WHAT MAKES FINE ART PHOTOGRAPHY

Introduction

A trending theme in photography right now is fine art photography.  I’m calling myself a fine art photographer and perhaps you call yourself an artist too or perhaps you don’t and you have encountered other photographers calling themselves an artist. Are the self-proclaimed artists maybe a bit pretentious? Maybe naive or ignorant? Or are they right to do so? It depends on the definition of art and the principles or rules of art. More specifically I will posit in this blog post that we need a personal definition of art and our own personal rules for art. Also, I will present what makes fine art photography according to my own personal definition of art. 

Why we all need to think about art

Writing and thinking about art or fine art may seem like a pretentious activity to many. You create art and that’s it. But thinking and writing about art; leave that to the academics, the art historians, the art critics, to influential world-famous artists, to the renowned curators, and other members of the cultural elite. If you’re not one of them, you are not qualified, even when you create beautiful art. Or are you?

Even though the ‘elite’ all contributed a lot to the thinking about art, defining and contemplating art is not reserved to that elite group only. And actually, it should be a priority of those creating art.

Art, or fine art, from a practical point of view, is the individual expression of an authentic personal experience in a way that aspires to be aesthetic. A concrete and practical activity. But what defines art? When do we talk about art? In other words: what is the theoretical basis of art? And should that be the exclusive domain of influential artists, art historians and critics, and intellectuals? Should we just leave it to the cultural elite and let them decide for all of us artists, what it is we should be creating and how and if it is art?

No. The artist and the artist only should decide what and how to create and what art is to that artist.

We all should decide and define for ourselves, individually, what art is and how we create it. We create art because it is an urgent need coming from within to express and to communicate, not from outside. We, as artists, can use the external information as a helpful guide, as an additional source, as a reference. But the creation of art should always start from within the artist.

So, let’s talk about art and fine art photography and allow me to demonstrate how important it is for fine art photographers to think about art and to not only have a personal definition of art but also to have a personal set of principles for art. All with the objective to make art that is personal and authentic.

Related articles on this website

Since I started this website/blog some 12 years ago, I’ve written several articles about art and fine art photography. But they were either implicit or simply not concise and articulate enough for me. For example, this article where I talk about architectural photography and this article.

Or this article where I talk about the individual experience corroborating the artistic statement

Also more explicitly in this article about subjectivism, but I believe this goes beyond just describing fine art photography, that the description of what fine art actually is and what makes fine art, have got a bit lost.

New York City Aerial View

Chicago – S Dearborn St view on S Wabash Ave

The subjective nature of art

I’m not pretending that I have the definitive answer to what art or fine art is. And that’s fine, because, and this will become clear in this article: just as subjective beauty is and how it is experienced and expressed, so is art and so is the definition of art. The definition and rules of art will vary and I’m convinced that’s how it should be.

There are few things in life that due to their strong subjective nature, cannot be defined objectively and universally. The concept of love for example.  But when it comes to art, then there’s this idea that there is an objective notion, an objective experience, and an objective perception of art. I don’t believe there is but actually believe that art has much in common with such abstract concepts as love and stems from the same origins. Let me stop the comparison here by saying that art is a highly subjective expression and experience and should therefore be expressed, and experienced on a very individual basis. And also defined on an individual basis.

I will attempt to more concisely clarify, what I believe is fine art, and I will also come up with a personal and subjective definition of art and hence of fine art. Because, art or fine art are the same, only that the term fine art is more in use for photography. And since aesthetics are intricately intertwined with art in general, I’m even attempting to clarify through my own subjective prism what I believe are the principles for creating beauty. 

The need for a personal definition of fine art

But first, if we agree that art is personal and individual and a definition should be personal, then that is one thing. Another thing is: why would it still be needed then to come up with a clarification and definition? With our own rules for art? Isn’t this academic and shouldn’t you just create art and leave the polemics to those who only talk about art?

I believe, and obviously, you may disagree, the following about art, and that is that art is highly subject-driven and experienced.

Art is art if it is the intention of the artist to create art, not if it’s being perceived by an external observer as art. If the latter were the case then the qualification of art would be similar to a democratic process: when in the process of seeking external acknowledgment the more people that think a specific creation is art, the more likely it is art. But art is not the same as politics, and should not be subjected to the same principles. 

Furthermore, back in the late 1800s and early 1900s when the work of Van Gogh, Picasso, Chagall or name any of the more abstracted works were initially only appreciated by very few people and were widely considered to be art by the public only years later, the reasoning of art being art when a critical majority of people consider it art, would imply that their work was never art at the beginning. 

My premise is that art is not in the eye of the beholder (and I doubt beauty is either), and art is not in the appreciation and acknowledgment of a preferably larger group of early adopters, but

art is the result of the intention and the authentic proclamation of the artist. 

Does this mean that whenever someone says that their work is art, that it is art?

There is no objective definition of art

First, let me repeat again, that I don’t believe in an objective definition or objective set of criteria for art, only in a subjective definition and subjective set of criteria. But, no, I don’t believe that everyone would create art just by saying so, without even knowing and without having decided for themselves what art actually means to them. Without having their own subjective definition and criteria. 

What is needed to proclaim art by the artist, is for the artist to have a personal and subjective set of rules, a personal and subjective definition of what art is, and a consistency in which the artist complies with their own set of rules. 

Art is in the intention and proclamation of the artist who consistently complies with their personal definition of art.

This doesn’t imply automatically a high degree of articulateness in the definition or rules. But it should be clearly and consistently articulated in the artistic expression. That’s why I stated that art is in the intention and the authentic proclamation of the artist. And for that proclamation, you need to have your own set of rules and your own definition of art.

All great artists had their own personal definition of art

Picasso’s art changed over periods of time, he held different personal criteria for what he believed art is over those periods of time. Just a few people agreed with what he laid down as a definition for art during such a period, but that was irrelevant. What is relevant is that he had very specific and concrete ideas about the objective and meaning of art and he complied with those ideas when he set out to create a new masterpiece. The same applies to 20th-century artists like Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and many other artists who are now considered to be ground-breaking artists. They each had their own set of criteria and ideas for how their art should look like, and only very few or none at all agreed with them at their time. And still there are many who have their doubts about their art.

When I say that they all had their own set of criteria and ideas for what art is and how it should look like, I don’t mean to say they wrote it down or phrased it articulately in meaningful words to communicate to their audience. Words, criteria, or principles that you can look up somewhere. No, most of the time they expressed their ideas and criteria articulately in their art itself using the visual language they mastered.

A definition of art not in words but in the artistic expression

Jack Flam’s book on the work and artistic friendship and rivalry between Picasso and Matisse and how they inspired and competed with each other is a great read to understand what I mean by this. The writer and the two artists could ‘read’ the principles, the concepts, and criteria they used for their art, by looking intensely at the art they created, by understanding the visual language and personal vocabulary they were using, and then implicitly derived the rules and concepts by the act of looking and interpreting and then responding to that in their own artistic language. The artists communicated with each other through their art, more articulately than they could through words. They didn’t need written artist statements to understand each other and what they actually created.

Again, the degree to which their work and ideas were appreciated is irrelevant. Art is in the intention and proclamation of the artist who consistently complies with their own personal definition, objectives, and criteria for art. And I believe nothing else. Because an important aspect of art is the communication of an experience, an emotion, an idea. And only the artist knows how to effectively communicate that experience and the visual language and vocabulary to enable that.

If critics say some specific work is derivative, they’re basically saying that the artist doesn’t have their own unique criteria for their art, whatever their criteria may be. If you don’t agree with the criteria as an observer, then that’s perfectly fine. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that when the artist set up a personal definition of art, laid down the criteria to comply with the personal definition, and then expressed and proclaimed it, it still is art in the artist’s view. That is in my view decisive.

Art isn’t established through a democratic process

What makes art, art, or even great art, to a larger group of people, is not because it follows a democratic process and is appreciated by a large group of people, but because their ideas, their principles, and criteria for art, can be derived and understood by looking at their art in such a way it is considered to be unique by people who give voice to this uniqueness by proxy of the artist. Those are often the art critics and other influential voices in the world of art. But still, it starts with, and it is defined by, the proclamation of the artist, that art is created and presented.

So, now allow me to present my definition of art. You can use this as a guide for yourself if you agree, or you can use elements of it to come up with your own definition, or perhaps you can use it for inspiration to come up with something entirely new. It’s up to you.

My personal definition and principles for fine art 

What is important to keep in mind is that this is my personal definition of art to which I’m trying to live by when I create fine art. This is not a universal, let alone an absolute definition of art. It is my definition and the principles and criteria that go with it are personal.

Art is the authentic and intentional expression of a personal experience, in a way that aspires to be aesthetic as to trigger an experience the observer hasn’t experienced before and results in moving and informing the observer

To extrapolate this to fine art photography:

A beautiful photograph only isn’t art, but it should MOVE us, INFORM us and make us experience something we didn’t experience and know before, to be art

What is very useful to know, whether you’re trying to understand and appreciate art, recognize art or create art, is the separation of Subject matter and Object matter.

(Fine) Art = Subject Matter Not Equal To Object Matter

To me, the quintessence in fine art photography is that the subject matter is not the same as your object matter. This may sound like semantics but is actually crucial in understanding art and in this I follow the argumentation of abstract painter Barnett Newman who voiced this distinction articulately in this short interview. Your intention as an artist is to communicate a message, an idea, with your photograph: that message, idea or experience is the subject matter. The object matter in the photo, that concrete thing you’re capturing, will then take on a symbolic role through which the message (subject matter) can be effectively communicated. When subject matter and object matter are the same, then what you see as concrete object(s), is what the photographer wanted you to see and there’s no other message behind it. News photographs or commercial ads for example.

Alfred Stieglitz’s famous Equivalents series, considered to be one of the first deliberate expressions of fine art photography, show clearly this distinction between object and subject matter when he photographed a series of clouds but the photographs weren’t about clouds at all. The photos were an expression of his inner state of mind, the subject matter, and the clouds, the object matter, were just symbols through which he could express his emotions.

Impression Sunrise Monet

(c) Mark Rothko – this abstract painting by Mark Rothko is nonrepresentational, it doesn’t contain a clear, recognizable object matter. But the subject matter is there in what Rothko intended to communicate with this painting. In general, Rothko wanted the viewer to ‘break down and cry’ in front of his works.

Impression Sunrise Monet BW

(c) Alfred Stieglitz – Equivalents. This is a part of a few of his series of many cloud photographs that Stieglitz called Equivalents. Stieglitz wasn’t trying to show us clouds, the photographs weren’t about clouds at all. The clouds were the object matter. What Stieglitz tried to express through the series of photographs of clouds was his inner state of mind, a specific emotion, the real subject matter, that he could express by using clouds as a symbol. But, other artists might have used other objects, other symbols to express what they wanted to communicate as the subject matter. I, for example, use buildings (and their symbiotic relationship with light and shadow)  as object matter and symbols to communicate what I think and feel. 

Beauty

Looking at my definition, many other questions will arise, and in my view, perhaps the most asked and debatable one is the question ‘What is beauty?’. After all, when we create images, or sculptures, or poems, or music, or any other artistic expression, isn’t the one thing we always strive for, no matter how much we aim to convey an important message, to create at least something that can be considered beautiful? 

Trying to answer the question of what beauty is, in a way that satisfies everyone, is by definition impossible, as ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. And as we’ve determined by now after reading my views on art, principles of art need to be defined individually, and that applies to principles of beauty as well as it is one of the main goals of artistic expression. So, beauty is not only in the eye of the beholder, but especially in that of the creator.

For more than a decade I’ve been working on my own principles of what I personally consider beautiful and most of those principles have stayed unchanged, others evolved, some are now better motivated, but not one principle has disappeared. Which already is an indication, they are true to me.

So what are my principles of beauty and what do I deem beautiful as a creator?

Throughout art history, and especially the last 120 years, art became less representational and increasingly more abstract and nonrepresentational. We saw this happening very explicitly in painting. Very likely this also has to do with the increasingly more prominent position photography held in the idea of ‘capturing reality’. My perception is that the introduction of photography only accelerated the shift to more abstract art. Art that isn’t representational. The desire for abstraction has always been there.

Abstract art as we know it now is usually associated with its emergence in the early 20th century with the works of artists like Mondrian, Kandinsky and Picasso

But there’s research available that indicates that abstraction, or moving away from reality, already took place much earlier in art history. Albeit not as explicit perhaps as today’s abstract art, but there were sure indications toward some level of abstraction as V.S. Ramachandran and William Hirstein in ‘The science of artalready observed.

Abstraction and moving away from reality as aesthetic principles

An abstraction of reality, or moving away from reality to create a ‘hyper’ or meta-reality – even though I’m very aware all those concepts aren’t exactly the same – is said to be experienced as more aesthetic by humans according to the two authors. And subconsciously this has always played an important role in my creative process. Not only to create something beautiful but just as importantly because I’ve always been drawn to creating images that don’t represent an objective reality but a perceived and personal reality. 

So, moving away from reality has always been an important aesthetic principle in my work. Everything I do is aimed at moving away from reality to create beauty. And my simple logic, based on intuition and only in retrospect based on the aforementioned scientific research, is the more steps you move away from reality, and approach a hyper-reality, the more you achieve a ‘hyper’ aesthetic. But let’s not forget that beauty is just one important aspect of what I believe to be fine art and surely isn’t the only aspect.

Steps  for moving away from reality to create beauty

I’ve recognized the following steps for moving away from reality that I’ve applied to my own workflow to create (a highly subjective) beauty in my photography. 

First, I describe the first three steps that are inherent to any photograph already. The moment you take a photograph, you’re already 3 steps away from reality. 

Then I present 5 additional steps that I use personally to move even further away from reality.

FIRST 3 STEPS AWAY FROM REALITY INHERENT TO ANY PHOTOGRAPH

  1. PHOTOGRAPHY IS ALREADY A SCALED-DOWN VERSION OF REALITY
  2. PHOTOGRAPHY IS A 2D VERSION OF A MULTI-DIMENSIONAL REALITY
  3. A FRAMED, SINGULAR, PERSPECTIVE OF A MUCH WIDER REALITY

FIVE ADDITIONAL STEPS AWAY FROM REALITY PERSONALLY 

  1. BLACK & WHITE – (partly in-camera, largely post-processing)
  2. LONG EXPOSURE – (in-camera only)
  3. CREATING PRESENCE (DEPTH) – (partly in-camera, largely post-processing)
  4. DISTORTED AND EXAGGERATED DIMENSIONAL CONTRAST (2D vs 3D planes/objects) ( partly in-camera, largely post-processing)
  5. DISTORTED AND EXAGGERATED PERSPECTIVE BY GETTING CLOSER (ARCHITECTURE) (largely in-camera, amplified in post-processing via step 6)

So, this is how I move away from reality as many steps as possible and hence create something that in any case is beauty in my own eyes, and perhaps also is beauty in the eyes of the beholder other than myself. But the latter should never be a decisive principle. Only what you see through your own eyes and your own subjective principles for aesthetics and for art.

I’m always in search of new ways to move away from reality with even more steps when creating fine art photography.

Conclusion

Set up your own personal vocabulary within a specific visual language, in such a way it effectively expresses your voice. Believe in your own definition and principles, stay true to them and enable yourself to defend those principles through your own art. Respond through your art to convince the other.

If you can transform the definition and principles into words, then even better, but the artistic expression should always be decisive. Also, find your principles to create beauty and stay true to them as well. Just saying you create art according to your own principles and definition, is then enough to establish art, and more specifically for our readers: fine art photography.

Other Resources

Please consider a small donation

Help keep our articles and tutorials free and of the highest quality with a small donation.

Since 2009 we’ve written and published free tutorials of the highest quality that have contributed in an original way to the public knowledge of B&W fine art and long exposure photography. We were arguably the first to publish a free and an in-depth hands-on tutorial on long exposure photography in 2009 and we have published various articles/tutorials on fine art photography and B&W processing over the years that have influenced many photographers in the way they approach B&W fine art photography.

A small donation would therefore help us to keep our website and content going for years to come – freely accessible to anyone interested in the art and craftsmanship of B&W photography.

Joel Tjintjelaar

BWVISION.COM

Join our mailing list to receive the latest blog posts and free tutorials first!

You have Successfully Subscribed!