Fine Art Photography – Defined

One of the challenges that visual artists (including photographers) face throughout their lives is having a brief, but articulate description of their work at the tip of their tongue. You know, like a two-minute elevator speech that describes what they do at a moment’s notice.

For most this might seem easy to do. For a visual artist though it can be extremely challenging because the very nature of creating art is one based on work that constantly changes and evolves. The reality is that there really isn’t a great two minute speech that can be magically pulled out of a hat by those actively involved in the visual art creative process.

Ask a visual artist what type of work they do and they’ll usually respond with “I’m a painter”, or “I’m a sculptor”, or “I’m a photographer”, etc. These answers are adequate for most situations, but many times there’s a follow-up question like “what kind of painting or photography for you do?”. This is where it can get challenging for a visual artist.

For example, I’ve found that when I refer to myself as a “photographer” most people assume that I do wedding or portrait photography. In these situations I’ll elaborate a bit more and simply say that I do work that you might see hanging in a gallery, pubic space or private collection.”. I’ve found this to be the clearest way to describe what I do.

Types of Photographers
Professional photographers are generally defined by the clients they are working with. The basic types of professional photographers are:

  • Commercial – photography that is used to sell products. This includes advertising, fashion and real estate photographers. It’s photography used in brochures, reports, advertisements, catalogs, etc.
  • Photojournalist – photography used for articles or stories in newspapers, television, magazines, and other journalistic type media.
  • Portrait – photography for yearbooks, employee publications, family collections, etc.
  • Event – photography of events. These include weddings and other special events.

What is Fine Art Photography?
“Fine art photography” is basically speculative work created without any restrictions or client influence. The imagery is far more revealing of the photographer’s personality than other types of photography. It is photography with fewer aesthetic restrictions which allows unlimited freedom to pursue unique visual expressions and ideas. It’s personal work that’s intended for galleries, museums or collectors.

The term “fine art” is often times used for promotional or marketing purposes. For example, you see many wedding photographers describe their work as “fine art photography”. Certainly this sounds great to a prospective customer, but it’s really not fine art photography unless it was a piece created by the artist for exhibition purposes.

If a photograph is created for for a wedding album, then it’s wedding photography. If it’s a photograph created for a fashion magazine, then it’s fashion photography, etc. If it’s a work of art created for exhibition purposes then it can be safely classified as “fine art”.

Exceptions to the Definition
Certainly there are gray areas with this definition. For example, you’ll find many photographers who started out in commercial areas (Journalism, Fashion, etc), but were eventually adopted by the art world. Photographers like this include: Richard Avedon (Fashion), Annie Leibovitz (Portrait Photography) or Gordon Parks (Journalism, Fashion).

These are photographers who have done work for clients. The difference is that their work is seen as being unique and expressive by many in the art world and, as a result, can also found in private collections, museums and galleries.

Final Thoughts
The term “fine art” is very loosely used today. This makes it confusing to the general public because it ends up having too many connotations and meanings.

In the photography world, the term “fine art photography” doesn’t describe the quality of the work. It describes what the intended market will be for that work. If the photographer is creating personal work that’s intended for exhibition then it’s “fine art photography”. If the photograph is intended for a client, then the work should be described as: commercial, wedding, event, portrait, journalism, etc.

Most importantly though, the term “fine art” isn’t a style or genre. It’s also not an indication of the quality of work. Instead, it’s a term that’s used to describe who the intended “market” will be for that work of art. In the photography world, “fine art photography” describes work that is shown in a gallery, displayed in a public space or purchased for a corporate or private art collection.

 

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