How Can We Define Fine Art Photography
What kind of photographer are you? It’s not just a question photographers ask each other. Everyone seems to expect an answer, “amateur” or “professional” being perhaps the most direct.
Just as common, and more interesting, is the genre-focused follow-up, trying to pin down a familiar category: weddings, events, portraits, landscape, or something else.
Encountering Fine Art Photography
In early 2014 I was walking around a dusty back corner of Alwar in Rajasthan with my friend and photography teacher, Matt Brandon. We’d wandered away from the town square, with its regional court that brought in everyone from merchants to herdsmen, past the clerks punching out memos on old mechanical keyboards and the stands that kept everyone satisfied with hot chai and samosas.
Like many places in this part of India, everyday life happened against a backdrop of past glory. Crumbling ornate buildings clung to the last remnants of bygone majesty. Families washed clothes, old men chatted on street corners, kids played cricket, and occasionally someone rode past on a rusty old bicycle.
It was the perfect setting for the kind of humanitarian photography Matt’s known for.
When we first met, four years earlier, my goal had been to take the kind of photos he took, photos that documented the richness of human experience, while also saying something about our common humanity.
I took those kinds of photos. Sometimes I still do. I love that genre and I still think it has an important role to play.
But, in my hands, the camera wanted to do other things.
Walking alone for a while, I had found a courtyard where an old man was trying to wash the dirt off an ornate marble floor. The humanitarian photographer should have been visualizing a contextual portrait of the man, but I felt drawn to the patterns in the marble, the dirt yielding to the water, and the reflections they caught of the buildings around.
“You should do that,” Matt said as he walked alongside me. “You should try fine art photography.” We talked for a while, about abstraction, about how we see the world, and while I couldn’t quite define what fine art photography was, I felt determined to explore this suggestion.
It’s taken a while to get here, but I’m now starting to understand what this means for my work.
I make photos with the goal of producing physical prints that people can experience in a physical space. Being a “print photographer” is a vague definition, though. Trying to talk about working in both digital and analog, as I’ve tried to do for a few years, just confuses everyone and opens the door to potentially retro-fetishishic debates (film versus digital, new cameras versus old).
So I’ve begun to call myself a fine art photographer.
At first it felt pretentious, as if my answer to the question “What kind of photographer are you?” was the curt “A better one than you.” But I don’t see it that way.
Rather than being a statement about quality, being a fine art photographer is a statement about process.
In any field of photography, quality is assumed; it’s like table-stakes, the price you pay to play. Standing out, getting noticed, being attractive, will all depend on learning to make photos that have some sort of appeal, some level of “good” or “interesting”.
Thinking about process and about the end goal of the photo-making craft has been liberating. As cool as something like Instagram might be for sharing photos and making communities, I’m not a photographer who lives to make “click me please” visual cubes on a smartphone screen.
In interviews, David Lynch has repeatedly said we are missing something if we only ever watch TV and films on smartphone screens. The experience cannot be compared to watching something in a cinema or even in a darkened room with a large TV. In the same way, I believe we diminish our sense of what photography is if we only ever experience photos on small screens and never in print, or at an exhibition.
Some photos come to life best in a physical space.
Increasingly, our digital landscape is becoming a gilded cage; our means of working with and sharing our photos existing within the paid walls of the companies that create our editing software or our operating systems. And the avenues for sharing those photos are online services that reduce our work to mere content, existing in order to fuel an advertising-based model for products that have nothing to do with our creative lives.
The Three Permissions
In many ways fine art photography is about giving oneself, as a photographer, permission to explore the craft of photography outside the issues which typically define the contemporary conversation about photography.
1. Permission to think outside market and day rates.
2. Permission to abstract and theorise.
3. Permission to thematicise and decontextualise.
Too often the first move in the “What kind of photographer are you?” discussion is the tired notion of “professional versus amateur”. This matters if we are looking to hire a photographer for a certain kind of job (say corporate headshot photography), or maybe seeking advice about how to run a photographic business. But if our goal is the photos themselves, rather than the commercial process that sustains the photographer, then it’s irrelevant. Not all professional photographers make exceptionally good photos, let alone photos we might consider to be art, and not all artistic or exceptionally good photos are made by people who derive their sole income (or even part of it) from photography.
There is creative freedom when we give ourselves permission to start with and focus upon the photo and the place where it will be experienced.
Even more than professional status, photography is too often obsessed with purity and process. Film is better than digital because it can’t be “photoshopped.” Digital is better than film because it can be manipulated. In too many ways photography is trapped in naive conversations about literality and documentation, about what is “real.”
Photos don’t have to be about something, and even when they show us a recognisable object or scene, they can be about something else. Neither do photos have to be just photos, framed to a perfect and consistent ratio (1 x 1, 8 x 10, or whatever). They can be shaped in different ways and mixed with any other media.
There is creative freedom when we give ourselves permission to ignore calls for purity of process or form and explore ways our photos can be realised as physical objects.
Because “the assignment” was for so long core to the notion of professional photography, it lingers over not just our understanding of photography but also the way software works and photos are presented and photography is taught. This is not invalid, but it is also not essential. What is within the frame need not be the point of the photograph. Our photos don’t have to tell a story in the conventional narrative sense. There is creative freedom when we give ourselves permission to think in non-narrative and non-linear ways, and when we have enough looseness in our sense of what photography is to play with themes and contexts.
Fine Art In Focus
These permissions are resolved in a focus to create physical forms of photography. Personally I see this as the expression of personal perception, the way one’s experience provides a framework for interpreting and understanding reality. But this is my abstraction, the direction in which I want to push fine art photography.
Fine art photography doesn’t have to be difficult or hard. It might at times be very challenging to experience, but it doesn’t have to be “hard”.
In Asia we too often assume we must make our art hard, difficult, perhaps even incomprehensible in order for it to have value. Art seems an invalid career choice. We’re tempted to layer our work in meta-discourse, in explanations about why we make art, or why we’ve chosen to self-identify as artists. We weigh it down. My initial reaction to Matt’s comments as we talked in Rajasthan came from this place. Making Fine Art Photos felt like something I could do, from a purely practical perspective, but justifying this choice in a greater discourse of what photography is, felt too hard.
You don’t have to be a part-time philosopher to be a fine art photographer, even if it sometimes feels like you do.
Perhaps this struggle is inevitable, if the work is political or rich in cultural commentary. But, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Beyond the permissions we discussed, the greatest freedom of fine art photography is the freedom to let the work be its own message, without needing to ground it either in a traditional genre of photography (landscape, portrait, etc) or in an external justifying narrative (politics, culture, or the artist’s biography).
Of course, there may be themes, theories, and narratives in the photos, but the primary thing, the creative obsession we are trying to set free, is the photo.