FINE ART PHOTOGRAPHY


The most puzzling thing about so-called Fine Art photography is how many people have really fixed ideas about it; who want to define it; and who even think that there are only certain things it is allowed to be. The last camp often have fixed ideas about what photography is or isn't or should be, and range from die-hard supporters of the worst of old-fashioned camera club judging standards to those who reject everything as old fashioned, dull and predictable if anyone has ever done anything remotely like it before. They don't care if it's done well: they care only that it is new to them.



Footprints. Is this "fine art" If not, what is it? An illustration for an article on the patterns on shoe-soles? It reminds me of several things including Babylonian bas-reliefs and aerial shots of deserts. Part of "fine art" can be opening your mind to new ways of seeing.

Some people like to define "fine art" in opposition to "applied photography". There are however countless subdivisions of applied photography, from news to portraiture, which is why this distinction immediately falls flat on its face. Cartier-Bresson? Raghu Rai? Sebastiao Salgado? Karsh of Ottawa?

Also, when does a "fine art" picture became an (applied) illustration? Was Ansel Adams a fine art photographer or just a propagandist for the Sierra Club, and an illustrator of his own "how to" books?

Others go for "pictures you want to put on your wall". Quite unlike pictures of your loved ones, then; or of places you visited and want to remember; or even of yourself when you were young. These can happily sit on your walls with the finest (or Finest) of fine art. Not necessarily the same wall, but entirely possibly on another wall. Once again, this is a failure as a definition until you redefine it as "stuff I want on my wall that isn't personal". Even then you may have some difficulties in defining "personal".


You will have even more difficulty if you define "fine art" as "pictures that the artist produces only for himself or herself." If it really is just for the artist, then why would they show it to anyone else? There may be countless utterly brilliant artists out there, but unless they show their work to others, how is anyone ever going to know? Vivian Maier is proof that such people exist, but was she unique or have there been hundreds, thousands or millions like her? My own suggestion is that far more people want to communicate via their art than want simply to wallow in it alone.


Tibetan monk. Is this "fine art"? It formed part of one of Frances's exhibitions in Arles: Himalayan Dreams. Or is it a happy snap? It's a hand-coloured black and white print on Ilford Art 300 paper, incidentally. Does that make it finer or more artistic? If so, why?If not, why not?


A classic cop-out, of course, is "art is what artists make". But who defines whom as an artist? We've all known people who have no hesitation in defining themselves as artists; or even, with wrist pressed to forehead, as Artists. We're getting closer to the heart of the matter here. Instead of dealing with whether they're Fine or not, we're dealing with whether they are any good or not. They may be good or even great artists; they may be truly rotten; but who is to say that they are not artists, whether good or bad?


Prayer flags, Himalayas. Another of Frances's hand-coloured pictures from Himalayan Dreams. Some will see it as a cliché. Others (usually those who have been to Tibetan settlements) will say, "Yes, it is exactly like that." Does this make it reportage or fine art?

Never mind "reportage" or "fine art: who can define "good" or "bad"? It's mostly a matter of consensus at a given time and in a given place. If Van Gogh was so good, why did he have to rely on his brother Theo for support for most of his lifetime? What makes him "good" now? Conversely, several Victorian artists who were regarded as "great" in their lifetimes have fallen out of fashion (in several cases with the connivance of the loathsome little toad Ruskin) and then, in some cases, been rehabilitated. When I was at school, Alma-Tadema's pictures went for a fraction of what they did when he was alive, at least after adjusting for inflation. If I'd been able to afford a few thousand pounds then (and I'd have loved to buy his paintings if I'd had the money and the space), I could be a multi-millionaire now that he is back in fashion.

The real puzzle is not so much why some people are desperate to call themselves artists/Artists, or indeed photographers/Photographers (you can generally hear the capital letter when they say the words), as why other people are so terrified of being described in the same words by other people. One will say, "Oh, no, I'm not an artist". Another will say, "I can't call myself a photographer because I'm not good enough". They will generally go on to say precisely which photographer(s) they are not as good as: often, those who are well known but hardly cutting edge.




2CV Multishot. This is designed to be displayed as a single picture. It is the earliest in my "multishot" series and so far the most successful. No-one is obliged to "get" everything. Some will dismiss this as "not photography". If it isn't, though, what is it? There are plenty of well-known photographers to whose work I am indifferent, and a few whose work I actively loathe. But I can't say "It's not photography" just because I don't like it.


I call myself a photographer because I take pictures. Sometimes I exhibit them. From time to time I even sell prints, though commercially my greatest successes have been simply having pictures printed in books and magazines. Some have been the veriest illustrations. Others have been as "fine art" as anything I've seen: on occasion, significantly better than anything I've seen from photographers far more lauded than I. In this context, of course, "significantly better" means no more than "I like them more". If you pursue the argument, I will say that because photography is an art (I regard with contempt anyone who still pretends it isn't), then if I am a photographer, I am necessarily an artist. I do not however see any need to press the point, or to shout in your ear.

For me, though, 'fine art' comes down to something very simple. It is not something that artists do. Rather, it is an essential part of what they are. They do it because they can't really imagine doing anything else. It's not a hobby, a fad, a passing interest. The most successful artists (including photographers) are often, though not invariably, those who do the fewest other things: they concentrate relentlessly on their art. All kinds of other things suffer: above all, earning lots of money, but also in many cases personal relationships. Few people have any idea of the price that

full-time art exacts. This is true whether they are painters, photographers, writers or anything else. The money may come, if you are lucky and persistent (but mostly lucky), but the relationships demand a very understanding partner; or a succession of not very understanding ones.


If there is any unifying factor in "fine art" (and I am not sure there is) then it is probably that fine art photographers tend to work in themes, and each theme is likely to share a particular style or technique:even, if you want to call it that, a personal vision. There isabsolutely no reason why there should not be multiple themes, some ofthem running concurrently, but trying to do too many things at once is rarely a good idea.



The two sisters never spoke again, from the series The Secret Life of Chairs

This is why I believe that while competitions are invaluable for the beginner, and harmless for the skilled photographer who quite likes that sort of thing, they can also be an excellent way of blocking your own creativity by forcing you to jump from one subject or idea to another, from one style to another, from trying to please one person (or one group of people) to another. Of course, what I am saying is only what I have observed in my own photography and that of my wife Frances Schultz, but it is heavily reinforced by what I have seen over many years and literally thousands of exhibitions (100-200 a year for maybe 20 years or more) at the Rencontres d'Arles, the biggest gathering of fine art photographers in the world. Some years I haven't written them up but here are links to 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2016


Massed, from Recycled Religion

What you don't see at a serious exhibition at Arles (or anywhere else) is "a bit of this and a bit of that" made up of a single photographer's best single shots: a bit of natural history, some sports, a landscape, a couple of nudes and some flower studies. If you have the faintest interest in practising fine art photography I would advise you, if you haven't done so already, to look through your pictures; search out a theme or some themes; and concentrate on it or them. If you don't have an interest in either producing or looking at fine art pictures, then why have you wasted this much time reading the above? This goes double for those whom I mentioned at the beginning: those who have really fixed ideas about it, want to define it, and think that there are only certain things it is allowed to be

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