What is fine art?

I was giving a talk at a Camera Club last week and at the half time break I was asked the question of what is fine art photography? It’s a difficult question to answer because, bizarrely, no definition exists (a situation which urgently needs to be addressed) and many photographers call themselves “fine art” when in my mind they are nothing of the kind. Because no agreed definition exists different organisations interpret fine art photography in different ways, for example the fine art photographs you see in PAGB competitions differ wildly to the fine art photographs you see in the Sony World Photo Awards. So what follows is what I personally think the definition of fine art photography should be, not necessarily what it currently is.

Before I look at what fine art photography is, let’s first look at what it is not. It isn’t:

  • Representational. If you take a photo of the landscape, even if you use a long exposure so that the milky way appears, or water looks silky, or clouds are captured moving, or you convert it to black and white, this to me is not fine art photography. It is a record shot. A creative record shot, but a record shot nevertheless.
  • Documentary. Documentary photographs record a snapshot in time which is true to the subject matter and not manipulated in post production, which is diametrically opposed to fine art photography.
  • Conceptual. Conceptual photography can be fine art, but just being conceptual does not make an image fine art. If the conceptual image is a picture taken as shot it is a creative record photograph but not a fine art photograph.
  • Commercial. Commercial photographs are rarely fine art as they depend on the vision of the person paying the photographer, not on the photographer’s own vision.
Fine Art photograph
Record photograph

So what exactly is fine art photography? To me, a fine art photograph:

  • Is the creation of the photographer. The clue to fine art photography is in the title. Fine art is art and when you think of an artist such as a painter or sculptor they produce something from nothing from their own imagination. Which is why representational and documentary photography can never be fine art. The shot already exists and is merely captured by the photographer, whereas a fine art photograph only exists in the imagination of the photographer who then tasks themself with bringing their vision to life through the camera.
  • A composite. Composite photography is usually fine art. The photographer has added something extra to the picture to make it into something other than a record shot, eg. pictorial elements or a texture. If nothing is added to me it is a record shot, which is why not all composites are fine art. A stitched panorama in photoshop is not fine art, as nothing has been added to the original scene. Ditto a focus stacked image which may be a composite but is true to the original subject matter.
Nature photograph
Fine Art photograph

Why does it matter which label you give yourself? It matters a great deal in the real world. If you are a buyer looking through Saatchi Art or Getty Images you search with tags. If you enter the tag “fine art” and 1000 record shots of flowers turn up in the results it can be frustrating and time wasting, because that’s not what you’re looking for.

In terms of competitions, if the genre is “fine art” images should be competing with other fine art photographs. There has to be a level playing field, which is why there is an urgent need for a proper fine art definition.

The current situation is a mess and all sorts of photographers are calling themselves “fine art” when they are not. They are creative record photographers, but that doesn’t make them “fine art” photographers. At least, that’s my take on the subject!

Fine art portrait

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