We read a great deal about “Fine Art Photography”, and see a lot of images that have been catgorized as such. However, does simply “categorizing” an image as “fine art” render it as such?
Firstly, let us look at the definition of “fine art” itself. Depending upon where you look, it is apparent that there are numerous definitions. However, the Oxford Dictionaries seem to provide the most comprehensive definition, which reads as follows:-
1 (also fine arts) creative art, esp. visual art, whose products are to be appreciated primarily or solely for their imaginative, aesthetic, or intellectual content: the convergence of popular culture and fine art.”
If we then turn to Wikipedia, we get the following:-
“Fine art, from the 17th century on, denote art forms developed primarily for aesthetics and/or concept, distinguishing them from applied arts that also have to serve some practical function.
Historically, the five greater fine arts were painting, sculpture, architecture, music and poetry, with minor arts including drama and dancing. Today, the fine arts commonly include the visual art and performing art forms, such as painting, sculpture, collage, decollage, assemblage, installation, calligraphy, music,dance, theatre, architecture, film, photography, conceptual art, and printmaking. However, in some institutes of learning or in museums fine art, and frequently the term fine arts (pl.) as well, are associated exclusively with visual art forms.”
Wikipedia also provide a sub-section for photography, wherein it offers the following definition:-
“Fine art photography refers to photographs that are created to fulfill the creative vision of the artist. Fine art photography stands in contrast to photojournalism and commercial photography. Photojournalism visually communicates stories and ideas, mainly in print and digital media. Fine art photography is created primarily as an expression of the artist’s vision, but has also been important in advancing certain causes.”
Thus, what we can ascertain from these definitions is the fact that the term “fine art” was primarily associated with the five principal fine arts, i.e. “painting, sculpture, architecture, music and poetry”. As time has evolved, so have the fine arts, and undoubtedly photographic artworks are now also included. However, as Wikipedia justly states “fine art photography refers to photographs that are created to fulfill the creative vision of the artist”. In my opinion, this is where I see some ambiguity in the use of the term “fine art photography”.
FINE ART PHOTOGRAPHY
Let me address two specific examples. Firstly, a great many photographs which we would nowadays define as “vintage” prints (the exact definition of which varies according to the reference used, but is often associated with pre-1970s images) are now classified as fine art, even though in a vast majority of cases the intent of the photographer was not at all to fulfill his/her creative vision, but rather “photojournalism” or “commercial” use (which according to definition, specifically precludes recognition as fine art). Excellent examples of such images would be the likes of fashion photographers Richard Avedon, Herb Ritts and Helmut Newton or photojournalists such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau, whose works are frequently featured in both galleries and auctions under the banner of photographic fine art. In contrast however, there are established artists the likes of Man Ray and Ansel Adams, who were truly demonstrating their own personal creative vision.
Secondly, let us look at the flip side of the equation, which pertains more to contemporary works (i.e. “belonging to or occurring in the present”), wherein a high percentage of photographers (defined in the Oxford Dictionaries quite simply as “a person who takes photographs, especially as a job”), also show a portfolio of works which they categorise as “fine art”. However, in very many cases, the images in question fall short of meeting the true criteria of photographic fine art, and are more often than not simply photographs that are neither “commercial” nor “photojournalism”, and thus get categorized as “fine art”. In many cases, the images in question lack true “imaginative, aesthetic, or intellectual content”. Once again, in contrast we find true artists, the likes of Europeans Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff, Japan’s Hiroshi Sugimoto and Shomei Tomatsu, and of course American artists Joel-Peter Witkin and Cindy Sherman (to name but a few).
Another factor not to be ignored, is the pricing of photographic fine art, both within the primary and secondary art markets. On so many occasions I see fine art photography being offered via individual photographers for just a few hundred dollars and often substantially less, yet true photographic fine art sells for thousands of dollars and in many cases hundreds of thousands (or in a minority of cases even millions!).
A further ambiguity is perhaps the distinction of “decorative arts” from “fine arts”. I mention this factor because a great many images that I see categorised as “fine art”, would in reality be better described as “decorative”. To complicate matters further “decorative arts” are traditionally functional, whereas “fine arts” are not (the only objective of the latter is to be seen). As such, photography should technically be a “fine art”. However, with such prolific use of photographic images for interior decoration and design purposes, in reality a vast amount of photographic work is targeting the decorative arts sector and thus would be best categorized as such. My point here, is that simply designating an image as “fine art” does not automatically render it as such!
In closing, I believe one must also take into account the mind-set of the individual creator of the work(s) in question. An artist contemplates his/her objective, the creative vision, the message he/she is intending to communicate from the finished artwork. A photographer on the other hand is usually seeking to capture a moment, to replicate what he/she has observed, with little thought to creative intent. This is particularly true when comparing for example to conceptual art (defined as: “art in which the idea or concept presented by the artist is considered more important than the finished product, if any such exists”), which is becoming an increasingly popular element of photographic fine art. Essentially, what I am saying is that an “artist” in the vast majority of cases has a completely different approach to that of a “photographer”, as to how he/she undertakes the execution of the final work and as a result you are potentially left with either a photograph or a photographic artwork within the fine art classification.
In no way am I wishing to discredit photographers, nor for that matter artists, as each has his/her respective role to play. However, what I am suggesting is that the next time you browse the portfolio of photographs described as “fine art photography”, you may wish to question yourself “are these images truly “photographic fine art”, or have they simply been categorized as such”? Ultimately, whilst it is generally agreed that the definition of “art” is fundamentally subjective, the distinction between true “photographic fine art” and that which has simply been categorized as such, is much less so!
Best wishes from Japan,
To read Thomas’s 1st article, please click on the link below:-