Fine Art Photography? You Be The Judge.
My friend, Jerry Feist, arranged an introduction with Ellen Zaslaw, a local psychologist but also an avid photographer. She sent me an email wanting to get together and chat and explaining that she was not destined to be a pro photographer, but she seems headed in that direction, investing in pro gear and posting her photos on a website (click here to see her site). I realize a lot of non-pros put work up on the web, but a lot of it is hardly worth looking at. Looking at Ellen’s work, she obviously has a great eye for the subject, and great composition. A good sense of color, nice black and whites as well. I wrote her back saying I thought her work was really well suited for magazine and books. Good travel documentary type stuff and sensitive captures of local flavor and landscapes.
She said she was interested in meeting me because she didn’t find many local photographers who approach photography from a fine arts perspective. And that got me thinking about “fine art” photography. I think many people associate fine art photography with the work of the well known, Adams, Weston, Abbott, Steiglitz, Evans, and on and on. The names from museums and galleries. But what qualifies you as a fine art photographer?
Working in an art museum, I’ve been in close proximity to so many great photographers’ works. Our permanent collection contains hundreds of important works. Many of these are from less familiar names. Many began as other than “fine art” endeavors, such as the works of Margaret Bourke-White. Yet they have come to be museum works so qualify as fine art. So I suppose “collectability” contributes to the qualification. My work is not in the collections of museums, with the exception of a portrait I took of Eliot Porter and his wife that I gave to the Amon Carter Museum.
I think many people associate fine art photography with large prints, from large format cameras. Platinum and palladium and silver based prints with rich toning hand pulled in the darkroom by master printers from big negatives. But in today’s world of digital photography, fewer and fewer photographers seem to be remaining with film and darkroom printing. In our museum and others I have seen large prints from today’s high-end ink jet printers that were absolutely stunning. I certainly spent a lot of hours in the darkroom years ago. But haven’t had my hands in the chemistry for probably fifteen years now.
Many of the large photos in the Johnson Museum’s collection were machine printed by large commercial labs and flush mounted on aluminum. Not your typical matted, hand printed, paper image, but a product of the current technology and done in a way that delivers them with impact in a contemporary gallery.
I believe most of us who are “serious” photographers like to think of our work as “art”. I think people can generally recognize an artistically done image. All the normal art terms apply when looking at photography just as they do with other media. Color, line, form, composition, subject, interpretation, control, presentation, etc. It’s what makes an image stand out from just an average picture. Something special.
We strive for art. But “art” and “fine art” are highly subjective terms. Anyone who has been to an art gallery knows that. The judgment of one curator or critic can make an artist’s name or reputation, or destroy it. There is a wealth of art being created in the commercial photography realm, but even there I think most commercial photographers like to differentiate between their “commercial” work and their “art”. There seems to be a line drawn.
I shoot for my own pleasure these days, for the most part. I do offer my work for sale through Imagekind, and expect to promote my work through galleries and shows. I have several book ideas in the works. But it is an evolution and not a drive to be a commercial or professional artist. I’ve done that already and the pressure of depending on it as a business was never good for my creativity where photography was concerned.
I don’t want to think about whether every shot I take is marketable. I want to shoot what appeals to me. And I want to do it in a way that communicates something to others. That makes them want to stop and look, to think, to question, to imagine, to feel, to wonder. If my work moves the viewer in any way, then I’ve accomplished what I set out to do. Does that make it fine art photography? I hope so. I like to think of myself as a “fine art photographer”. But I guess there’s also that line between good and bad, or good and mediocre, that something special, that is still necessary. Just as there is a difference between a velvet Elvis at a roadside sale and a masterpiece at Christie’s auction. (That’s a little extreme but you get my drift). It’s that subjective thing.
What’s fine art and what’s not? You be the judge.
All Images are Copyright © George Cannon, All Rights Reserved