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Thursday, 17 June 2021


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I notice that you're switching between "fine art photographER" and "fine art photographY" (sorry for the ugly CAPS--I won't do it anymore). I think that's a relevant difference. Fine art photographer suggests an identity, be it professional, personal, or artistic. "I am a fine art photographer and think of myself as such." Fine art photography suggests a practice, or even more so I think, a product. "This photo deserves to be viewed on its own terms." But, there need not necessarily be any overlap. In fact, the history of "fine art" might suggest this. A lot of ancient stuff displayed in museums (think Greek pottery) were functional--they stored beans or were used in religious ceremonies. Those who made them were not "fine artists" although they were no doubt skilled artists. But, we treat their products as "fine art." This also suggests that something can be or become "fine art" even if not produced as such--their products were not "fine art" but functional items. Still, it turns out that the items they produced are worthy of respect and attention in their own right apart from their 'function.' I think this could be true of photographers and photography. Some photographers think of themselves as fine art photographers and produce photography that reflects that. Some photographers don't think of themselves or practice being a fine art photographer, but nevertheless produce work that could be considered "fine art" insofar as it is worthy of respect and attention in its own right.
Actually, I think I've worked myself to something of a definition of fine art--any piece (no matter its origins, intentions, or creator) that turns out to be worthy of respect and attention for its own sake.

Thanks, Mike. This was a more in-depth explanation than I expected or deserve, but I appreciate you taking the time to explain and provide a few visual examples.

[I should thank you--you were the inspiration for the post. It feels deficient to me, only because real cases are so rich and diverse. --Mike]

I once read somewhere that the only people who pay attention to new poetry are other poets. After reading this post, I am thinking that the same could be said about art photographers. It’s essentially an irrelevance to the world at large.

As far as it goes for myself, I long since gave up any protection of being an art photographer. If anything, I would consider myself a documentarian, who attempts to take an artistic approach. And for a very limited audience.

[I'm rather bewildered by this comment. The majority of the greatest photographers in the medium's history were or are art photographers, and they account for the majority of the photographers the public knows about and cares about. How in the world does that translate to irrelevance and a "very limited" audience? The opposite is much closer to the case. --Mike]

What is an “art photographer”?
Art photography, AKA fine art photography, is just a way of doing photography. It's either a mode of approach or a mode of practice. "

Hmm… Well I guess my simplest response would differ from yours, Mike. I would aver that commercial / documentary / portrait photographers are generally hired to record how something looked. (Weddings, jewelry, food, real estate, employees, political protests, etc.). An “art” photographer makes images primarily to express ideas and opinions.

Beyond that, many of the distinctions you describe don’t really hold-up. Art and commercial photographers' apparent modes of operation can be quite similar. Greg Crewdson is a strong example of a 100% art photographer who operates more like a major filmmaker or studio photographer. Visiting one of his shoots in some small town is like visiting a movie set. In fact, that’s where he gets his crew…the film industry.

And in fact, art photography can be (and often IS) commissioned. And not all art photographers were birthed straight from an MFA program. Many actually started in some form of commercial work. (Some even continue to moonlight as such to pay the bills.) One of your examples, Julie Blackmon, might be one such crossover. I met her some years ago at an early show of her work at Catherine Edelman Gallery. I though I recall her telling me that she was doing commercial work until she had her first child. Then she decided to use her Hasselblad gear to portray her impressions of domestic life with children…and the rest is her very successful history.

And lots of very popular commercial photographers are allowed a great deal of self-direction by their clients. Almost like an art photographer...with a budget.

So in my opinion the primary, and perhaps sole durable, distinction between art and commercial photographers is their end objective; presenting personal opinions / impressions / ideas -vs- presenting records and descriptions.

[Well, it seems to me we're saying much the same thing. You said, "the primary, and perhaps sole durable, distinction between art and commercial photographers is their end objective; presenting personal opinions / impressions / ideas -vs- presenting records and descriptions" and "commercial / documentary / portrait photographers are generally hired to record how something looked...an 'art' photographer makes images primarily to express ideas and opinions." And I said, an art photograph is "a picture that's more about the photographer and what they're trying to say than it is a record or a document of what's pictured" and that art photographers' "work is about feelings, ideas, and effects on the viewer more than it is about the subjects of the pictures." Those don't seem very far off, once you take into account the vagaries of trying to put the ideas into words. --Mike]

In the early days of the century, when I was still living in NYC, I popped into a gallery that represented Nick Brandt, the wildlife/portrature photographer. I still like his stuff, which kind of mixes the mode of fashion photography with subject matter from the African veldt. Like: what if Helmut Newton was restricted to large, wild animals? Or What if Sabastiao Salgado photographed animals rather than people? Anyway, I asked the assistant the price of one his cheetah prints, heard the answer, felt faint, and left the gallery. Turns out if I want a picture like one of those, I have to go to Africa and try and make it myself. I respect the skill and the vision, but not the food chain, I guess. Too rich for my blood.

I wonder sometimes whether photography's ubiquity has hurt its status as a medium. Certainly it is both easier to see more "Fine Art" photography than it ever was AND harder to find things that I really like. But I guess folks with a vision who know what they are doing and how to communicate that vision are as rare now as they ever were. There is no question in my mind that Nick Brandt's is a well-developed, singular aesthetic vision. I'll let the philosophers debate whether it's "Art." But I'd live with any of those prints if money was no object.

A guy with a trust fund.

[Happens. Eliot Porter had a trust fund (he threw a party when his income from photography equaled his income from his trust fund); I believe, although I am not sure, that both Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson had significant family money. --Mike]

Some of the photographers whose art I very much enjoy seem to bypass the processes you describe as part of being an "Art Photographer".
They have vision and chops but their photography feels less to me like a concious body of work aimed at a gallery than the gifts left in the wake of a well lived life.
I get this feeling about Wright Morris, Arnold Newman, Irving Penn, Pete Turner and David Douglas Duncan.
No matter in what context you encounter their work the sheer excellence of it establishes it's credentials as fine art.
I may be completely full of s**t on this.
It may be that their work so completely blows me away that I'm not thinking straight.
What do you think?

A brilliant post....thank you.

I'm not sure about categorizing photographers. But that's normal; people are hard to categorize, artists even more so. I think some of them try to squirm out if they sense they're being put into categories!

At least, the categories can't be considered mutually exclusive. I don't think one can reasonably deny Henri Cartier-Bresson as an artist, or as a photojournalist. Ditto Peter Turnley, for that matter. Then there's Ansel Adams; his reputation is more associated with landscape than photojournalism, but his FSA work is still widely known.

Whatever art is, it's not solely decoration. Art people buy to put on their own walls is functioning as something at least very like decoration (and some very powerful art is perhaps too powerful to live with right in front of your face fulltime), but it is also doing more than that.

I do think any work which affects people deeply, and especially any work which does so over a long period of time, must be accepted as being art.

Does this mean a work stops being art if things change to the point where it no longer affects people? I personally don't find that a useful idea; in fact the point of labeling something as art is to flag that it has had strong affects on a wide range of people, and that may be more important when it's not obvious in front of your face (when the affects were long ago).

One of the huge distinctions is photographers who are known because people acquire copies of their work entirely by choice, and choose to look at them, versus photographers whose work is placed in front of you. This may not split at the same boundary where "art photographers" split off from others; but at least I think there's some connection. (Book covers and magazine covers and photojournalism and advertisements are placed in front of us; but images we buy to look at on our walls are our choice. Books of photos can be bought for many reasons, on both sides.)

It's a darned good thing I don't have to come up with a full theory that satisfies me in all the corner cases here! Kind of fun to look at the various views.

[One small correction, Ansel A. was never an FSA photographer. --Mike]

I've never been exactly sure that ANY photography was an art form as opposed, say, to a craft (or a "high craft.) A painter or sculptor or playwright or dancer doesn't rely on anything "out there." For example, there's a book about Cezanne in which the author used a camera to capture Cezanne's most famous motifs. Guess what? The paintings don't look much like the photographs. Cezanne stood in front of a motif and then changed everything, and was in control of every single change. With possible exceptions of a few abstractionists who use photography as their medium (and usually not successfully) photography relies on "out there," something besides the photographer himself/herself.

Someone might also argue that art photography, if it exists, should be categorized on purely formal terms. David Douglas Duncan is an exceptional war photographer and a documentarian, but not an artist. James Nachtwey is a war photographer and documentarian AND an artist. If you look at their photos, you pick up on that immediately, and Nachtwey has been criticized for finding art in savagery. (Though nobody had much trouble finding art in many depictions of the crucifixion of Christ; see the Isenheim Altarpiece.)

I really do think that the vast majority of "art" photography would be better categorized as craft, as is the gorgeous walnut furniture by George Nakashima.

[I used to make a similar argument, with the twist that, at the very highest levels, any craft can become art...whether it's woodworking, pottery, calligraphy, watchmaking, glassblowing, photography, or what have you. George N. was certainly an artist or the term has no meaning. I do think it can be argued that that the notion of photography being "art" has in some ways weakened the medium and been bad for it overall. (This is not a popular viewpoint.) At least, making that case is interesting. --Mike]

A massive eye opening introduction to becoming an ART photographer.
This guide gives you the low down and exhaustive details of 'making it' in photography through galleries.


Mike, your list of photographers with "significant family money" is a bit incomplete. Yes, this type of photographer was more common when I was a young man, alas before you were born, than now.

Lartigue comes to mind as an example.

I believe Peter Wright is right that art photographers are largely an irrelevance to the world at large. The number of photographers the world knows about and cares about is a very small number, and even a majority of a very small number is pretty irrelevant to the world at large.

"The majority of the greatest photographers in the medium's history were or are art photographers, and they account for the majority of the photographers the public knows about and cares about. "

Really? I think you are looking at it from inside the photo-world bubble.

In the UK a common comment to anyone with a 'good' camera for many decades (and still for those of a certain age) would be to say, "Who do you think you are? David Bailey?"

Another photographer's name I might expect non-photography people to know here would be Don McCullin. The only others might be Martin Parr and Rankin.

While these might have their pictures shown in galleries I'd class Bailey and Rankin as commercial photographers, McCullin as a photojournalist and Parr as a documentary photographer (although he plays the art game).

One interesting thing about photographs is that depending on their context of display they can fit in different categories. A commercial, reportage or documentary photo can also be an art photograph.

TBH I don't think the majority of the general public give a toss about big name photographers or art photography.

I make Peter Wright bang on the money. Poetry and 'art' really don't have much relevance to the lives of most people.

I don’t know… sounds like a quest to put a creative in a box. If you have to define what’s in the sausage, maybe don’t eat it? One should look at photos for what they are…

If I won the lottery, I would continue to make my art photographs until the money ran out.

While I am certain that you know more about this than I do, it has always struck me as pretentious for a photographer to refer to themselves as an "Art Photographer...... let alone "Fine Art Photographer" as though 'Regular Art wasn't lofty enough.

It seems to me, Photographer ought to be enough.
When the term is applied to us by others, that seems reasonable and descriptive --along the lines you mentioned.

Our Work doesn't become Art by personal decree.

I struggle with this idea a bit. Was Frank TRYING to say something in the Americans or did his voice come from how differently he SAW and interpreted America. With a lot of that type of work, I'm just not sure how much I believe in the original "artistic" intention. How do we separate his intentions while shooting from the words, meanings and intentions that others have attached to his images? And I think you have written here that his intentions are only part of the photograph - that the viewers' reaction and opinions about the images are vitally important.

It seems that much of the photography that we now consider "art photography" was not necessarily shot with that intention? Does that matter?

I cringe when I see the term “fine art.” It reminds me of the Thomas Kinkaide franchises in shopping centers and shops in tourist towns selling kitsch.

@John Gillooly- Frank's intention was made fairly clear in his Guggenheim application- although, admittedly, public interpretation (mostly condemnation at first) is another matter altogether.

@Christer Almqvist- The "list" is far... from complete. We should all have the trust fund, and talent, of a William Eggleston to drink and photograph our way into photo art stardom (said only partially tongue in cheek).

Richard Prince is a gonif bastard and if the universe is just he will spend eternity in the hottest part of hell.

I was waiting for the most important distinction: you're an Art Photographer when you have an Artist's Statement written in International Art English.

I can't believe I read the whole article and all the comments to this point and didn't see this mentioned!

Gentle readers, I implore you to visit the Arty Bollocks Artist's Statement Generator. You will not be sorry. https://www.artybollocks.com/generator.html

This post bordered on the razor thin edge of TL/DR for me, but I read it in sufficient depth to catch your drift.

I'm kinda "ho-hum' on "art photography". I find some of it, e.g. Robert Frank's work, street photography by William Klein, etc., fairly resonant, but I find it a lot of it to be pretentious, abstruse, and in not infrequently, just really bad photography.

I'd much rather look at photojournalism, reportage, or commercial work; e.g. the wonderful work by Alfred Newman or James Nachtwey, or the amazing conceptual and composite work of Renee Robyn, just to name a few.

And Richard Prince is just a rip-off artist, plain and simple. I'm with Richard Swearinger on that one.

[I think you might mean Arnold Newman. Alfred E. Neuman was the MAD Magazine mascot. --Mike]

As a nightcap to this topic I think some TOP readers might enjoy this tangentially-related new book by Andy Grundberg:

"How Photography Became Contemporary Art: Inside an Artistic Revolution from Pop to the Digital Age"

I've only recently started it myself but it's bound to alternately make you laugh and to probably anger you. Grundberg is a good, albeit rather dry, writer on photography in the art world with many seminal titles to his name.

I think this applies to photography as art more than any other medium except, perhaps, video as art: https://youtu.be/3v8DbLWAXvU

I'm interested in Dave Lumb's take, above, and agree with pretty much all he says, though I think that there may be slightly more appreciation of photography in America than in the UK. I'd also add that I think nine people out of ten would be hard pressed to name five successful painters working today.

Slightly tongue in cheek but think there’s a real distinction in the modern photo-world between an Art Photographer, who might use the term documentary and aspire to appear in public galleries, versus a Fine Art Photographer who probably aspires to be in Lenswork or still uses the bastard term Giclée to describe inkjet prints.

DYAC! (Darn You, Autocorrect!)

Yes, Mike, I did in fact mean Arnold Newman, not Alfred.

Thanks for providing a keen editorial eye.


No discussion of Art Photography is complete without addressing a root question, "What is Art?". A good summary of the issue can be found in the Wikipedia article on the theory of art (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_art). You'll find there is no universally agreed-upon answer. Therefore, pick one of the definitions if you like, but be tolerant of other opinions, and avoid pigeon-holing.

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