Fine art is a very nebulous term. I don’t like the term, but I don’t have a suggested replacement. What is “fine art” photography? How do I know if I am doing it? Is there a right and wrong way to do it?
Photography is a large domain. It contains many specialized disciplines within it. Each has unique focus and techniques.
I will not attempt to list them all. I don’t even know them all. But some that occur to me are portraits, street photography, photojournalism, architectural photography, food photography, commercial photography, fashion photography, macro photography, and landscape photography. Cross-cutting differentiators within that are things like High Dynamic Range (HDR), Intentional Camera Motion (ICM), and black & white.
In addition, the majority of the photos shot in the world every day are on cell phones. And a lot of these are selfies used to make other people think we are having a better time on vacation than we really are.
Each of these areas has different goals and motivations and markets. It is very hard to talk about “photography” in general.
What is Fine Art?
But narrowing it down, what is “fine art photography”? How do you know if you are doing fine art?
Fine art photography is distinct from most other genres of photography in that it is first and foremost about the artist. It is not about capturing what the camera sees; it is about capturing what the artist sees. In fine art photography, therefore, the artist uses the camera as one more tool to create a work of art.
One thing you should never hear asked about a fine art image is “is that the way it looked?”. It is not intended to be representational. That is, unlike traditional landscape or photojournalism, it is not a literal representation of what was there.
What are the rules?
We have to define our own rules. This form of art is about expression and interpretation. I want you to participate in what I saw and felt about the image. That may be considerably different from a straight photograph of the scene.
But depending on the situation, sometimes the captured image is the artistic impression I want. It is not a rule that an image must be modified extensively. There are no rules except those you adopt. If I am able to achieve my intent in camera, so much the better.
When I capture a scene for art, I consider it to be raw material. It needs to be shaped and molded to become the final image. So even if the captured image is essentially my final vision, approaching it with this attitude gives me more freedom to be more creative. When I expect to modify my images I have little inhibition to doing it.
Politics and causes
I try to avoid politics in my work, but that is a personal choice. Some photographers are very caught up in a cause and want to do work to support it. You might consider Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell to be advocates for the Sierra Club. David duChemin does publicity for the charities and non-governmental organizations he is involved with. There are many more examples. It is natural to want to use your talent to support things you believe in. I do not make any judgement one way or another on that.
I believe, though, that the first job of an artist is to make art. This is completely my own value that I cannot bind on anyone else. I see many artists get so caught up in their cause that everything becomes deathly serious. There is no more fun and enjoyment. No more creativity for its own sake. Everything is pushing their cause, and if you don’t agree, then you are evil.
To me, the end result of this is that you become a propagandist and cease to be primarily an artist. If that is what you want, great. But it seems very difficult to balance creative, inquiring, free ranging art with propaganda. One or the other will be dominant.
I do fine art
Whatever fine art is, I have concluded that is what I do. I want you to feel what I was feeling, and see what I thought was significant. Whether I achieve that in-camera in one snap of the shutter or through something that is edited extensively or even composited from multiple images is immaterial. No more important than how many layers of paint a painter applies to his canvas. He does what he feels he needs to do.
My work is intended first and foremost to satisfy my creative urges. It exists purely for its aesthetic qualities. I am my primary audience. No one gets to tell me, no, you should do this. Well, my wife can, but even then I may not listen to her.
My work is intended to be art, not documentary. I am not presenting literal truth, I want you to respond to it emotionally. And for an introvert like me, dealing in feelings is a stretch goal.