On Fine Art Photography

| February 21, 2010

Although this post was written at the request of a friend who wanted a narrative to be used for commercial promotion of Fine Art Photography, in truth it was a long time coming and something I have been pondering for quite a while. It is also a precursor to a larger set of essays aimed at the creative photographer that is currently in the making and which I hope to offer as an e-book in the near future.


Some may claim that art is a concept that defies definition. The term had been historically used so broadly and in so many different contexts that any attempt to describe it in a meaningful and applicable way may be an exercise in futility. And surely, dictionaries and encyclopedias don’t make the task any easier. By most formal definitions, art can be a noun or an adjective (and some would even argue its use as a verb.) It can refer to aesthetics or skill, objects or concepts, representations of reality, or bare abstractions.

And yet, two common threads appear to exist among all manifestations of art: creativity and skill. Creativity is that which conceives of things that had not existed before. Skill is the ability to convert such conceptions into tangible manifestations. Art is a product of the two. One alone will not do. Skill without creativity is the realm of craftsmen, and carries its own utility and rewards. Creativity without skill, on the other hand, is a truly unfortunate fate and will surely doom a person to a life of frustration and unfulfilled desires.

Enter “Fine Art.” While relying on the concept of art as defined above, the term “fine arts” –  rooted in the French “beaux arts” –  is used specifically to describe those realms of art created solely for their aesthetic qualities and for the enrichment of the human experience through expressions of beauty rather than utility. It is the distinction which separates a graceful sculpture from a well-crafted ornamental column, a painting from an illustration, a temple from other works of architecture, a poem from an essay and, as it pertains to photography of natural things, it is what separates the unique expression of a photographer’s inspiration from the documentary image.

Certainly documentary images can be made that possess immense beauty — a beauty inherent in the subjects themselves. This alone does not qualify such images as examples of fine art as they lack a critical ingredient to qualify as art in the first place: creativity.

Further, all art is a product of human thought, imagination, and intuition. The fact that a naturally-occurring phenomenon by itself is perceived as beautiful does not alone make it an incarnation of art. Its unique use by a human artist, expressing beauty through a composition and/or presentation of their own making, does.

In promoting photographic images as works of fine art, implicit statements are made: the work is unique and represents the personal sensibilities of the artist and, while it may carry any degree of resemblance to real subjects and events, such documentary bindings are not its primary concern and may well not exist at all. It is to be regarded as a manufactured product of the artist’s own creation.

Along with skill and aesthetics, where it comes to placing value on works of fine art, originality should also carry a decisive weight. Copies of compositions originated by other artists, where they can be identified, should not be considered on par with unique personal work of the artist’s own making. This applies to photographs to the same degree that it applies to paintings, sculptures, writings, or other means of creating art. The ethical photographer should give credit where due when knowingly presenting an image conceived of the labors and creative gifts of another.

Next of the Thunderbird

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About the Author ()

Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (14)

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  1. Jeff Clay says:

    Well-reasoned and argued, echoes much of my own thoughts of Art vis-à-vis Craft.

  2. You made some good points. The term ‘fine art’ or even ‘art’ is so subjective to me that I have trouble defining either of them. Even within the definitions you made above, with which I agree, someone may say that a work is documentary and another might call it ‘fine art!’ In fact any meaningful definition of fine art eludes me when I see that Jackson Pollock’s No. 5 sold for $150 million when if someone gave it to me for free, I would not even hang it on my wall.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No._5,_1948

    I would actually rather have ANY one of your photos on my wall than the $137 million Woman III by Willem de Kooning! I mean… yuck! (Regardless of it’s supposedly deep meanings, which I don’t buy.)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woman_III

    This is why it really is nearly impossible to define anything having to do with art!

    Patrick

  3. Tim says:

    A reasonable perspective – and it sets quite a high bar for admission as `art’, which is mildly scary :)

  4. Guy Tal says:

    Thanks guys!

    Tim, scary is a good thing. It makes it worthwhile, challenging, and the sense of achievement that much greater and more deserving when you get there.

    “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” –Mark Twain

    (to which I would add: absence of fear is closely correlated with absence of intelligence)

    Guy

  5. Bob Cornelis says:

    I enjoyed reading your essay – it’s a tough subject! I agree with your twin pillars of skill and creativity.

    I think we have to be careful with the term “beauty” as an aim of fine art as there is a lot of fine art in which beauty plays not part. In fact, in the “high end” world of art these days, beauty is a much disparaged objective. I’m not saying I agree with this philosophy, but many feel beauty as an objective in fine art is trite. That’s why I like the term “creativity” as it allows for a broader range of expression. As Patrick points out, we may not personally enjoy that broad range, but it’s legitimate.

  6. Guy Tal says:

    Thanks Bob! I agree with your points, however when it comes to a formal definition of fine arts (originally beau arts – literally “beautiful arts”) the dictionaries and references I found do explicitly refer to beauty and aesthetics.

    I am, of course, aware of current trends among the art elite. Art is also a reflection of its day and, sadly, we do live in cynical times. Hopefully enough of us can still appreciate what beauty remains.

    “The more horrifying this world becomes, the more art becomes abstract.” –Ellen Key

  7. Tim says:

    Personally, my understand of `art’ focuses mostly on the deliberation with which the finished work is produced.

    Particularly within photography, which might reasonably be described as `putting reality in a frame’, if that frame is carelessly pointed in the vague direction of a subject-matter, it is more likely to be a snap; if it’s chosen carefully with a view to the finished framing conveying a particular message, that is deliberate and more likely to make it art.

    YMMV. :)

  8. Roberta says:

    Just wow. I am always blown away as much by what your write as the images themselves.

  9. Floris says:

    Again, you manage to squeeze so many well thought out points in such a small space. This and your previous post are what I’m all about… it’s so great seeing you put these kinds of thoughts out there to hopefully get more people breaking out of the same old trends and taking some risks.

    I also like how you included aesthetic beauty in your definition for fine art (like in your cited references)… I’ve never found some of the more cynical stuff to be ‘art’. I think we need a different word for that, they are more statements than art IMO.

  10. Thank you Guy for this insightful post. In your older post about the environment, I agree that man’s life and times are inconsequential in the big scheme of things, but I do not agree that environmentalists instigated or even perpetuate the separation of people from their environment. Their work is partly to reunite the two and make sure there is a future for both. However in this post, essentially everything you said is dead-on, in my opinion. There are a lot of photographers that seek out the tripod marks of others, essentially copy their creations, and call that art. Also, there are many in landscape photography who journey to places that are known for beauty, capture their postcard image and call it “fine art” as they use Photoshop and an expensive printer to add even more “beauty.” It is hard to fairly say whether someone’s work is art or not though, because the extent of their creativity and skill itself, or lack thereof, is in the judgment of the viewer.

  11. Paul Grecian says:

    Guy,

    I haven’t been here in a while. I’ll fix that. This phrase of yours I feel is so important to understand:

    “The fact that a naturally-occurring phenomenon by itself is perceived as beautiful does not alone make it an incarnation of art. Its unique use by a human artist, expressing beauty through a composition and/or presentation of their own making, does.”

    Thanks too for the link.