Dahlia #3

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...

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Martin Bailey
Martin Bailey is a nature and wildlife photographer and educator based in Tokyo. He's a pioneering Podcaster and blogger, and an X-Rite Coloratti member.
32 Comments
  • Susanna Euston
    Posted at 00:33h, 13 September Reply

    Martin, this wonderful post “has made my day”! It is inspirational and practical. I particularly value the section on deliberation as we capture an image. But it’s all amazing. Thank you!!

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 08:31h, 13 September Reply

      That’s great Susanna!

      I have seen how deliberate your work is, and I can’t think of many (if any) of your images that I would not consider fine art, so that makes me doubly happy that you enjoyed this post.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  • Cemal Ekin
    Posted at 00:50h, 13 September Reply

    Martin, I wish we were close to chat about the subject. But, this will have to do! Thanks for mentioning my article and expanding on it further. I trust you noticed the follow-up article where I revisited the idea.

    Take care,

    Cemal

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 08:38h, 13 September Reply

      Hi Cemal,

      Your post is a very important contribution to this subject, and just about the only one that I found where anyone tried to tackle this subject with original thoughts. Thank you so much!

      Yes, I have read your follow-up post, though I must admit I didn’t re-read as I prepared for this post. I do recommend that readers check out both.

      I didn’t have time to check some of my assumptions directly with you before writing my own post yesterday, so I would love to sit together and talk about this subject in person at some time.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, and thanks once again for your milestone contribution to this topic!

      Regards,
      Martin.

      • Cemal Ekin
        Posted at 09:12h, 13 September Reply

        Thank you for taking time to reply Martin. I do wish we could chat more about this and other similar subjects. We agree more than we disagree which seems to remain in the semantics. If you are near Rhode Island, US, do look me up. I am glad that you added to the greater conversation of the topic.

        Take care,

        Cemal

  • Steven
    Posted at 05:15h, 13 September Reply

    Hi Martin, only tangentially related but your comment ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ made me think of it – have you read Robert M Pirsig’s novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? It’s an excellent novel about a philosopher grappling with the idea of whether beauty is subjective or objective. Much recommended!

    Thanks for the great episode!

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 08:40h, 13 September Reply

      Hi Steve,

      I have listened to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance from Audible. I listened on a plane though, and have to admit, I can’t really remember the reference you mention, so I think I need to relisten. 🙂

      Thanks for the reminder. I’ll search that out and listen again soon.

      Thanks for the comment too. I’m pleased you enjoyed the post.

      Cheers,
      Martin.

  • Sally H.
    Posted at 21:30h, 15 September Reply

    Martin, I enjoy your podcasts – IMO yours is one of the few photography podcast that actually deals with photographs, as opposed to gear. Thank you for giving us so much to consider and learn from.
    I am completely mystified by the awesome Dune #35. Can you explain just what we are seeing behind the trees. The light and dark, the curves, the shadow – I simply can’t turn this into a 3-D image that makes sense of me. (Even so, I love the picture – it hits the “10” mark for me! Obviously, one doesn’t have to understand a picture to have an emotional reaction!)

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 22:50h, 15 September Reply

      Hi Sally,

      You’re very welcome, for the podcast. I’m pleased you enjoy it. Thanks for the kind words!

      That’s so cool that Dune #35 has you a little vexed. If you look at the image linked below, this is the same dune, on the same day, but shot more to the left, avoiding the trees, which are just out of frame to the right.

      https://martinbaileyphotography.com/portfolio/namibia/#gallery/namibia-photography-portfolio-by-martin-bailey/610

      Hopefully being able to see the top of the dune with provide the context you need to understand what you’re looking at. Let me know if it doesn’t work, and I’ll sort out something else.

      Thanks for giving that shot a 10 too! 🙂

      Regards,
      Martin.

  • LARRY SPENCER
    Posted at 00:19h, 17 September Reply

    I think siting Wikipedia greatly reduces the strength of any argument.

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 10:35h, 17 September Reply

      I don’t trust everything I read on Wikipedia, but I have no reason to doubt the information I cited here. Of course you’re welcome to your opinion, though I’d hope that you were able to still form your own opinion about the subject, regardless of my citing Wikipedia.

  • Kirk McElhearn
    Posted at 01:18h, 17 September Reply

    I really appreciate that you addressed this question, as it’s something I’d been wondering about. I see too many amateur photographers saying they shoot fine art photos, yet these photos aren’t much different from others. On 500px, they have a Fine Art category, and much of the photos there tend to be nudes.

    But you haven’t really addressed the broader question of what makes certain photographs and photographers more “artsy” than others. I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at books by photographers recently. I would say that photographers like Joel Meyerowitz (his color work), William Eggleston, and Stephen Shore (some of his work), are artists, and their photos, which don’t all meet your criteria, are art, or even fine art.

    I think the term fine art in photography is an unfortunate shorthand for something that is too hard to nail down. I think your explanation is excellent, but I think it could go further.

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 10:43h, 17 September Reply

      Hi Kirk,

      Thanks for the comment. I’d actually say if you dig deeper, I did answer your question in my definition, because you say that “you think” that the work you quote is art or even fine art. That, in my opinion, makes them fine art to you. I don’t know the exact work that you are referring to, but I imagine much of it would be considered fine art by most people as well, but to me what each individual thinks or more specifically “feels” about each piece is the most important factor.

      Also, my criteria aren’t really criteria, as much as they are guidelines, and each one is not meant to be a prerequisite for any piece being designated fine art or not fine art.

      Indeed, I could have gone further with my explanation, but I think if I’d written anymore it would have been too much. I covered everything that I wanted to. Now, it’s up to you to take your thoughts further. 🙂

      Regards,
      Martin.

  • Joshua Kuhn
    Posted at 01:26h, 17 September Reply

    This was a great blog/podcast. I agree that the quality of the media definitely has something to do with defining fine art, but when it comes the photo itself I struggle with objectively labeling anything fine art or not.
    I think you said it best when you talked about evoking emotion, this is how I personally judge art for myself. But what evokes emotion in me might be meaningless to someone else. Now that doesn’t mean it isn’t fine art, but it might be art that doesn’t move a particular person.

    On another thought, are streched canvases considered tacky in the fine art world? They seem to be popular, and I am blown away by the quality of prints on BC’s Lyve canvas.

    Anyway, thanks for the thoughts.

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 10:54h, 17 September Reply

      Hi Josh,

      For sure, when printing we can use a simple checklist, but the content of the photo is much more difficult to decide on.

      The emotional shift alone doesn’t make it fine art either, as you say. The image has to meet other criteria as well. I guess at the end of the day what I’m saying is that you’ll know it when you see it, and if you are still struggling with that, you perhaps just need to gain more experience in both looking at work and refining your own. I can decide relatively quickly if I’d consider something fine art, but I am probably a little too harsh when it comes to some of the earlier works that I find too busy, although they are considered fine art. But, as I said, I think it’s up to each individual to decide, and it’s all based on our own tastes, and they develop over time.

      Stretched canvas may be considered tacky in the fine art world, but I wouldn’t know because I’m too removed. Here in Japan, there is no market for photographic fine art, and I don’t know much about what people in the US or other countries think. I can imagine that stretched canvas is merely considered wall art as a medium, but the content of the photograph and the artifact itself can be very beautiful.

      And yes, the Lyve canvas from Breathing Color is 100% archival when laminated. Personally, I love their Silverada canvas, and have been using that for my canvas prints more than Lyve over the last few years. It’s not archival, but it looks great on the wall, and that is generally all I’m worried about.

      Cheers,
      Martin.

  • J. D. Ramsey
    Posted at 06:25h, 17 September Reply

    Martin – Great post that causes the reader to think more intently about this whole issue. Any of us involved in photography for any length of time have asked ourselves this question. Your post and your referral to Cemal Elkins’ post, which I had not previously had the pleasure to read, helped focus some thoughts on this issue. But after considering the thoughts expressed, I am still left with the uncomfortable feeling that I still can’t really define what makes a fine art print. Just a few thoughts about what remains less than clear about this topic (and given its nature, probably always will)..

    You reference fine art as demonstrating “good taste.” But whose good taste? Society’s as a whole? Museum curators? Art critics? Gallery owners? Of course it could be any of those, but suffice to say that there are many things deemed “fine art” by one or more of the people in those categories that we would vigorously disagree with. In fact, there are many images that were hailed, for one reason or another as “important” images, only to he completely forgotten a few years later. To my thinking in order to be consider fine art, the image must remain meaningful for more than a few years. Fine art seems to have some universality. It is meaningful to people across a broad spectrum of backgrounds and cultures and holds its meaning and impact for a great length or time.

    The Impressionists were famously dismissed by the art world in the mid 1800s, only to go on become some of the most beloved artists of any era. Whether you like or don’t like Impressionism today, I don’t think many would think that the great works of that era lack “good taste” even though they were panned by those who defined good taste at that time. Certainly, if one is seeking to sell as many photographs as possible, we would be appealing to as much of the public as we could. But I suspect that if that is what motivated us, we wouldn’t be true to ourselves and we wouldn’t produce the best work we are capable of. Nor would the work have the ability top withstand time.

    And does the the definition of fine art eliminate works that are not “beautiful” or “tasteful”? Is the work of photographers such as Diane Arbus or Robert Frank fine art? I think so, but I wouldn’t define their work as about portraying people or places in a manner that is necessarily beautiful. Impactful? Absolutely, But not necessarily of good taste or beautiful.

    On the issue of whether a fine art image must contain a message, it depends to some degree on how you define that word. Take, for instance, your image of the Dahlia (great image). It tells me something about Dahlias that I may not have previously appreciated. Part of what I like about that image is its clear demonstration of how the petals close to the center curve so sinuously, but with each of those inner petals being different than the others, while the very center looks like an orderly swirl of florets . Not all Dahlias have that trait – in fact I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a Dahlia quite like that one in the U.S. – but your photo conveys something about a Dahlia that I hadn’t previously appreciated. To me that’s a message, delivered in a manner that does convey an emotion. I’m not sure that I would even define it as happiness, but, at least for me, it’s almost a feeling of calmness or serenity, that is so pleasing. When I was young and first attracted to photography, I, like many others, literally had my breath taken away by photos of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogene Cunningham, etc. Later, my appreciation of other forms of photography was heightened. If I did not become more visually articulate, I’m not sure photographs I later saw would have had the impact on me that they did. Hence, to some degree the ability of a photograph to speak to a viewer, is based on the visual sophistication of the viewer.

    Weston’s iconic pepper is similar. While it’s lines may not be sexual, they are certainly sensual. Much in the way that the female human body can be described as sensual. Art critics seem to often try to read into art things that may not be there, but each person’s reaction to a photo is, of course, going to be informed by the culture they were brought up in, their life experiences, education, etc. It seems to me whether Weston liked the message – again defining “message” broadly – some people got from it, the fact that this pepper had such curves and was lit in a manner that emphasized the sinuous curves is what made it the icon it’s become. While I’m sure most of your readers are familiar with the photograph, the Wikipedia photo is tiny. To better appreciate the texture, and details, it can be viewed in greater detail here: https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/39.208. It is likely that the reason that this pepper, among all the others that Weston took was so special, was because it did convey a strong message of sensuality.

    As you can see, your post has caused a significant amount of comments from many of your listeners. That alone makes it an excellent post. But I appreciate you having opened the question of what constitutes fine art and giving us your insightful thoughts on the subject.

    Be well.

    David

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 11:32h, 17 September Reply

      Hi Dave,

      Wow! Your comment is almost as long as my article! Thanks for taking the time to write this out and comment.

      I think that due to its subjectiveness, this subject will always remain somewhat vague, and that is a big part of the point I was trying to relay in this article. Regarding good taste, I am referring to each individual’s good taste, because it’s each individual that has to decide for themselves whether or not they consider a piece good taste.

      Of course, if you are trying to sell your work to a museum curator, their tastes come into play, but I am sure there are museum curators out there that passed over the opportunity to work with an artist that then went on to see that artist become a world famous fine art photographer. As I said, if you want to make a living as a fine art photographer, it’s important that others appreciate your work as such, but we have no control over that because it’s totally subjective. My proposition is that we strive to make quality work, and my hope is that some of my rough guidelines (bullet list) will help people to concentrate on working in such a way that they get closer to this goal. I agree that time plays a part in this, as you say. That’s a great point, that a piece should remain meaningful for more than a few years.

      Regarding your comment about The Impressionists, it would seem that through the ages, especially when it comes to new forms of art, it is originally dismissed. I’d like to think we are getting better at this, but generally, humans are not comfortable with change, and when it comes to art, people can form some very emotional opinions, and they don’t change easily because they are too linked to our instincts. That’s another great point about being true to ourselves as well though. I have always shot first and foremost for myself, and I’m lucky to have found a stock agency that sells my work for what it is because I will honestly never modify my work to make it more saleable as a stock or fine art.

      The work of Diane Arbus or Robert Frank falls under my thoughts on constructive emotions. Something doesn’t necessarily have to be beautiful, or what most would consider tasteful, but I think if they move you in a way that makes you feel good, not necessarily happy etc. but any of the emotions that make you feel good, then you may well consider those pieces fine art.

      Thanks for such a detailed exploration of my Dahlia photo. I’d say your description of it being pleasing is better than my happiness comment. While I agree with what you say that these things could be considered a message, it really comes down to, as you point out, how you define the word message. In my case, and by my using Weston’s intention with his Pepper No. 30 photograph, the message was not consciously sent by the artist, and if a message was not sent, how can it be accurately received?

      Of course, with art, we will all read into each piece what we will, and we decide to see something in a photograph that can be construed as a message, then that’s fine. Regarding Weston’s pepper again, I also saw those sensual lines, and it’s unmistakable that the majority of people see that in the photograph. My point with this example though comes back to what I mentioned above, in that the artist did not intend to send that message. It doesn’t mean that we can’t receive it, but it’s not an accurate message if the artist didn’t send it, if you see what I mean. But, that’s just splitting hairs. I totally agree with what you say and got exactly the same “message” from Pepper No. 30, which is partly why I was so surprised to read about Weston’s thoughts on this the other day.

      We do all see the world through our own filter of experiences based on the culture in which we were brought up, as you say. No one sees things the same as another. Even twins brought up together see things differently because they will always experience things slightly different to the other etc.

      I am very happy that this post has given rise to so much conversation, and really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this too Dave. Thanks once again for taking the time to relay your thoughts, and providing such a wonderful addition to the conversation.

      Regards,
      Martin.

      • J D Ramsey
        Posted at 01:29h, 18 September Reply

        Well, if brevity is the soul of wit, I miserably failed that one! Thanks for your additional comments Martin. This is one of those subjects that, if you want to produce something you consider fine art, you need to have a a concept of what fine art is, but it is also one that we will probably never have broad consensus on. For instance, while craft would seem to be an important element of any fine art print, there are wonderful HCB photographs that are not what, today, we would call sharp. It has become so much easier to produce well crafted images, and so many more photographers have the ability to travel the world, that content and the emotional impact is all that much more important. As others have observed, though, the market has become much more fragmented due to the internet and the fact that we can find a “tribe” to belong to, that it is unlikely there will be truly broad appreciation as there was for the classic greats that we all know so well and who influenced many us to such a great degree. Have a great day. Hope to see you on a future workshop!

        • Martin Bailey
          Posted at 08:41h, 18 September Reply

          Me too, Dave, on the brevity. 🙂

          Totally agree on all point. The concept of tribes is also a great point to bring up, and I’m sure there will only be a handful of people from our time that are really remembered universally, as you point out.

          I hope to catch up again soon too.

          Regards,
          Martin.

  • Gladys Klip
    Posted at 04:36h, 18 September Reply

    Hi Martin,
    Thank you for taking on my question in such an elaborate podcast! I’ve listened to it twice as I wanted to take it all in and think about what you’ve said and meanwhile also the many reactions of others. It seems everyone has a broad opinion and that’s what makes it so interesting. Obviously, some people wanted you to talk about this in more depth but I think you gave us or at least me enough stuff to think about to create a definition on whether an image is fine art or not. For me three words are important and these are emotion, maturity and detail. Now I am not going to repeat what you or some listeners mention as we all know that emotion is something personal and maturity is also subjective. What I do want to mention is that most of the work that is marked as fine art seem to be photos in black and white. I wonder if people (photographers) consider black and white photos fit more in the category art in general? Is it because you get less distracted by colors and look or pay more attention to detail and thus makes it more interesting?. Do you think a fine art photo should be as an unwritten rule black and white?
    Thanks again,
    regards,
    Gladys

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 08:47h, 18 September Reply

      Hi Gladys,

      You’re very welcome, for the podcast. Thanks for the question!

      This topic is by nature somewhat vague, but I gave my best shot to explain my thoughts on it, and I’m pleased that helped some.

      Yes, a lot of fine art photography does seem to be black and white, although not exclusively. For me, I think color has to really work in a photograph to warrant leaving it in. Also, as you say, I do think that black and white reduces the images to its graphic forms and detail, rather than relying on color for interest.

      But, no, I don’t think fine art has to be black and white. There are many examples of (what I would consider) fine art that are in color.

      Regards,
      Martin.

  • Larry Millican
    Posted at 12:20h, 18 September Reply

    Martin, thank you for this episode and blog post. For years, I was unable to find an explanation or definition of “Fine Art Photography,” and this helps a lot. While reading your post, I realized that as I “matured” as a photographer, I had formed my own basic opinion of what it is. I had not taken the thought process as deep as you have, and I appreciate your thoughts and explanation.

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 09:31h, 28 September Reply

      You’re very welcome Larry. I’m pleased to have been able to add to your own thoughts on this very complicated topic.

      Regards,
      Martin.

  • Mauricio Duque-Arrubla
    Posted at 20:45h, 19 September Reply

    Hi, Martin. Great post and very interesting conversation afterwards. I have one question, maybe not related. Should all fine art printings be signed. How, where and how do you sign your printings?
    Many thanks for sharing all your expertise.

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 09:55h, 28 September Reply

      Hi Mauricio,

      That’s a great question.

      I think we’d need to separate the print into “original” prints, which means the artist created the print with care, in which case to me the signature is both a way to show who made the photograph as well as the print, and it’s also a sign that the artist has checked the quality of the print, and is happy to send it out into the world. This is why I call my prints original and what I mean when I sign them.

      Conversely, I actually really dislike the act of signing a print from third-party printers. If you had no hand in the creation of the print, signing it seems false to me. BUT, I do appreciate that some people are signing a third party print because they shot the original photograph, and that’s fine, I guess. I personally will never sign a third party print, but that’s also why I have a 44″ large format printer. 🙂

      To sign my prints, I use pigment art pens. I have a set of around 10 pens from very fine to very thick nibs, and I select the thickness based on the size of the print. I’ll link to actual pens later when I get to my studio. I generally sign in the bottom right corner of my prints, as you can see in this post: https://mbp.ac/fapinfo

      If I have to sign in the printed area, as I occasionally do, I generally use a pencil if the image is light enough to be able to see it. I used to use gel-based pigment pens, as I described in the post -> https://mbp.ac/266 but I haven’t really had a reason to use them for a number of years now, as I haven’t been selling and shipping canvas gallery wraps. That will change soon and I’ll reconsider my strategy for canvas again then.

      I hope that helps, and I’m pleased you’ve enjoyed the post and the following conversation.

      Regards,
      Martin.

      P.S. Here’s a link to the pens I now use to sign fine art prints. They are called Copic Multiliner, and it’s a nine-piece B-2 set. https://mbp.ac/copic

      • Mauricio Duque Arrubla
        Posted at 21:36h, 06 October Reply

        Many thanks for your detailed answer, As clear as the whole post 🙂 All the best

  • Osbourne Max
    Posted at 17:55h, 23 September Reply

    I believe your photo Dahlia #3 projects a very pertinent message relating to the intricacies of biological cells which are combined into the Dahlia structure! It may not convey any social message, but certainly a scientific one on molecular level, i.e. your photograph is a fine piece of “fine art” photography.

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 09:56h, 28 September Reply

      Thanks for the comment and the lovely vote of confidence Osbourne! I really appreciate it.

      Regards,
      Martin.

  • Nikki Olivier
    Posted at 07:44h, 12 November Reply

    Hi Martin,

    What a fantastic podcast! I love the way you talk, and you made the subject very interesting and easy to follow. I am a child and family photographer, and I have a passion and love for fine art portraits. I have been asked to speak at a local photography club about my photography – and I chose the topic, what makes a portrait Fine Art – your point and guides have given me allot of insight that I had not considered before – and I will be using much our your outline as a guide for my talk. thank you for this article!!

    Regards Nikki

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 21:06h, 13 November Reply

      That’s great Nikki. I’m pleased this post has helped.

      Regards,
      Martin.

  • Dave Harcourt
    Posted at 01:00h, 30 July Reply

    I guess this is well past the active comment time but I didn’t see it earlier.

    I am a bit confused because your discussion focuses on the process of making the photograph (eg whether to clone or not), implying that one can not judge the work on its own. But this must be unique to photography as there is much fine art who’s production is not documented.

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 08:55h, 30 July Reply

      Hi Dave,

      No worries. Better late than never!

      I don’t think I’ve concentrated on the process as such, but you are correct, I’m talking about photography here. The title of the post is “What Makes a Photograph or Print Fine Art?” As a photographer, I talk only about what I know and from my own experiences. Without a deep understanding of other forms of fine art, that is better discussed by people in those fields.

      Regards,
      Martin.

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