PHOTOGRAPHY AS FINE ART
by Robert Michaels Artist/Photographer
In the 1970s, before I ever picked up a camera with serious intent, I was fortunate to have had a close friend who was a professional fine art photographer. At the time, I had a degree in commercial art and I was evolving as a fine art painter studying privately with successful and talented painters and attending such well-respected institutions such as Otis Art Institute and the Art Center School of Design, both in Los Angeles. I bring this up because I recall my friend and I would spend hours arguing and debating whether or not photography was art. She argued profusely that photography was a medium that could be anything that the photographer intended it to be from advertising, commercial, documentary, journalistic, fashion, etc., or even a form of fine art. I look back on the energy wasted in those ongoing debates and realize futility of ever achieving a universally accepted conclusion about what is art. I did not realize it back then just how much gratitude that I owed my good friend, who profoundly influenced my strong interest in photography and eventually opened up an entire world of artistic potential for me. She expanded my ability to express my creative visions in another medium that later would became such an integral part of my life.
In those earlier days of painting, I immersed myself into an art movement known as photorealism. Evolving from pop art, this movement was essentially a revolt against abstract expressionism at the time. The Photo-Realism genre was primarily made up of painters who required photography to create this movement. All of their imagery relied on the camera and photograph in which
such images were systematically transferred on to a canvas often by mechanical means of either projecting a slide on the canvas or using a sophisticated grid technique. To be successful, this tight and precise style required a high level of technical knowledge and amazing creative artistic skill. I was heavily influenced by the techniques of these artists during this late 1960’s and1970’s movement such as Chuck Close, Ralph Goings, Duane Hanson, and Richard Estes.
So where am I going with all of this? Simply this. As a painter, I later studied photography and often created my work in this Photo-Realistic style to create my artistic visions that I painted on canvas to appear photographically realistic, well composed, and highly rendered. Ironically, and now as I work as a professional photographer on my own (non-commercial) personal images, I have somewhat reversed the objective of my earlier photo-realism style of painting on canvas to digitally rendering my photographs to simulate a variety of painterly techniques. The emerging imagery can now be printed with archival inks on fine art substrates such as fine paper or archival canvas with amazing stability and longevity. This process is known as Giclee. It, for the lack of a better label, I consider to be FINE ART PHOTOGRAPHY. There are so many ways to define Fine Art Photography. It really boils down to personal preference. Some of these forms of fine art include Landscape, Wildlife, Scenic, Nudes, etc.
In the early days of photography, many photographers involved with Pictorialism, as it was called, used soft focus techniques to achieve that romantic or dreamy look to essentially imitate painting styles. Later, with Ansel Adams and Weston, sharply focused imagery was used as an artistic expression in itself and not an imitation of painting styles. Now, with the advent of digital imaging in very recent years, an entire and exciting realm of possibilities exist for rendering photographic based images. Essentially, digital imaging uses an electronic image sensor to record the image as a set of electronic data rather than as chemical change on film. Here is where the creative world opens up for a huge potential of artistic expression. The primary difference between digital and chemical based photography is that analog photography resists manipulation because it involves film, optics and photographic paper, while digital imaging is a highly manipulative medium. Digital post-processing, that is the ability to permit major desired enhancements, alterations and applications to the image, unleashes potential that is very difficult to achieve with film-based photography.
The essential differences in PHOTOGRAPHY and FINE ART PHOTOGRAPHY is in its intent. It is best stated that this art form, produced or intended for beauty and aesthetic purposes rather than for its commercial or utility value, can be labeled “Fine Art Photography”. Like any other non-photographic expression of fine art, if an artistic vision is created purely for the artistic, aesthetic or emotional value of image, then it can possibly be considered to be fine art. This is true regardless if the artist does or does not receive compensation for his work. As with all forms of art, as a minimum, it must be created with intention of stimulating the human senses as well as the human mind and spirit. There is no general agreed-upon definition of art that exists in the world. A photographic-based image must often work even harder than other forms of human creativity and be extremely strong in content, emotion and design to be accepted as fine art. Some refer to photography as craft. Craft usually implies a functional purpose such as a chair that has been highly designed. Photography created strictly for display and to be viewed as a visual expression to create impact and stimulation intended by the artist/ photographer usually does not serve a functional purpose, and therefore can hardly be considered craft.
The encyclopedia Britannica defines the word ART as “the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others”. By any definitions of the word, artistic works have existed for almost as long as humankind from early pre-historic art to contemporary art. In the more recent meaning ART is short for “creative art” or “fine art”. Fine art means that a skill is being used to express the artist’s creativity, or to engage the audience’s aesthetic sensibilities, or to draw the audience towards consideration of the “finer” things. Its effectiveness is usually measured in both quality and in the amount of stimulation or appreciation it generates by those who view it.
Just as a painting is not art solely because it is a painting, neither is photography art because it is a photograph. The medium used does not make anything art by definition. The medium is irrelevant. It is what the artist chooses to create with the medium that makes it art or not . . certainly not the medium. The art world has been slowly but surely getting past its outdated attitudes towards earlier non-acceptance of photography-based imagery (created with the intention of being art) to be legitimate forms of art. In fact, more art galleries and museums today routinely include fine art photography along with other traditional forms of art such as painting, sculpture, etc.
Fine art photography has been defined buy how collectible the photographs are or become. The images must be enduring and stand the test of time. Many collectible photographs are not fine art, as the buyers of some photographs are more concerned about its rarity. In order to be considered collectible and fine art, most photography must survive time, long-term storage, and display conditions. Archival Giclee prints, a rather recent development in the printing world, potentially elevates the photographic process and fine art photography equal to any form of enduring artistic expression. Certainly, the available tools for expressing and creating such Fine Art Photography gets better and more diverse every year with the advent of sophisticated digital (DSLR) cameras, powerful software and computers, along with other digital equipment.
What does this constantly improving and evolving technology mean to artists/photographers? It merely provides the powerful and diverse tools to create, express and expand your artistic vision so others can appreciate your work. Without this vision and the ability to aesthetically stimulate others and evoke emotions, etc., these tools will not do much good if your goal as a photographer/artist is FINE ART PHOTOGRAPHY. Ansel Adams once said There is nothing worse than a brilliant image of a fuzzy concept. I could not agree more.