Fine Art Photography - is it Art or Decoration?

In a previous blog, I alluded to the problems mid-career and established fine art photographers have, due to the difference between photography and fine art photography.

I pointed out that painters generally don't suffer this confusion.

Everybody knows it takes time to make a painting, and people respect that. Most people making paintings think that they are selling us what can truly be considered art, regardless of the quality of the work. The only other type of painting is for signs and illustration, but even illustration sometimes has, over an extensive period of history, found recognition as fine art.

A good example is the popularity of large French original posters from the late 19th and early 20th century. Though they are not original paintings, they are reproductions from a designers painting. Their popularity over the last half century is as much a result of the nostalgic history involved as it is any introspective artistic ideas and concepts. They can sell for so much money that one has to ask oneself, what are they, other than reproductions of an image that was designed not as art, but as commercial advertisements?

From a painter's perspective, it is something of a sacrilege to refer to this type of reproduction, not intended as art, to be actual fine art. On the other hand people who enjoy these things and want to collect them, and institutions who want them to survive the ages in collections, are also right. After all, no human is in a position to dictate what art is for the rest of humanity! The rest of humanity will make up their own minds, and that is why I feel my job is to point out considerations that collectors should know about in making their decisions.

By now, you should be suspicious that I've got some kind of new ax to grind. You would be right! But this time, I'll assume you have read my previous blogs and understand that in photography, what we call fine art has become very vague.

Photographs which had no intention to being art, and were made in a speedy fraction of a second, entirely for an illustration of a newspaper, are often today celebrated as art. A dramatic example of this is photography by the street photographer Weegee. They are sudden and off hand, and it is unlikely that he was involved even with the darkroom work that leads to an image in the newspaper, later in a book, or even as a print. In other words, we're celebrating something (let me qualify this by saying that I celebrate them too and love his work) that has involved extremely little effort. I’m doubtful that Weegee had any artistic aspirations when he made these images (one seen below).

What recent history has decided is that intention and effort are not particularly needed to make art. If you have any doubts about that, check up on as much minimalism as you can in a museum. With these more recent styles, there is certainly this intention, and sometimes there is depth of thought and feeling. However, there are other times when institutions have popularized these styles of work through some so-called artworks which hardly involved any effort.

(Ultimately, it's up to you to decide for yourself what you want to call art. What do you feel, what do you love? That’s what matters. If something gives you joy every time you look at it, that’s enough.)

So how does this all play into the world of fine art photography?

We already have the challenge of deciding for ourselves: what truly is photography as art, and what is simply something to look at, made photographically, but doesn't seem to really serve an artistic aesthetic? And even if we look at an image and decide it is art, we are further challenged, because a quick look online might discover that literally thousands of other people have essentially made that same image at the same time, in the same color, under the same lighting conditions.

A great example would be sunsets on the beach of Santa Monica, California. My guess is that photographs at that location showing typical sunsets instantly posted on social media, surpass 12,000 per year. Do you want to consider that as art? And even if we do, we can qualify that. Even if we think of it as art, maybe it's just not very good art, in many of the cases. But how would you know, since so many of them look the same? And the answer is, we can tell because photographs made with an artistic intention and capable execution share certain important characteristics.

Here’s one vital characteristic to consider: what is the focal point, or where does the artist want your eye to look?

Let’s use the idea of a portrait that's just a headshot.

Headshots are very common for professional organizations such as law firms, accountants, insurance brokers, and so on. It may have occurred to you that they can be unbelievably boring, and one has to wonder: why put the portrait up there on the company’s website if people are going to look characteristically stony-faced? In other words, what is the point, except that when the client comes to the place of business, they can recognize the person they're supposed to see?

It doesn't have to be that way. A photographer who thinks in greater depth, whether they consider themselves an artist or not, realizes that something in that portrait has to attract the viewers’ attention right away, so that the viewer knows where to start looking.

If I ask a photo student, or a less experienced photographer what the focal point in the image is supposed to be, they will typically say, “Oh, the face, of course”, and if they are a little more on top of their game, they will say “the eyes”.

For me, that is at least a beginning, because now we're directing the viewer's attention to a part of the face that probably represents at least 15% of the image area. But those who think that is enough of a focal point show a naivety about how the human eye works. Because the macula in your eye's retina can only see precisely an area the size of your pinky nail at a distance of one foot or more!

In other words, your eye can only focus on something that's about one word in a book at a time, and a little bit of the two words to each side.

So it goes with the photograph: your eye is looking for something to define the focal point that circumscribes an area no bigger than a dime. Try to imagine you're looking at a face and into the eyes, and your brain is trying to figure out where in that 15% of the photo expanse is the dime-sized area you were supposed to see first?

And it is that challenge that causes me to ask my student, "you said the eyes, okay, but which eye is more important?"

At that moment the light goes on. By the time we are done, I have forced the student to consider not only which eye, but what component of the eye. I persist throwing out parts of the eye as possible focal points, eyelid, corner of the eye, cornea, tiny hairs at the bottom of the eye, or the whites of the eye? Dorothea Lange's photograph below of a migrant mother, captures so much of that.

Do I sound extreme? Really?

So now it's time to point something else out.

Photographers are taught that depending upon the opening they use in their lens, more things will be in focus front to back if they use the diaphragm in the lens to make a very small opening. That’s a generalization, and actually a disservice to the photographer. Because the real truth is that whatever you're focused on, that point in the distance is the only thing that's truly in focus with virtually everything immediately in front and back of it already starting to be of less focus.

Taking that back to the eye, there is going to be one thing in that eye that is in absolute perfect focus, assuming you’re holding the camera steady enough. And once again, everything before and after that exact place is going to be a little less sharp. Of course, if you’re only ever going to see this photograph on your tablet or in a small print the size of the piece of typing paper, you may not notice that. Perhaps then, you would not think it important.

But that, too, is a mistake.

It is your intellect thinking that it's not important. But your eye communicates messages to your brain that come out in the form of feelings. And those emotional reactions in your brain are considerably more critical than any intellectual comprehension that may be involved in looking at a photograph.

So, you probably see where I'm going with all of this. Well-made art consists of refined intentions and abilities, and a tremendous amount of acquired skills, visual understanding, and awareness of how seeing works. And that is only half of the challenge.

In my next blog, I want to talk about the surfaces available to we photographers today to present our work to you. There turn out to be many considerations, with some of them being not ideal, so stay tuned for more on that subject!

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