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Work: What is Fine Art Photography?

This was originally published at Photongraphics.

What is fine art photography? Even photographers can't agree on the meaning, but I think this is more over the definition of art than anything else. As always, I tend toward a more practical definition.

I don't get too hung up on the idea of "Art" (with a capital A) because the term has meant different things to different people in different times, as Ernst Gombrich has pointed out. And I have deliberately avoided trying to define fine art in terms of the many truly great photographers like Yosef Karsh, Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, et al. simply because that is a whole subject unto itself and achieving such greatness is, for most of us, beyond reach.

But creating high-quality prints that someone will buy is not beyond reach. So, sidestepping the art controversy, I'll say that to produce fine art prints you need to be a craftsman. And to be a craftsman is to be a master of your medium. The works of a master are implicitly the sum product of all his training and experience. That said, we cannot presume that something is "fine art" without at least some notion of purpose in the print.

I offer you my own definition of fine art photography:

  • The prints are unique expressions of the ideas of the photographer.
  • The prints have aesthetic merit, in terms of subject matter and composition.
  • Printing is done by hand, which offers the best control over print tonality.
  • The prints are properly fixed, washed and toned to "archival" standards, insuring maximum life of the images.
  • Supporting materials (print paper, toner, matting, frame, etc.) are selected to meet archival standards while taking into account the aesthetic and viewing requirements of the subject matter.

It has been generally understood that colour photographs do not meet the stringent requirements for being "archival" quality. There are, however, alternative-process colour materials that do meet or exceed these requirements.

Almost any subject matter may qualify for fine art printing. Even so, you need to consider where and how these prints will be displayed, the most common settings being homes, offices, galleries and art museums. When I have been commissioned to produce fine-art photographic prints, it has usually been portraiture (environmental, corporate, glamour and, for lack of a better term, "keepsake nudes"). But they need not be limited to these. It really depends on the buyer.

Fine art prints are not necessarily commissioned works either. Most of my exhibition works are purely my own artistic whim and, frankly, I'm not intent on selling them, but there are people who express interest in buying them. Of course it all comes down to a matter or price.

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