View Full Version : What is "Fine Art"?

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Ed Sukach
09-26-2006, 09:14 AM
Good post, Svend.

I'm being careful here ... I do not intend to disagree with anything you have written, - I'll just try to bring to attention some of my thoughts here;

"Academics" - Well there are academics and there are Academics ... this is a broad brush, and I don't think it is adequate to define the term for any useful purpose. There are academics that try to nurture a thirst for additonal learning, to "jolt" the students closed area of interest into something wider, to discover their inherent goodness; and there are those whose only mission seems to be the opposite - limiting and decreasing the area to conform to their own closed "world".
Come to think of it ... I think "Critics" fit those molds very well.

Academics of either stripe are as varied as anyone else in the General Public. Certainly they are not infallible, nor are they "gods", nor are they the ONLY discoverers of "Great Art' - left dormant for all those many years. Significant ... yes, arguably ... but not sole.

Another item for comment: "Art must show a mastery of technique (this is NOT meant to argue out you opinion, only to add another one)..." Well, yes ... but the question arises, "WHAT techique is that?" Certainly photograms - as an example - have been produced that are universally considered to be "art" ... even though they were the first, stumbling attempts at the technique. Every significant photographer, and probably this is not limited to photography - has reaped the benefits from departures from "Masterful" technique. In the words of Ansel Adams; "Thirty percent of the world's great photography is the result of fortunate mistakes."

"Great artists have discussed their works ad nauseum". Undeniable - but again, NOT all of them. Some are "VERY* private people, some believe that "If a work HAS to be explained, it is a failure." I would suggest that the variability here is as great (internally, I believe it is still greater) as it is among the general public. I DO have to suggest another possibility: I am convinced that there is another category - those who CANNOT discuss their work because they HONESTLY do not conscioulsy KNOW how to do that ... what "sets their work apart" from anothers.

There is so much more .... I've GOT to get to my darkroom.

09-26-2006, 09:22 AM
I don't believe there is any value in distinguishing between "art" and "fine art". The fine arts are generally acknowledged to comprise painting, sculpture, dance, theatre, music and cinema.

Lots of interesting points in your post.

On point that strikes me, and from a couple of other posts, is the different groupings that come under 'fine art' (however loosely) in different countries/countries.
In the U.K. theatre, music are not generally referred to as 'fine art' subjects but 'arts' subjects. 'Fine art' would now tend also to include subjects such as ceramics and textiles, with film-making possibly in the 'fine arts' group or possibly in 'media studies' (part of 'arts') depending on content....
I agree there's not much point distinguishing. It all becomes fairly arbitrary, particularly as the nature of 'art' is often, and increasingly, to break down boundaries.

You can also study photography full-time as a vocation, rather than an 'art' - i.e. an HND (or HNC) - Higher National Diploma/Certificate rather than a degree. I suppose it must be the same everywhere? It seems the boundaries here are a bit blurry, though the HND is definitely more technical and supposed to be more geared to the world of work, with lots of projects and deadlines, and the essays are probably shorter, though more frequent - and on the degree generally from what I understand you can be a lot more arty-farty :D In the end, though, not sure it makes a lot of difference....

Jim Jones
09-26-2006, 12:10 PM
Many things can be done with artistry: engineering, furniture and cabinet making, cosmetic surgery, cooking; the list can go on and on. Some automobiles were certainly works of art: Mercedes-Bentz in the 1930s and Lincoln Continental a few years later. A few radios from the 1920s showed artistry in both outward construction and electronic engineering. The model 1858 Remington revolver was art in both form and function. If the New York State Empire Building was a work of art (and I certainly consider it so), then the Golden Gate Bridge is also. Early Leica rangefinder cameras were more works of art than most of the photographs made with them.

Of course these are not examples of "fine art." They lack the cachet of certain critics and museums. However, like the much-maligned illustrations of Norman Rockwell, they arouse a special response in attentive people. That should be the goal in any art as it should be in life. "Fine art" can remain a term to be bandied about in idle talk or in merchandising.

Black Dog
09-26-2006, 02:18 PM
An interesting thread-for me 'fine art' is about inner seeing as much as outward technique.

11-04-2006, 05:11 AM
To me, fine art is the intent. As Alfred Stieglitz says, "Everything in the image is considered - Nothing overlooked". If someone went out and shot a bunch of photos for the day and came home to pick the best images of the batch and made prints of it (regardless if hand-printed or not), I would not consider that fine art. To me, fine art is being able to see the final print from which you stand and acting upon it by applying your knowledge in photography to render the desired outcome. Arriving at the values that you want on the negative and being able to render them flawlessly onto paper.

I've expressed to Kevin (kjsphoto) during my visit, that a photographer is only as good as what he or she knows of as good. Take a fresh photographer for example. Typically known to read Popular Photography and Outdoor Photography. What's the first thing that will happen? The gentleman will go out and photograph these landscapes and flowers to mimic that of what he "knows" as good. On the other hand, you have, say, John Sexton. He's worked with Ansel and has been exposed to a broad range of fine B&W prints and therefore he has a heightened sensitivity of what great is. A lot of photographers will argue that it is subjective and that a fine print is ultimately when the photographer himself is satisfied with what he has created. This is quite false. That is acceptance, up to one's knowledge, not fine art. There are criterias in what defines fine art just as there are criterias to what defines class. I find it unfortunate that there are people out there that defines fine art as snobbery when it is merely a criteria that photographers put upon themselves to excel and in accepting no compromises. Although the transference of one's creation must be sincere otherwise the photographer is only being dishonest to himself.

note: the criterias in which I speak of is not defined by me or anyone else, but in images that we still love today. Images that have stood the test of time.

Ed Sukach
11-04-2006, 03:20 PM
Interesting comments, djk....

But if the criteria for "Fine Art" hinges - absolutely - on the "deliberateness" involved in its creation, how does one justify Adams famous - and often quoted statement, "Thirty percent of the world's greatest photographs are fortunate accidents." ??

One thing I am certain of ... Adams may have been seen in many different "lights" to many people - but NEVER as a hypocrite.

If "Fine Art" MUST be the result of excrutiatingly thorough planning - what is to be done when one of us discovers a "surprise" ... something we had NOT intended - that is a shatteringly beautiful, expressive, enchanting work of our hands? Do we throw it away - to, in some way, protect our "honor" ... or is it possible to destroy anything like that - and call that action, "a good thing" ?

Two problems - Edward Weston's "Eggslicer, 1930". Weston thought this through thoroughly, and photoraphed it meticulously. He later came to write that he HATED that image, and he wished he had never taken that photograph. The critics and the public LOVED it!! Where does that photograph stand? -- Fine Art, or what?

Then, Adams' "Moonrise Over Hernandez". Whether well thought out or not is questionable - certainly it was HURRIED. Although critically acclaimed, and generally accepted as "Fine Art Photography", Adams was never satified with it, and continued to print from that negative until his death.

I won't belabor this. If an image comes out of my darkoom door - and it WORKS - no matter how it came into being, or what other criteria someone else may judge it against - I consider it "successful", and that is enough - more than enough - FAR more than "enough" - actually, a time for rejoicing - for me.

11-04-2006, 08:01 PM
Ed, you have a great point. This is where I've always felt that photography should be divided into two categories: The negative and the print. There are many instances where one can look at a negative and appreciate the vision that the photographer has applied in transcribing the scene. Then there are instances where the negative may be horrid and along comes a skillfull printer who can breath life into the final print. The conundrum that we run into when we try to define "fine-art", is that the term is used so loosely to describe an image. Fine art to one person can mean that the image contains great impact and content. To another, it can mean that the print quality and technicality is flawless despite bad or good composition/content. Being a photographer as well, I've learned to never approach an exhibited image by deconstructing it, because so much time will be spent whining rather than taking in the image for why it was made. I've always felt that the content is solely the decision of the photographer by what he or she envisioned. Although, both the quality in print and the quality in composition directly relates to what the photographer is capable of, over what the photographer is trying to convey. It's an unfortunate fact for us to be able to recognize the deficiencies in a photo (again, up to the viewer's sensitivity). This is the luxury that non-photographers have to bear. They can view an image only for it's content and not have the faintest idea of how great the image was printed.

In summary, fine art represents the Execution. There are those who can make a fine print from an accidental shot which results in fine art. Then there are those who can photograph the scene as intended as well as printing it as intended resulting in fine art. How high of a standard does one want to hold themselves to is the question. As for me, I've chosen the latter.


11-15-2006, 01:47 PM
These days, the term "fine art photography" really has nothing to do with the quality of the photo, but the intended use of the photo. Fine art as opposed to commercial art, IOW. Using the term also comes into play when you're doing search engine optimization for websites, too...people actually use the term "fine art" when looking for art to hang on their walls.

bobbi c.
fine art and not so fine art photography

jd callow
11-15-2006, 05:52 PM
I have taken every art history course available to me, spent my early years reading all I could get my hands on regarding Art, and I honestly don't believe I ever ran across the phrase 'Fine Art' in any quantity or with any intended significance until I started immersing myself in photography.

Adding fine to art is a pale marketing move.

the way I see it
In the abstract Art may only be a subjective interpretation that need only affect or be understood by one person. As in: I laugh at my own jokes. If I laugh really hard it is probably good; if I fall to the floor begin to choke and wet myself it is probably great.

It would probably be wrong (arrogant?) for the modifier 'fine' to be added by the person creating the work. Unless, of course, the creator of the work is also the audience.

David Goldfarb's post regarding fine art and applied art insinuates that the phrase Fine Art is more than a marketing contrivance. It would also indicate that I should have studied harder in school.

If David is correct than I would tell anyone creating any visual work solely for the purposes of display to use the phrase ‘Fine Art’ if that is their desire.

With all due respect to David G I don't believe that future generations are the only ones that can determine whether or not one is an artist or not. The opinions of others both current and future would be helpful if not required in determining the quality and type of artist. I would suggest we all are artists in a manner and to a degree. Just as we all are dishwashers, chauffeurs, writers, etc… When you make your primary focus the making of art (or dishwashing, or chauffeuring, etc…) you should have every right to and be accepted as that thing you do. (I do not now nor will I ever call myself a writer.)

As many here know, I bristle at the suggestion that you cannot call yourself an artist. There is a false modesty in the suggestion that plays to ignorance, and supports a social strata that otherwise can't stand on its own.

06-16-2009, 10:42 PM
Some recent threads here on APUG, and recent darkroom work has made me question what fine art in photography really is.

Is it the subject matter?
Is it the technique?
Is it the subject matter plus the technique?
Is it the photographer's (new/original) take on the subject?
Is it the fame of the photographer?
Is it the commercial success of the photographer?
Is it the response the photograph evokes in the viewer?
Does the 'genre' of photography that the photograph belongs to have a significant impact on whether it's considered fine art?

I'm not suggesting that the answer is an all or nothing response to any (or all) of the questions posted above, because I don't think there is one right answer. I guess I'm looking for other people's ideas are of what they consider fine art.

Some other questions I have been considering are:

Are photographers like Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell fine art photographers, or are they landscape photographers that are very proficient in technique? Since I know the effort that is involved in making such photos, does that make them "worth" more? What about to the general public who generally know very little about what it takes to make a great photograph? Similarly, what about other photographers who produce blurry, grainy, or otherwise "technically-deficient" photographs that are well received by many, but ridiculed by others? And the list goes on...but won't, for fear of making this thread way too long!

I guess I should also point out that I've never taken any courses in fine art, or art history; the only photographic books I own are by photographers I like or books on printing and technique; and that although I've displayed some prints I made (once, in France), I've never sold (or won) anything, or have tried to.

06-16-2009, 11:48 PM
There’s not a single kind of fine art photography. If it were so, it would have been so boring.

But I would made a distinction from the beginning: there is a subject matter which is the goal of the work, and than there are the means to reach this goal. I don’t consider to be a fine art photography the work which sets the means for goals. On the contrary, I would say that it has great chances to be considered a fine art photography the work that uses the most appropriate means to express the subject the photographer choused. Talking about content and form is the same thing.

Besides this distinction, there are goals and goals. Mainly I distinguish two very large categories of such goals: beauty and truth. I also consider that a mature artist will have to choose one between these two, for the rest of his work life.

Also, a very important issue is the artist’s personality, because it always marks his work. And again, very basically, people born with a preference for (or reach it in the first 2-3 months of their life) one of the two very large groups of personality: neurotics or perverse. We all are both neurotics and perverse, but each of us is more one than the other. So, the viewers will also resonate with one or another artist, mainly according to their personalities. You cannot like both, Dorothea Lange and Diane Arbus. But this doesn’t mean that only one of them made fine art photography. The same in music: you cannot like both (at least not equally) Beethoven and Mozart, Wagner and Verdi, Mahler and Debussy, etc.

Well, this are the thoughts passing trough my head within these last 5 minutes.

Sirius Glass
06-17-2009, 12:10 AM
A properly printed photograph of a well composed subject. It may or may not have a story but because of the composition and the execution of the printing ones interest in the photograph is compelling.

It could be a slide. The point is the composition and execution draws ones full attention.


06-17-2009, 12:26 AM
"Fine art photography" is a concept that I have honestly never come to terms with. It's always been disagreeable to me.

In photography there is a continuum of effective art ranging from impromptu street "captures" to meticulously constructed, highly deliberative depictions with varying degrees of abstractness. I don't see a clear dividing line between fine and un-fine in this vast expanse.

Ian Grant
06-17-2009, 12:55 AM
Not all photographs are art, in the same way as not all sketches or drawings & paintings are art.

To be "fine art" a photograph or often a series of photographs is generlally of a standard that would be acceptable to a range of galleries and publications, and sold to collectors.

The term isn't specifically about subject, technique, fame, commercial success etc but is more about how work is perceived, conceptualised, executed and presented, and the photographer needs to be able to articulate the background to the work putting it into context vwith contemporary photographic practice.


06-17-2009, 01:25 AM
In "fine" art the focus is on pure esthetics. Visual esthetics in the case of photography. And it has to be pleasing. Nice.
The subject matter matters very little, as long as the thingies look pleasing. So you could say fine art has no subject matter besides esthetics.

That opposed to "art", in which the subject matter is important, and there is no requirement to please.

06-17-2009, 04:18 AM
The common discerning characteritic of a fine art photograph is the context of it's presentation.

06-18-2009, 12:15 PM
Thanks guys - you've given me a lot to think about.

06-18-2009, 12:22 PM
anything can be considered fine art or fine art photography ...
it all depends on who you are and who you are showing "the work" to ..

06-18-2009, 12:33 PM
The way I see it, it is very simple:

If the photograph is there just for the purpose of being a photograph, or to sell itself as a photographic object, it is fine art.

If the photograph is used as imagery to sell or promote something else beside the photograph itself, it is not fine art, but commercial.

If it is neither, then it is neither. e.g. family album pix.

This being said, photos that were once fine art can be later used for commercial purposes (and vice versa in some cases), and stylistic crossover is not only possible, but extremely prevalent. Therefore, it is use and purpose of the images, not the style and/or content that makes the determination.

06-18-2009, 12:55 PM
I see it even more simply: photos are either primarily art or primarily documentation.