Flashback to 2008— photos of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s twins sold for $14 million. A decade later— in 2018, Saif Ali Khan says in an interview that the paparazzi in India charge Rs. 1500 for his son’s photos. These aren’t examples of fine art photography but show us that even on a non-artistic or non-aesthetic level, the value that an image holds is enormous.
Aesthetically speaking, in 2011, a print was auctioned for $4.3 million, making it the most expensive photograph ever sold. It was Gursky’s Rhein II (image below). The reasons behind their enormous value could be that images hit us politically, emotionally, and can even shape the way we think.
Photography can be of 3 kinds, namely— commercial, photojournalism, or fine art photography— all tasking in their own ways, but the fine art photography route demands more nuance and understanding.
Until some time ago, I had absolutely no clue what ‘fine art photography’ meant. Fine Arts, to me, was an esoteric discipline, as far as I was concerned, a calling for those with gifted fingers, not for the likes of me.
Photography, on the other hand, in today’s generation, is a cakewalk owing to the digital platform. There is no dearth of exposure. This acts as a double-edged sword, as competition, too, increases in proportion to the saturation in the market.
Yet as a mainstream experience, photography is dying and is no longer a source of income for a broad group of photographers. For instance, around 50 years ago, our grandparents, to take a family photograph, had to hire a photographer that they could afford only maybe once a year. Also, have you noticed the photo labs around your neighborhood die slowly?
Fewer and fewer people want prints, so their job is reduced to ID photos. With the camera on the mobile phone, everyone can dabble in photography. Speaking of which, are the standards slipping, as believed by a section of photographers?
In 2013, Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer found herself in the spotlight for a comment she made at Flickr’s NYC press event:
“There’s no such thing as Flickr Pro today because (with so many people taking photographs) there’s really no such thing as professional photographers anymore.”
Although Meyer later clarified via Twitter that her statement was about the “terabyte on Flickr and how many photos everyone takes” and a “misstatement” made “out of context,” this argument is still used by many.
Another section believes that photography is changing for the better. The Ken Rockwells of the DigitalRev is making photography more accessible.
Whatever one may believe, for people like you and me who value it, photography is an art. Fine art photographers share the same if not more passion and do not attempt to achieve anything less than the best.
Fine art photography demands excellence and originality from one’s work. The piece of work should stand out, not because it is marketed well, rather because it is extraordinarily compelling.
On the Flip Side
With the advent of digital art photography, one does not know where the threshold is between the purity of photographic work and the need to alter the image to tell a visual story or transmit a feeling. You see, digital art photography allows not just retouching but altering the image, i.e., adding elements not present in the shot. The lines have (literally) become blurred!
Following one’s passion can be life-changing. It is imperative that one trusts the process, but in the process, fine art photographers tend to get stressed out with things beyond their control. Sometimes, the artistic validity of many galleries is dubious; nothing more than kitsch galleries.
Quite a few of the famous galleries have a lot to do with who you know and how much power they hold in the market. In this regard, artist cooperatives come in handy.
Similarly, “Salon” is a photography community whose members compete in the International Arena, and winners are awarded star ratings and distinction from PSA or Photographic Society of America and FIAP or International Federation of Photographic Art.
But, What Is Fine Art Photography?
Often, photographers define fine art photography as photos that are worth hanging in a gallery or available for prints on websites. However, that is quite a simplistic take.
Does it sum up everything that goes into creating fine art photography? Or even answer the question— what is a fine art photograph? On the contrary, there are likely plenty of examples of photographs hanging in galleries that can’t, in any way, be defined as ‘art,’ if we were to go by the same definition.
What do we call it if we take a sort-of fine art photograph of a woman in a wedding dress? Many wedding photographers these days designate themselves as ‘fine art wedding photographers.’ Many claim that one cannot be a wedding photographer and a fine artist as they are completely separate. Yet, I would beg to differ if we look at the image below.
Recently, someone claimed that one could go wacky on images, add a weird curving blur, then call them fine art photos or fine art portraits. But of course, that is not how fine art photography works!
Listening and sharing insights helps one become a better photographer. Having the gift of the gab when it comes to fine art photography makes it easier to share insights. Reading literature and books on art also helps.
Robert Atkins’s latest book, named ArtSpeak, was published in 2013. He says, “Somehow, the language used for describing and discussing art has a reputation for unusual opacity, even sadism.” ArtSpeak, the book, is not like that. As the subtitle says, it is a “Guide to Contemporary Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords, 1945 to the Present”.
In simple, concise, and clear short notes, it explains the meaning, origin, and proponents of terms, such as— commodification and formalism, Neo-Dada, Neo-Expressionism, Neo-Geo, New Image, the New Leipzig School, New media, New Realism, New Wave, Nouveau Réalisme, Socialist Realism, Social Realism, and Spatialism, to name some of the 146 categories in the book.
In addition to books, before trying a hand at photography, one could have a look at other artists to see how they engaged with fine art photography. We have at our disposal today’s websites, galleries, and open access to works of fine artists. One cannot merely say ‘I don’t know,’ as ignorance is a choice in today’s age when the world is at our fingertips.
Legendary photographer Steve McCurry’s green-eyed Afghan girl has appeared several times on the cover of National Geographic.
Austrian photographer Josef Hoflehner is quite heavy on minimalism. His photography is dramatic and black and white.
Late Czech photographer, Joseph Sudec was nicknamed The Poet of Prague. His works are deemed emotional photographs. (Today, fine art photography that tends to invoke extremely emotional response comes under the category of pathetic art.)
You can see below an attempt at emulation of his work by Jason Ralston, who explains that Sudec’s works are toward the darker side and his shadows are flat.
Some Fine Examples of Fine Art Photography Galleries
When visiting fine art galleries, websites go through the artists’ section first. The bios, links and the artist statement help reach the works one is interested in. Also, if one is looking for some fine art photography inspiration, these galleries are fascinating to scroll through!
- The Hungry Ghost Collective is a group of nine fine art photographers from Chicago. Their stuff is raw, edgy, and bizarre fine art photography. If you can appreciate this sort of fine art photography, HGC is a great blog to follow. E.g., a cowboy sitting on a rocking chair, black and white snowy landscapes.
- A website that procures literature on fine art photography— Daylight. It is the website to visit if you are looking for fine art photography books. What’s more, you can publish your own book on photography without any publishing fee! In return for publishing, one just has to purchase a book from their store to support another fellow fine art photographer.
Clearly, the non-profit organization has its heart in the right place. It aims to revitalize the relationship between art, photography, and the world-at-large. Isn’t this what fine art photography is all about?
- Imagination is an artist’s best friend and worst enemy. Sufficient evidence from the annals of history prove that some of the world’s greatest artists were either depressed or bipolar.
Van Gogh was battling depression when he looked out his asylum window at nighttime, the premise for the celebrated— Starry Nights. Eventually, Van Gogh chopped off his ear and killed himself.
Renowned Renaissance sculptor, Michelangelo, battled anxieties related to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
We’ve all seen the Expressionist painting of Edward Munch, The Scream. He had described it as an honest and ugly interpretation of his anxiety, which is a recurring theme in many of his paintings.
Francisco Goya did 14 dark and demonic paintings on the walls of his house, which were born out of his hallucinations, one of them are the disturbing and graphic— Saturn Devouring His Son.
Plato, in Phaedrus, says through one of his characters that artists were bestowed with divine madness. This is similar to the popular ‘mad genius’ trope.
The restless genius, Leonardo Da Vinci, was diagnosed with ADHD or Attention Deficit Disorder.
Modernist writer Virginia Woolf was depressed and ended her life by tying stones to her body and swimming into the middle of a river. We were fortunate to read her stream of consciousness novels.
Poet Sylvia Plath, another depressed genius, died of Carbon Monoxide inhalation by putting her head inside an oven. The famous line— “Is there no way out of the mind?” is attributed to her.
Of course, the lingering question is whether genius is a result of ‘madness’ or the cause of it.
Coming to the field of fine art photography, those interested in photography and affected by mental illness have a great community to join— Broken Light Collective. A scroll through its web page and testimonials will prove beyond doubt that it is a safe and accepting environment.
What’s more, even if you don’t have a mental illness, having a close family member or friend qualifies you to become a member. All of us know of people in our immediate or extended family who have mental health issues. This would be a great way of reaching out to them and creating a dialogue.
- A fine art gallery located at London named Heist combines a myriad of fine art forms— photography, performance art, and interior design, to name a few. More than a gallery, Heist is an experience. However, it is bent toward the polished side, and those of us with interest in the raw will not find it as appealing.
- The Bay Area Photographers Collective, established in 1999, consists of photographers who are local to the San Francisco Bay area. This is more like a club that is dedicated to the fine art photographer’s community and its concerns. The website contains members of galleries, activities, a yearly publication, and events and exhibits that can be found around San Francisco Bay.
- Are you looking for international photography competitions? Check out The Motif Collective, especially for fine art photographers. The photograph that wins is displayed in the winner’s gallery every month, along with the author’s details and links.
As subjective as it is, if there is one quality that binds all fine art together, it is the message. Both the photography and message the audience can find inspiring. Nevertheless, like all art, it is at the end of the day, “Art for art’s sake,”; an end in itself.
Fine art photography isn’t a cakewalk; artists usually spend long hours planning how to compose each photograph. In such an oeuvre as fine art photography, only a single image is often insufficient. Ergo, fine art photographers have a body of work or stock pictures that tell a story.
The collection of photographs is bound together by a statement. This simple paragraph of text acts as a mission statement for the project and helps set the stage for viewers to get the most out of the work as intended by the photographer.
As with every other form of communication, sometimes the viewers/receivers don’t get the message that was intended. Having said that, fine art photographers should graciously accept feedback from the audience as part of their creative process, as constructive feedback only helps them improve, especially for those who value photography.
And Finally . . .
This cannot be stressed enough, but the work should be about you! Whatever you are passionate about. Time to let down the guards— don’t worry about what other people will think or say. If you know what your vision is, what your subject is, and how you want to create your work, then your statement and entire oeuvre should come easily.
If you have a vision and have thought-provoking ideas that you want to convey and nuances that you wish to foray into, then you are more likely to be creating fine art photography. And don’t get me wrong here, but sometimes not trying to ‘be’ anything can also hold a message. Perhaps one should sit and think about what you want your work to be about. It is also fine to just take photos because you enjoy it.