with some interesting facts about this photograph that will help to illustrate my point about the message not being an important attribute for a fine art photograph.
It turns out that Weston shot his first pepper in 1927 after photographing various other close-up images since 1920 that he called “still lifes”. Two years later, in 1929, he started a series of pepper photographs exposing 26 negatives. A year later in 1930, he shot at least 30 more negatives of peppers, starting as he had before with plain muslin or white cardboard as a backdrop, but he felt that the contrast against the background was too stark.
Then he tried placing a pepper inside the large opening of a tin funnel placed on its side, which he himself said was a bright idea and perfect relief for the pepper, adding reflecting light to important contours. Weston is also quoted as saying:
It is a classic, completely satisfying ‒ a pepper ‒ but more than a pepper; abstract, in that it is completely outside subject matter. It has no psychological attributes, no human emotions are aroused: this new pepper takes one beyond the world we know in the conscious mind.
So, thinking about Weston’s creation of Pepper No. 30 we can draw a number of conclusions. First, from this comment, we understand that Weston did not believe his pepper photograph aroused any human emotions. I would very respectfully disagree because I remember how deeply Pepper No. 30 moved me when I first saw it. It makes me happy, and that’s one of my favorite emotions!
Nothing But a Pepper
But, Weston was highly frustrated by people’s attempts to assign various attributes to the photograph, especially by those who tried to assign sexual meanings. On the back of one print of Pepper No. 30 that he gave to a friend he wrote: “As you like it ‒ but this is just a pepper ‒ nothing else ‒to the impure all things ‒ are impure.”
And, I’m sure you will agree that Weston’s Pepper No. 30 is, without doubt, a fully fledged fine art photograph. You don’t have to agree of course, but I doubt that many people would disagree. So my point here is that regardless of what we might try to read into a photograph, containing a message is unimportant as part of an attempt to classify something as fine art. Far more important in my opinion is that the image evokes some kind of emotion, whether that was the intention of the artist or not.
In another sense though, the other thing that we can learn from Weston’s attempts to make a photograph that he was happy with, is the amount of work that he put into creating Pepper No. 30. It took three years of photographing peppers to reach the one that became the most popular and well-known. Keep in mind too that the process of making a photograph with an 8 x 10 Commercial View camera and then processing and printing these images was infinitely more time consuming than the digital processes we now enjoy.
“Intention” is something that Cemal Ekin talks about in his post that I mentioned earlier, but Ekin talks about the intention having to come across with reasonable force. This is another statement that I have trouble with. There is a follow-up comment that tried to clarify Ekin’s position, saying that he meant Intention to mean the opposite of “accidental” and with a clear implication of “repeatability”.
This is what I usually refer to as being deliberate in your work and processes. I believe that being deliberate in our work is vitally important in creating quality photography. The dictionary defines “deliberate” as done consciously and intentionally, which is probably why I prefer to use the act of being deliberate or to act with deliberation, which means to be careful and thoughtful about what you do.
But, I do not think that the intention or deliberation of the photographer should come across with reasonable force in the photograph. Conversely, I think that anything the photographer might have done to achieve the photograph should be invisible to the viewer. I don’t care what happened behind the scenes and don’t need to know.
If I can see any influence that the photographer might have had on the scene, for me, it spoils my appreciation of the piece. While I enjoyed reading about the tin funnel in Weston’s Pepper photograph, I have loved that image for more than 30 years and only read that background information today as I prepared for this post.
You don’t need to know that my wife was holding a black background up behind my dahlia to enjoy the image, but it was a very deliberate decision on my part, as I made that photograph. I had a good idea that I would probably process the image to black and white too, so I worked deliberately towards my goal and created what I believe is one of my best flower shots.
Of course, it’s also very possible that Ekin was thinking more about the results of the photographer’s intention coming across strongly in the image as quality or the aesthetically pleasing nature of the photograph, which I agree with that wholeheartedly, but I prefer to discuss the visual results in that case, rather than the intention.
Another thing that I’ve touched on over the years, and I think plays a big part in creating images that might be considered fine art, is responsibility, in a sense that we are responsible for everything in our photographs. If you aren’t pleased with the angle or perspective, it’s up to you to lower or move your tripod to a different location. If you don’t like the light, you need to come back at a more suitable time.
In a busy scene, it’s vital that you find a pleasing place on the edges of the frame to cut off your photograph. In my image of the trees at Mount Asahi (below) from my Hokkaido Landscape Tour, it was relatively easy to find a position where the foreground bush on the right was lined up with that distant tree with a small gap to its right, but the decision as to where I could cut off the left side of the frame was much more difficult, because it was so busy over there.
I think I made the right decision, as I like the overall balance of the end result, but I recall being very deliberate as made my choice of framing, knowing that I am responsible for everything in the frame.
To Clone or Not to Clone
I also have a strict policy on whether or not I will allow myself to clone anything out of a photograph. Basically, if I see something in the scene while I’m making the exposure, and I decide at that point to clone it out later during my post processing, I can go ahead and do that. In my Mount Asahi photo, I cloned out lots of cables from the cable car, but I was also very deliberate in choosing my camera position so that I could hide one of the main towers supporting the cables behind the trees.
However, if I don’t notice something in the shot until I get to the computer, and I can’t live with leaving it in, I abandon the photograph. I consider it a failure, and will not allow myself to use it. This might sound harsh, but this is how I’ve trained myself to be responsible for everything that I include in my photographs.
I also believe that a successful photograph is often as much about what we decide to leave out, as it is about what we include in the frame. Being responsible for the contents of your image and deliberate in your framing will greatly help to improve your work and be a major contributor to making what one might consider fine art.
Fortune Favors the Hard Worker
A couple of other attributes that Ekin lists and I agree with are Choice and Technique or Craft. In nature and wildlife photography our deliberation comes into play by getting ourselves to a location at the right time to have a chance to capture something beautiful, and ensuring that we have everything we need to make our photographs. Then we need the technical skill and mastery of our craft to be able to capture a photograph that could result in something that might eventually be considered fine art.
Let’s look at a couple of other examples from my own work, just to illustrate a few more points. Firstly, I would consider my photograph Jewel on the Shore (below) from Iceland in 2014 to be worthy of fine art classification. First of all, finding a potentially beautiful scene on a shore full of washed up glacial ice takes a bit of patience and a trained eye to know when you’ve found something potentially beautiful.
I was attracted by this scene because of the large chunk of beautiful translucent blue ice in the middle of the image and the smaller piece of ice encompassed by “growlers”. Chunks of ice the size of cars are known as growlers because of the sound they make as they rumble along the hull of a ship in Arctic waters.
I framed the scene, initially with my tripod at full height, and started making long exposure shots. As I made my first few exposures trying to capture the water washed up over the foreground, which it did every 10 seconds or so, I realised that being able to see the horizon of the sea over the top of the ice was distracting, so I lowered my tripod to about kneeling height, and started to make a few more exposures.
As I worked, the clouds opened up a little, and the sun started to shine directly between the two large growlers on the right, illuminating the small piece of deep glacial ice in the middle of the group, and that started to reflect the light down onto the black stony beach like a prism. I couldn’t believe my luck!
I continued to make a few more 4-second exposures, but now I was hoping that the water didn’t flood the scene for the entire time because too much water stopped one from being able to see the light focussed down onto the stones. This was the frame that I consider the best of the batch. The light is perfect, the color in the ice is beautiful, and the dark sky over the left of the frame really all came together beautifully.
So there are a couple of points I’d like to make here. Firstly, the fact that I was there, working the scene, and being able to recognize the potential of what was being presented to me helped me to ultimately make a photograph that was different and dare I say much better than what I was initially working towards. I was incredibly fortunate to have the light shine through a gap in the ice and light up the small piece like a prism, but I’m a big believer in the idea that fortune favors the hard worker.
Being mentally prepared and able to recognize opportunities, and being technically able to capture them are essential skills to enable us to repeatedly and deliberately capture images that we can be really happy with, and that will eventually start to define who we are as photographers.
This is in no way a requirement, but another thing that I find important as I think about images of my own that I might classify as fine art is visual simplicity. I love minimalism, as a photographic genre, and I think that much of my minimalist work could also be considered fine art, but it’s not necessarily about having very little in the photograph. The scene can be almost filled by the subject, as with the old tree in this photograph (below) but I still consider this to be a very simple image to appreciate.
The import part of my process here was thinking through my process as I decided on the composition to build on what nature had presented me with. My chosen composition helps to abstract the tree against its plain white background. Laying down in the snow to get this low perspective helped me to accentuate the subtle line of the snow under the tree against the frozen lake. The resulting image feels to me almost like a painting, perhaps an old traditional Japanese Kakejiku scroll.
A Sense of Maturity
There is one last thing that I’d like to touch on before we talk about fine art prints, and that is that as I view images that are considered, or I would consider fine art, there is generally a sense of maturity about the image. This is something that doesn’t necessarily require the photographer to be mature in age, but I believe it does only come from practicing photography for long enough that it becomes a very natural act for the artist, and that shows in the work.
One listener kindly commented that they felt this photo of the top of an iceberg shot near Tasiilaq in Greenland last year had a good sense of maturity about it. That made me very happy, especially when you consider that I was bobbing around in a speed boat in the channel out to the open ocean, this is a good indication that I’ve mastered my craft enough to get results in challenging conditions, and gives me confidence that I’m getting results that at least some people can appreciate.
When I look at the work of others that is considered fine art, this sense of maturity is definitely a common trait, so I believe it’s worth bearing in mind, and something to strive towards if you don’t feel your own work is quite there yet.
Fine Art Prints
OK, so although we’ll come back to the bigger theme of Fine Art Photography shortly, I mentioned at the start I also want to touch on how to define a fine art print, and if you think of this as a physical artifact, and initially disregard any aesthetics, this is something that you can assign attributes too, and check them off a list as you evaluate your fine art media options.
The main consideration is that your chosen print media has to be archival quality, and that usually means that you will be using a matte finish paper designated as Fine Art media. If you check out the product list on my friends at Breathing Color’s web site, you’ll find a Fine Art Paper section that contains only matte finish media.
To further refine your choices, drill down to the Resources tab on each paper’s product page, and check to see if there is an Archival Quality Certificate, which shows that the Fine Art Trade Guild has certified the paper. Many of the fine art papers available are certified for 100 years display life, which is generally considered museum quality archival.
When searching for fine art media, it’s generally also a good idea to check that the paper is OBA Free. Optical Brightening Agents make the media appear brighter but they can break down over time degrading the paper, reducing its longevity. Some archival media, such as Breathing Color’s Optica One, does contain OBAs, although it is still archival certified, so they aren’t totally evil, but I will generally go for OBA Free when I have a choice.
Signa Smooth 270, 600MT and 28MT Art Paper are all not certified archival although I hear that Breathing Color is continuing to tweak the coating formula for Signa Smooth, hoping to get certification soon. My fine art paper of choice at the moment for sale of my own fine art prints is Breathing Color’s Pura Bagasse Smooth, as this is OBA Free and archival certified. For personal printing though, just to enjoy the print, I’m using Signa Smooth, as this media has incredible gamut and detail reproduction, so I’m really hoping that they get it certified at some point. Meanwhile, Pura Bagasse is of course still a very beautiful and capable media.
I should also mention that I don’t believe that we need to get so concerned about printing fine art that we forget to have fun with our printing. There are many ways to enjoy photographs other than fine art prints. I love printing to metallic media, and gloss can be absolutely stunning as well. They may not be fine art as in 100 years plus archival, but art is supposed to enrich us, so in my opinion, anything goes in that respect.
What to Print?
Of course, you can’t just print any old tat on fine art media and class it as a fine art print. For practical reasons, I call all of my matte based prints Fine Art Prints, but this is down to the nature of the Web site and how I group images that I make available for sale in my Portfolio Galleries. At this point, it wouldn’t make sense to split up a portfolio into images that I consider to be worthy of the Fine Art tag, and those that don’t quite cut it.
Besides, if we go back to my original thoughts on the subjective nature of categorizing images as fine art, it’s perhaps not even down to me to decide. On my old gallery web site, when everything was available to buy a print of, I was often surprised by what people chose, and I don’t want to second guess other peoples’ tastes too much.
I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but there were times when someone bought an image that I really felt uncomfortable creating because it just didn’t feel good enough to me anymore. That though is one of the main reasons that I took my old site down, and now I only have images that I would be happy to print for sale in my portfolios or print gallery.
Sometimes Size Matters
For some photographs, as Brooks Jensen of Lenswork often says, the devil is in the details. Although Brooks himself is a proponent of the small print, I have some photographs that I would not necessarily consider fine art if printed so small that you cannot dive right into the details. It’s literally the detail of some images that elevates them to the realm of fine art.
For example, this photograph (bel0w) of the trees at the base of Dune #35 in Sossusvlei, Namibia, feels borderline to me when viewed on the computer screen, but printed large, you can dive in and see all of the ripples in the sand, especially to the left of the crest of the dune just above the trees, and this starts to excite me visually, evoking emotions that I don’t feel until I can really enjoy the details.
This is one reason that I have fallen totally in love with the high resolution of the Canon EOS 5Ds R camera, and why I felt it important to upgrade to 44″ wide large format printer last year when my old 24″ printer broke down. There is just something so much more enchanting and emotive about a large print.
Then, of course, there is always the question of viewing distance. Wall art really depends on how far away the viewer will stand from the print, and the size of the room. A small print might look lost on a large wall, although many small prints can be effective if there is nothing like a sofa in front of them to stop people getting up close to enjoy the detail. Similarly, a 44 x 62-inch print would perhaps be in little overwhelming on the wall of a tiny town-house.
Intimacy of the Small Print
We are lucky to have such great technology now though. The printers we have these days are absolutely amazing, and the media, including matte media, is now capable of reproducing fine detail in our images even on small prints. With reasonable eyesight or appropriate eyewear, there is also something beautifully intimate about viewing a selection of small prints, and fine art coffee table books are great for enjoying fine art work, perhaps in the comfort of your armchair, or in the company of friends. Although some images depend on being printed large, the majority can probably be appreciated in both forms.
Avoid Borderless Printing
One last thing that I should mention, is that generally, fine art prints do not employ borderless printing. You will usually see either a tasteful border around loose prints or a matte around a framed piece. I also did a lot of research many years ago that led me to come up with a ratio by which I raise the printed area of the photograph on the page so that it’s slightly above center.
Basically, I use 10 percent of the short edge of the paper as the width for the side borders, and I shift the top and bottom margins so that they are 7% on the top and 13% on the bottom. The result to me looks much more aesthetically pleasing and gives you somewhere to sign below the printed area if necessary.
I forgot to mention in the audio podcast, but I’d like to add that it’s also worth checking that your printer uses archival inks. Pigment inks used to be preferred for their archival quality, although dye-based inks are now achieving archival status as well. Printer manufacturers are starting to get a little bit cryptic on this as well, so the information may not be easy to find, but it’s worth at least trying if you intend to make fine art prints.
What is Fine Art Photography?
Anyway, let’s get back to Fine Art Photography as a whole as we start to wrap this up.
If we dig a little deeper on Wikipedia and take a look at the Fine Art Photography page, there are some great additional points to consider, that also helps me to solidify with my own opinions and feelings on this subject. One point is that Fine Art photography is created primarily as an expression of the artist’s vision. In many ways, this brings me back to my original idea, that fine art is totally subjective and open to the interpretation of the artist, which in this case is the photographer.
Of course, if one intends to become a fine art photographer that depends on selling fine art to make a living, or even if you just want to sell the occasional print online to help feed your photography habit, it is, of course, important that others will evaluate our work as fine art too.
This will also help us to summarize this post, but I have found that over the years, working along the following principles, rough guidelines really, has helped me to make work that people sometimes kindly buy from me as fine art prints.
Some Rough Guidelines
- Be deliberate about getting to good locations at the right time
- Refine the ability to recognize opportunities
- Be deliberate in composition decisions and be responsible for everything in the frame
- Hone our craft until technical decisions become second nature
- Become skilled at post-processing to bring out the most from our raw files
- The resulting work should evoke a constructive emotional response in the viewer
- When printing as fine art select archival certified fine art media
- Forget about tacky borderless printing
I should just add though, that I am under no delusions that I’m some kind of amazing fine art photographer. I do OK, and I make images that make me happy most of the time. Naturally, as with most people that make a living from a creative pursuit, there are times when I think I suck, but generally, I come back around and think that I can just about hold my own.
This is the position from which I’ve written this post today. You may not agree that the few images of my own that I used to illustrate my points today are fine art, and that, of course, is totally fine. Earlier I used the old adage, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. As a visual art reference, I think that works just fine, but as I look at images and try to decide whether or not I would consider it fine art, I find myself thinking that beauty is more often in the heart of the beholder, along with a whole slew of other emotions that we talked about earlier.
For me, it’s probably the amount of emotional shift that the image evokes that is my biggest indication of whether or not I would classify an image as fine art. If I look at something and feel absolutely nothing, the image is a total failure. In some ways, it’s even worse than evoking a negative emotion. Writer Elie Wiesel is quoted as saying that the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference, and that has always been a very powerful concept to me.
Because of this, feeling indifferent about an image would probably have to be zero on my emotional shift scale. Without trying to be too falsely scientific about this, my gut feeling is that 1 to 3 are images that I might look at, but then dismiss. 4 to 6 are images that make me smile, and 7 to 9 are images that I might say “wow!” to and include them in a favorites list. Only 10 rating images move me to the point that I would consider the fine art. These are the images that make the hair on the back of my neck stand up or bring a tear to my eye.
I hope you have found this useful, and by all means, do share your thoughts in the comments below. Remember this is just one man’s thoughts on a complex subject, and I don’t pretend to be an expert on this, so I welcome any continued conversation that we might have, as always.
Cemal Ekin’s milestone post on Fine Art Photography: https://www.keptlight.com/fine-art-photography/
Edward Weston’s Pepper No. 30 on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pepper_No._30
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