Fine Art Photography Part II

LinesSkyMountain, originally uploaded by carolsLittleWorld.

With the fall art season upon us, I thought it would be a good time to continue my series on fine art photography. This is the next part of that series.

In the last installment, we discussed the relationship of light to photography. This time around, we’ll discuss the various types of photography and start to dip into the “well, what is fine art anyway?”

Last time, we talked about how the camera is a convenient “resting place” for our light sensitive medium. Cameras are not only convenient, they have become pervasive-almost everybody has one now and they are not very hard to come by-you can even get a disposable camera these days, and they make sort of “speciality” cameras for things like going underwater, which is, I’m told, quite fun actually.

An interesting thing about photographers though is that, just as there are many different types of cameras, there are almost as many (if not more) different types of photographers and the term “photographer” encompasses many people at many times. If it helps, think in terms of music. The lead violinist for the philharmonic orchestra is a “musician” just as Slash from Guns and Roses is a “musician” but, to the untrained ear, both might sound very different. This pluralism holds true too with photography.

If it helps, I like to think of photography as a sort of “umbrella” that hides beneath it, collects and gathers, many different types of photographers. There are wedding photographers, for example, who take your picture only when you get married, and sports photographers who go out for the action of the friday night games. There are commercial photographers, who take those great billboard images you see while driving along the highway and even forensic photographers, like those from CSI, who help solve crimes. All of these people, from beginner to advanced as well, make up the spectrum of folks we label “photographers.”

Let’s look at a few of these photographers a bit more in-depth to get an idea of what exactly separates “fine art” photographers from the rest of the pack.

Let’s start with the photojournalist. Photojournalists are people who cover events, such as world events, wars, political conventions, and the like. Many photojournalists, or reporters actually, report on the news and many of these photojournalistic images are images that we see everyday, in places like the news and popular news magazines (Time magazine is just one example of a place you might see an image taken by a professional photojournalist.) These type of photographers are often trained in journalism school, and they “cover” events by (typically) impartially bringing truth and showcasing events to their viewers. Like the old saying “f/8 and be there” these are the folks who go out into the wild to show us what’s happening in the world today.

Documentary photography is related to photojournalism in that it attempts to portray a certain truth, it’s objective in nature, and it typically includes pictures of people or events that are happening as they unfold. Documentary photographers often show the perspective of the photographer and often present a sort of “study” of a subject. To give you an example, the great documentary photographer Sebastiao Salgado often turns his camera towards the plight of the refugee and shows us, in the form of projects, books, gallery exhibitions, and collections, the faces of those displaced by society. 

Since I belong to the Texas Documentary Photography Group, I can also tell you that the word “documentary” has, as its root, the same word as the Latin word for “teach.” Documentary photography is all about teaching-it’s bringing something to somebody and presenting it in such a way as to show them something new. It should come as no surprise that, through documentary photography, you can learn a lot about certain subjects. Want to learn about post Chernobyl recovery efforts or perhaps you are interested in the plight of the American family farmer? A documentary photographer might just help you out. 

Commercial photographers, on the other hand, are all about selling. It’s the gift of gab, as they say, brought out in pictures. Their goal is to present products to you in the most flattering of ways, so that you buy, buy, and buy more of it. From the Coke that we drink to the cars that we drive, they present products, clothing, services, and everything in-between, in such a way that you want to run out and own a little piece of it for yourself.

Ok, so now that we’ve talked about all of these different types of photographers, what then is “fine art?” Where does it fit in?

From the wiki:
“Fine art photography refers to photographs that are created to fulfill the creative vision of the artist. Fine art photography stands in contrast to photojournalism and commercial photography. Photojournalism provides visual support for stories, mainly in the print media. Commercial photography’s main focus is to sell a product or service.”

That’s an Ok definition, but it doesn’t really tell us what “fine art” photography actually is (I think it’s a bit short, so I’m going to discuss it a bit more.)

If it helps, think of the fine art photography as the ultimate “lazy painter.” Fine art photographers are people who, just like painters, go out into the world and use a camera as a painter would use a blank canvas and a brush. Their aim is to create artwork that hangs on your wall, appears in publications, or otherwise gets displayed. To the fine art photographer, the camera viewfinder is just like a blank canvas is to the painter. We aim to fill it up with our creative “vision,” whatever that may be.

Another way to look at it is to think of the fine art photographer, not really as a “photographer” at all, but more as a “visual artist.” Just as an artist would use painting, sculpture, or some other “visual art” to showcase a creative vision, so too does the fine art “photographer” use a camera. Fine art photographers often are not concerned with “the truth” (as a photojournalist would be) nor do they care so much about “the message” (that would be left to the documentary folks) but they are all over “the vision.”

Maybe the best way to define some of what “fine art” photography really is, is to talk about what it’s not.

Fine art photographers aren’t concerned about reporting facts. We don’t want to tell you what happened on this date, place, and time. We don’t report news, in fact, we don’t usually report anything. (We are not reporters, not by any means.) We don’t tell people’s stories. We don’t sell product (though, sometimes, fine art photography is used for commercial purposes, we don’t actually start out trying to sell goods or services.) We don’t shoot events, like weddings, political happenings, or the like (many of us could care less about that.) Many fine art photographers don’t shoot people at all and many others, like myself, are only interested in people as a sort of “secondary” subject.

To look at the subjects we shoot, you’d have to go to a museum or art gallery and look at the (typical) subjects a painter would paint. The political rally? Nope, not me. The still life? Oh yeah, we’re al over that.

That’s not to say that fine art photographers don’t advance causes, speak the truth, or showcase events as they unfold, it’s just that these things are more of a byproduct-it’s fallout from what we actually focus on, what we really do, which is to create lasting artwork, creative compositions, and showcase a “vision” that’s unique to us. Basically, fine art photographers are people who make art using cameras. 

We’ll talk more about fine art photography as the series unfolds, but hopefully now you have a bit of a compare and contrast understanding of how some of the various types of photography stack up.

Until next time…


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