One of the most challenging questions to answer in any field where creativity and individual point of view has a role has to be, ‘Is it art?’
Starting with whether art can be defined in any helpful way, the question always requires a certain amount of personal interpretation and feeling to answer, meaning there can never be a true consensus.
Whether the mode of expression is painting, music, or literature, work can be a sublime work of art to some and something less to others.
Photography is no different. Like writing, which sees a distinct division between journalism and fiction, photography is understood to have a clear division between the figurative and the artistic.
The representation is photography that seeks to record a scene as it naturally occurred, without any interference, staging, or even artistic interpretation.
The artist aims to create something beautiful but not necessarily realistic or accurate. The question of what is creative photography ultimately comes down to this concept of transformation.
Digital photography has changed the way people take photos and how many are taking them.
Anyone with a camera can be a photographer these days, and many of those want to be professional photographers or artists, though they can be both.
All over the internet, there is a rise of those who are calling themselves Fine Art Photographers, so maybe it is time to look into what they are and how they are different to the usual photographers.
Both images would look lovely framed and hanging on a wall, but if what you are trying to achieve is fine art, only the first would fit that category.
Recently we heard a photographer online saying that you could go wacky on an image, add a weird curving blur, then call it fine art. That doesn’t make an image artistic; that makes it silly.
There doesn’t seem to be a definitive explanation or definition for what Fine Art Photography is, but there do appear to be things that help define what it is.
During these sessions, we talked about techniques, what was working, and what wasn’t. We would also discuss the ideas behind the work and where we wanted to go with it.
On top of that, we had individual tutorials with lecturers to help us discuss our ideas and how to achieve them. The idea was to get a plan together to go about doing the work, what we could use to support it, and look at other artists that did similar job to see how they conveyed their ideas.
These were invaluable in that they helped us work out what we were doing and the direction we needed to go.
In the modern era, the questions surrounding artistic photography have been complicated by technology.
Photographers now have potent tools at their disposal that can completely change the appearance of photos – and so do most people, in the form of the filters they can apply on photos taken with their smartphones and other devices.
Computer applications like Photoshop have also placed incredible abilities in the hands of otherwise untrained photographers.
As a result, modern photographers have split into two reactions:
- Increased manipulation: Direct manipulation of the subject and scene to differentiate their work not simply from representational photography but the amateur work produced by the automatic application of filters and effects.
- More naturalistic approaches: Some photographers have come to value natural light and effect-less techniques, seeking to transform their photos into art by only using traditional methods like framing and cropping.
Most people would more readily recognize the former as art due to the preparation and work that goes into setting up a shot – often involving lighting techniques, construction of sets, and the hiring of models.
However, while edging closer to a representative model, the latter approach still consists of the filter of an artistic perspective. While the result might be more subtle, it is still art.
Why Photography is Different from Other Art
It is part of a larger group called the third art (also known as the media art) or the seventh art (also known as the visual art).
Yet photography is a different art from others because it is based on reality.
The photographer uses developmental techniques that will produce a work that interprets reality at the exact time of the shooting. In this blog dedicated to the photographic approach, I do not talk about photo composition or photomontage techniques, as I said before.
These creative processes are no more extended photography but photographic.
The creator uses several photographs to create a universe in two dimensions; a universe with nothing in common with the natural universe at the time of a shot.
Even if it is an interpretation of the natural world, creation is no longer tangible. That fleeting moment no longer exists.
For me, artistic photography remains an interpretation of a natural scene, with techniques of development. The aim is to accentuate certain elements to create emotions or to provoke feelings.
What defines Artistic Photography?
First and foremost, artistic photography has to be transformational, not merely symbolic.
While you might happen to capture an incredible scene on your way to work, your photo can’t be considered art unless it has been changed in some way by your intelligence and thought process.
However, this doesn’t mean that artistic photography can only be achieved with complex staging and lighting or digital effects; in fact, some of the most creative photos ever taken have been landscapes – for example, the work of Ansel Adams.
This is because the creative transformation is more subtle than most people understand. You can apply an innovative filter to any photograph via the following:
- Framing: Simply by choosing to frame or crop the scene in a certain way, you can elevate a photograph to the status of art. Alfred Stieglitz’s famous photograph The Steerage (1907) is often considered the first crucial artistic photograph ever taken. While it could be seen as purely symbolic, Stieglitz’s decisions in framing, what to include in the scene, and linking the various shapes and lines that naturally occurred before him were transformational, resulting in a photograph of true art.
- Film choice: In the modern age, the selection of film stock, colour versus black and white, and other technical decisions can act as an artistic filter, transforming a scene even if no other staging or technical alterations are made to it.
- Positioning: Representational photography must take in the background it comes across. However, the location can be elevated by merely deciding to shoot the photo from a specific angle, a specific vantage point, and at a particular point in time.
Before work can become a fine art, the artist must have a vision of what they think their work will look like.
Fine art is about an idea, a message, or an emotion. The artist has something that they want to have conveyed in their work.
That idea or message may be something minor, a single word such as abandon, or it may be a complete statement, like exploring the way the moon affects the tides. It is a start. It is like a hypothesis.
The work you create to demonstrate your vision and ideas has to have consistency to it. When all the work is together, it has to have similarities.
Often artists will use the same medium and techniques for each idea.
Body of Work
In the end, there has to be a body of work that shows your ideas, subjects and techniques. If you were to get your images into a gallery, there would need to be uniformity to them all.
Finally, you would most likely need an artist statement. A short explanation of what the work is about, why you created it and how.
When you go to a gallery, you might look at the work and wonder what it is about, so you look for the artist statement.
It will help you figure out what the artist’s intentions were, the reasons why, and how they created that work.
Examples of Fine Art Photography
The genre of fine art photography is confusing partly because its definition is so vague. Fine art photos are images that are created solely for their imaginative or aesthetic quality.
It’s the opposite of documentary photography, which seeks to capture life, people, and significant events for memory and historical records.
Documentary and fine art photography are different in theory, but there’s a large grey area in practice.
For instance, if you care about aesthetics and photojournalism, how do you know when you’re creating fine art versus documentary photos?
Here’s one way to simplify the fine art versus documentary question. When you’re taking a photo, ask yourself, “What’s more important, the subject or the art?” Both are important, but which one inspired you to take the photo?
For example, if you’re photographing a birthday party because it looks cool and you want to remember it, or because you want to share pictures of it with others, then the subject is more critical.
If it were a different party with no significance to you, you wouldn’t take the photo. In this case, it’s documentary photography.
On the flip side, if you’re photographing the party because you see an opportunity to develop an idea or create something you’ve imagined, then art is more important.
The party may have no significance to you beyond that idea or the imagined picture you’re making. In this case, it’s probably fine art photography.
Fine Art Portraiture
Most portrait shoots require some creativity and forethought. However, with documentary-style portraits, creative planning is focused on the model’s identity.
You’re trying to highlight their personality rather than develop your ideas and art.
In fine art portraiture, it’s the reverse. The art you want to create – your ideas – are more important than the model’s personality.
For instance, look at these faceless portraits by Patty Maher. They’re an excellent example of how strong the photographer’s vision is in fine art.
This focus on art is perhaps most apparent in fashion photography, where the models’ personalities are often irrelevant and eclipsed by the concept of the shoot.
Unless the shoot is highlighting clothes and accessories, fashion photography tends to cross over into fine art photography.
Conceptual photography is, by definition, a type of fine art. For this reason, the two are often confused or used interchangeably.
Fine art is a broader category than conceptual photography; not all fine art is abstract, though all conceptual photos are fine art.
Conceptual pictures may also resemble fine art portraits.
The difference is that an abstract image represents a specific idea, such as fear or curiosity, while a nuanced art portrait may have no particular meaning.
Still Life Photography
Still, life photography is another genre with a large grey area between fine art and documentary photography.
The difference is, again, the purpose of the photo and the importance of the subject. Are you taking the still life picture because it is unique and wants to show it to others? Or are you experimenting with an idea or technique to create art?
For instance, you can find countless food images on Instagram, but the majority are spontaneous and documentary in style.
They show a particular location, dish, or moment when the photographer wanted to capture and share.
By contrast, in fine art food photography, the photographer’s imagination is evident in the picture. It’s not a memory; it’s something the photographer thought about and then executed artfully.
Fine Art Architectural Photography
Similar to landscapes, architecture is a subject you can’t bring into your studio. You have to go out, find unique angles, and develop a style that’s distinctly yours. In this way, you can present an artistic view of architecture that changes the way viewers see everyday buildings.
With architecture, too, you can develop ideas that you communicate through your images. For instance, fine art photographer Sharon Tenenbaum has shifted from celebrating the shape of architecture to focusing on the interaction between people and their architectural environment.
Fine Art Landscape & Nature Photography
Some fine art photographers thrive in a studio setting, where they can control all the shoot details.
Others thrive in natural environments, such as wild landscapes, where they can’t control everything.
Then, instead of creating a scene from their imagination, they put their creativity and style into a location that’s already there.
Delicate art nature and landscape photography have become increasingly popular thanks to image editors, which allow photographers to alter the appearance of a scene quickly.
But you don’t need an image editor to create fine art. There are a handful of other ways to make a striking fine art photo of nature.
For instance, you can find a unique perspective, use in-camera techniques, or develop a series of images around a core idea.
Though post-processing allows for more possibilities, it’s not a prerequisite to becoming a fine art photographer!
Fine Art Photojournalism / Street Photography
On the surface, photojournalism and street photography may seem purely documentary.
After all, documentary photography focuses on capturing reality so that it can be shared and remembered. Isn’t that what photojournalism is?
Yes, sometimes, but not always. Ever since news photographers began taking inspiration from art photographers in the 1960s and 70s, another motivation for photojournalism has emerged.
Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for photojournalists to focus on their images’ artistic and emotional impact, not just the scene’s reality.
They want to create visual narratives, which stir viewers’ emotions.
Typically, this emotional story isn’t created by coincidence.
Successful photojournalists do thorough research ahead of time, and after this preparation, they choose a story or idea they want to explore.
Then, they show up on the scene with this concept already in mind.
But even when a photographer is working spontaneously, letting their environment inspire them, they can still have a point of view they’re trying to communicate.
For example, take these photos of an ultra-orthodox community in Jerusalem, shot by street photographer Ilan Ben Yehuda.
Despite the spontaneity of the shots, they’re composed to create stories with themes of humour, irony, and surreality. In this way, they’re more like fine art than documentary photography.
Photography can be either artistic or merely descriptive. Suppose a photographer decides to make creative photographs.
In that case, it is because he wants to deliver messages and emotions, to share his imagination with either a limited audience or a large one.
Regardless of who the receiver of these emotions is, photography always remains an act of sharing. In photography, some limits cannot be exceeded—the photographer should not integrate elements absent at the time of the shooting.
In this case, he becomes a photographer and leaves the field of photography. The role of the artist-photographer is to share, to make people dream, but the real purpose it serves is as support.
The photographer can interpret it, transcend it, but not deform it by adding elements to it. We believe that it should not depart from this rule. In any case, it is the one we impose on our daily work. Be humble, patient, constant, persevering, and persistent because the road to excellence is long.