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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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!!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!)
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.
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! 🙂
I think siting Wikipedia greatly reduces the strength of any argument.
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.
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.
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. 🙂
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
You’re very welcome Larry. I’m pleased to have been able to add to your own thoughts on this very complicated topic.
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.
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.
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
Many thanks for your detailed answer, As clear as the whole post 🙂 All the best
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.
Thanks for the comment and the lovely vote of confidence Osbourne! I really appreciate it.
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!!
That’s great Nikki. I’m pleased this post has helped.
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.
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.