In my previous articles, I have written about what I think makes fine art photography. In this article, I’m trying to go deeper and first ask ‘why art’ to find out what the importance of art is, and more specifically, the importance of fine art photography by focusing on fine art architecture and landscapes. From there I’m trying to make the case that true fine art architecture photography is different from fine art photography with an architectural object. They’re not the same but are often treated the same.
WHY (FINE) ART?
The domain of art, I strongly believe, is to reconstruct and manifest individual experiences and feelings that aren’t objectively quantifiable and make them specific and concrete. We’re talking about manifesting abstractions: the conceptual world. Abstractions that are derived from the artist’s authentic and individual experiences and our sentient nature. The experiences that are expressed can contribute to the set of personal experiences of the observer who is confronted with the art object. And ultimately, they contribute to our collective experience so mankind may experience and understand life more profoundly.
Science contributes to the domain of factual knowledge, and it may even be able to create (artificial) consciousness, but it will not be able to define consciousness unambiguously and definitively. It is the domain of art to give substance to the idea of consciousness and it is through art only, that we can truly understand the notion of consciousness and give expression to our sentient nature.
Even though we know objectively there’s something we call consciousness, consciousness nevertheless is only experienced subjectively. It’s no surprise that art, which is about making the highly subjective, objectively understood, and perceivable is able to give more concrete substance to the concept of consciousness.
Both science and art contribute to knowledge as a whole. Science contributes to objectively determined and factual knowledge, based on events and occurrences that are repeatable and become facts.
Art contributes to our shared experiences or collective memory, and those experiences are not repeatable. If they were, they wouldn’t contribute to our collective memory. That’s why we don’t like cliches in art: “we’ve experienced that before”.
And it is the collective memory that forms the fabric that holds together and gives meaning to scientific knowledge. Art, in essence, created by our always one-of-a-kind and very specific individual consciousness, is a way to manifest consciousness outside of the individual. To make the highly subjective, more objectively concrete and understood.
Art is equal to consciousness concretely manifested. But that doesn’t mean consciousness is only manifest through art. For example, loosely paraphrasing author M. Scott Peck when he describes in his book ‘The Road Less Traveled’ that the nature of love is to expand the boundaries of the ego so that it can nurture the spiritual growth of the object of love, the partner, and vice versa; could it then be that the same could be said about art in an analogous way? That the nature of art is for the artist to expand the boundaries of the ego and to nurture the spiritual growth of the observer of art? A spiritual growth, that’s a widening and deepening of consciousness not for one specific individual but for any individual. Are love and art not the same, with a difference in that in art, the observer experiencing the art, will not expand the boundaries of the ego to nurture the artist in return personally and directly, but in some way, indirectly nurtures the artist as well by acknowledging and appreciating the art that changed the observer?
MORE THAN JUST TAKING PHOTOGRAPHS
I thought it necessary to start this article with this rather theoretical prologue as it is in my view the key to truly understanding what it is that we do when we create (fine) art. When we know why we do what we do when creating art, we know better what and how to do it.
The bridge to the rest of the article that follows is that art adds to our collective memory and experience and nurtures us, teaches us, and can result in spiritual growth, or better yet: it results in the expansion of our consciousness.
Art, therefore, has far greater importance than most people would give credit for. That it has a place beside scientific knowledge and that scientific knowledge cannot exist without the primal urge of creative expression resulting from our subjective and personal consciousness to add to consciousness as a whole so that, in turn, it contributes to our personal experience of the world and becomes an objective experience.
And finally, in fine art photography, merely ‘taking’ a photograph is not enough, the essence lies in also ‘giving’ the photograph back to our collective consciousness. To that vast repository of experiences that are written, recorded, acted, filmed, painted, drawn, constructed, and photographed and separates us, humans, from robots, machines, and the most sophisticated AI. And in the above also lies the answer to whether AI-generated art can be called art, but that’s something for a different article.
FINE ART AND SYMBOLIC USE OF ARCHITECTURE
Fine art photography in its earliest form, is informed by Alfred Stieglitz’s Equivalents series and the explanation he gave to the series and the phrase ‘Equivalents’. Fine art photography was and is intended to be a way of communicating experiences, mostly emotions, sometimes ideas, and even political statements, through the concrete and aesthetic form. The ‘why’ we know by now after reading the prologue.
The real subject matter was the communicated experience. The object used in the photo in a non-literal way was the object matter – not the subject matter. Stieglitz’s clouds photographs were not about clouds as Stieglitz himself explained. They were just symbolic objects that best represented the emotional world that he wanted to express.
What has been captured and depicted, the concrete object in a frame, was always symbolic and should be interpreted through the context and not taken literally. The way the artist ‘framed’ the work was important.
I’m not talking only about physically framing a photo, but about a way of presenting the artistic work that it will be interpreted in the way the artist wants you to interpret it. With many or a few words or no words at all. The more information that is given, the more restricted the interpretation. Every clue, every word especially, matters. What I am referring to here, is the framing of the subject matter.
When I started to take photographs of architectural objects with an artistic intention for the first time, it started with the intention to be more on the open, non-restrictive side of fine art when using architectural objects: the architectural objects didn’t matter intrinsically. I was personally drawn to the aesthetics of architecture and therefore they became the vehicle that could transport my experiences effectively.
I knew how to drive the vehicle so to speak. But, it was not about architecture. There were clues in the title and description of the photo, in part of the subject-framing, that hinted as much.
The architectural objects became pure symbols, subject to interpretation in the whole of the photograph and in the context the photograph is presented, whether that’s a series of photographs, a description or another way of subject-framing the images.
What mattered was the subject matter: the experience I wanted to communicate through an architectural object. Therefore the object, the architecture, didn’t matter except in a symbolic and aesthetic way. Similar to what Stieglitz did with his fine artwork called Equivalents. This is fine art photography using architecture only in a symbolic and aesthetic way. Or just fine art photography.
FINE ART AND CELEBRATING ARCHITECTURE AND LANDSCAPES
Many fine art architectural photographs later, I started to ask myself the question: if the object, the architectural structure, didn’t matter, then why call it fine art architecture? Why not just fine art, without the qualification ‘architecture’? Without a label that actually decided (framed) the intent. Stieglitz didn’t call his photos of clouds fine art landscapes, just fine art photographs, because it wasn’t about clouds. I struggled with answering this question honestly to myself. And as a creator, and an artist, I needed to justify every reason I gave myself to create what I believed in creating through architecture. I needed to answer every question that arose, to maintain integrity as an artist for myself. And apart from the authenticity question I raised for myself, there was this deep-rooted love for architecture in me that wanted to do more justice to what they actually are. And not just use those structures as almost random symbols without intrinsic value. Not anymore. A shift took place in me, and I needed to recalibrate my artistic goals. Something every artist needs to do. Frequently. My lifelong love and admiration for architectural design and structures emerged and now demanded a celebration of the architecture and its designer to reflect the more profound impact architectural design had on me.
Does this imply I had to go switch sides to the other side of fine art photography in general? Or was it possible to find a middle ground: fine art interpretation of architecture? If so, what exactly is that?
On the other side of the architectural photography spectrum, there was commercial or real-estate architectural photography. Architectural photography, done on assignment for an agency, an architectural firm, or any client, who commissioned the artist. In those cases the object did matter. It mattered a lot.
It was the only thing that mattered to the client who wanted to see the building in a way that celebrated the architect and the design. The personal experience that the artist wanted to communicate didn’t matter and was irrelevant to the client. The real subject matter is the same as the object matter, the building. There’s no room for interpretation for the observer but for the architect’s intentions. The experience of the artist has become almost irrelevant, what mattered was the experience of the architect, concretized in the building’s design.
Yet, there was also another way if you look at the history of architectural photography. There was some room for subjective interpretation by the artist, but it was only there for a very select few architectural photographers, artists like Ezra Stoller and Julius Shulman. They were at the very top of architectural photography and working with them had become essential to architects in the non-digital age. It was more than just a way for architects to show their creations to the world. In fact, sometimes it was the only way to show their creations to a larger audience in the non-digital age.
Architects acknowledged that there is a specific way of framing the images by the artist and to ‘complete’ the architectural creation so that it became more than just an image of a building. Those photographic creations contributed to making the architectural design, and the photo at the same time, part of our collective memory. This came to be known as ‘Stollerizing’ an architectural structure. And it is here where we can find the beginnings of fine art architectural photography. It is here where the middle ground can be found and differs fundamentally from the original ‘Equivalents’-type of fine art photography. Because here, the architectural structure was both subject and object matter for the architect, while at the same time, the fine art photographer, gave another meaning, another subject matter to the photograph: their own personal experience of the architectural structure in its environment that should intersect and not contradict the meaning the architect gave to the architectural creation: the architect’s subject matter.
Stollerizing an architectural creation had become a phrase, introduced by New York architect Philip Johnson, to indicate that only by letting the likes of Ezra Stoller take a series of photos of the architectural creation, the architecture will become part of the cultural memory, our collective experience, and becomes ‘complete’. And, as described in the introduction, it is the contribution to our collective experience that is a strong indication for the contribution to be art.
The way we knew the architectural creations of celebrated architects in the age before social media was through the eyes of a handful of celebrated photographers. It was the way an architectural structure could receive acknowledgment and notability and still does in this age. Stoller shaped the public’s perception of what modern architecture is about, wrote critic Paul Goldberger. And they became part of our collective experience. The Stollerized building is not just that one specific building, it is the archetype of that building. It is the specification of a generalization to refer to Mark Rothko’s definition of art. Something specific and individual refers to something universal and general, which is what actually is contributed to the collective experience. A collective experience through which, the observer of art can relate and becomes part of the observer’s individual experience.
ANSELIZING THE LANDSCAPE
In an analogous way, you could say that various landscapes were ‘Anselized’ in the same way specific buildings were Stollerized. Would Yosemite National Park be so well known without the iconic images from Ansel Adams? Would El Capitan be so spectacularly imposing without the photos of Adams?
Personally, when I think about Yosemite, the first thing that comes to mind are his images. And it’s almost impossible for me to separate the images from Adams from the isolated notion of Yosemite National Park and what it represents. Perhaps the day I get there myself, but even then, the reason for me being there in the first place would then be because I’ve seen his images and they drove me there. And I doubt I wouldn’t see Ansel’s images in my head when I’m staring at the scenes myself. Adams, ‘Anselized’ Yosemite National Park, and many other places, and changed the public perception of it: Ansel Adams gave back a timeless image of the landscape to our collective experience, through Ansel’s detailed and personal experience of Yosemite National park. The specification of a generalization. Just like Ezra Stoller, Stollerized modern architecture and contributed to the public’s perception and experience of it.
In other words: what they actually gave back was more than an image. The image and the landscape or architecture, worked together to evoke an abstraction. An abstraction such as an archetypal form, an idea, or an emotion that has meaning when they are part of the specific individual experience of the artist and when they become part of the experience of the observer, due to its universal nature that everyone can relate to. It is that abstraction that only lives in our minds. In our collective cultural memory.
They gave their interpretation of a landscape or an architectural structure, as it is, was, and will always be, and with that effectively changed the landscape or structure as it becomes part of our collective experience, the way it was interpreted and expressed.
You could say that Stoller and Adams, went beyond merely documenting architecture or a landscape and actually created fine art architecture and landscapes. Because it was their personal interpretation and experience of those structures and scapes that make us mere mortals remember those structures and places and even defined those structures and places. They gave us a collective image of something that could be interpreted and photographed in a million different ways but could only be collectively remembered as one image. They contributed with their photographs to our collective experience of a building in general and also specifically. They contributed to our collective experience of a landscape in general and also more specifically. And also what they mean to us.
FINDING THE POINT OF INTERSECTION
What is that special ingredient that made the images by Stoller and Adams part of the collective cultural memory of architecture and scapes? What is that ingredient that makes us call their images fine art images? Let me try to describe it and then come up with a conclusion.
First of all, I don’t think there’s a special formula, a special ingredient, or a specific visual style that defines fine art photography in architecture for example. But I believe that in the case of architecture, to stay close to home, it starts by celebrating the architect’s intention without ignoring the personal and artistic view of the fine art photographer. Omitting one or the other results in either commercial architectural photography or ‘free’ fine art where the object doesn’t matter. They are certainly not superior or inferior to what I’m describing here and trying to pursue, they’re just something else.
There is a point where the fine art photographer’s view intersects with and complements the architect’s view and does not contradict it. As I stated earlier: where the artist’s subject matter doesn’t go against the architect’s subject matter but complements it. The intersection part takes place on a more abstract and artistic level – the personal artistic experience, but at the same time is informed by the architect’s intentions with the structure. And there’s a part just outside of this point where the fine art photographer’s view is purely complementary. A part that takes place on a more technical level and is solely the result of the photographer’s craftmanship, but obviously these divisions are not absolute.
THE INTERSECTION POINT – THE ARTISTIC ASPECT
To start with the intersection: it is a point that creates an abstraction that becomes part of the cultural memory and common experience of the building, or similar type of building. The key to evoking this abstraction, I believe, is that there must be some level of highly personal interaction between the artist and the building/landscape/person/etc. There must be an authentic and deeply felt, personal experience triggered by the interaction with the object, that overlaps and corresponds with the architect’s intention, which prompts the creation of that abstraction.
With persons, the most meaningful portraits are created when there’s a verbal and non-verbal interaction, with objects, there’s usually only a non-verbal interaction. But there has to be an interaction: you’re either in awe of the scape or the object or it leaves you cold. In architecture, the architect ‘gives’ initially, and if you are perceptive of what the architect is giving, you can do more than just take a photo of it without reciprocation. You interact with it and it becomes a personal experience with a profound impact on the art that resulted from the interaction. Like in portraiture, the more you know or try to know about the sitter, the more meaningful the interaction, and the more meaningful the portrait, you can also claim that the more you know about what drove the architect, the more meaningful the interaction. Similarly, nature can give you a majestic landscape scene and you can take it only. More meaningful is to interact with it and make it a personal experience instead of only being a bystander.
To give back to nature by making its presence, essence, and majesty known to the public and contribute to the collective experience, through a personal and specific experience. To give back to the architect and the collective experience by making its presence and essence known to the public, through an authentic personal experience of the artist, expressed in the photograph. This is what Stoller did with architecture. This is what Adams did with landscapes. They contributed to our collective experience through the meaningful personal interaction and experience they had with their subject, expressed in their art.
The non-verbal interaction, call it spiritual interaction if you like, is the key to this. But it requires a level of understanding of what it is that you’re photographing. The understanding that what you experience on a specific personal level, with all its specific details, refers to and is meaningful to an experience on a more general and universal level. The specification of a generalization, that in essence is what art tries to communicate.
THE COMPLEMENTARY TECHNICAL ASPECT
There’s also an important technical aspect to what the photographer gives back to the collective experience and the world: this is the part where the photographer’s take on it, is largely complementary. An architect designs from an architectural point of view, not from the photographer’s point of view. The architect doesn’t design with the camera in hand. But the photographer does. And the photographer brings in all those elements that are specific to the photographer and uses that to give the architect a view of his design that he couldn’t anticipate. That is if you’re a more than average craftsman with the camera. Wide-angle lenses and tilt-shift lenses for example. Or long exposure techniques and detail shots and B&W processing techniques and aesthetic preferences that are specific for the photographer can all add to another view of the architect’s design that the architect didn’t know existed. The photographer brings in all his photography and visual design knowledge to change the perception of the building. To Stollerize it. This technical aspect, together with the more artistic aspects if blended together effectively can entirely change a building’s perception in that it becomes a valuable contribution to our collective experience.
To summarize my thoughts: the fine art photographer’s contribution is that (s)he changes the perception of the building, and with that, the collective experience changes. Even the building changes. When your perception of the world or of a person changes, that world, and that person change. The world, the person, and the building; they’re still there, but they’re not the same anymore due to the artist’s intervention and the artist communicating a personal experience that becomes universally understood and part of the collective whole of experiences that defines mankind.
Another object or scene has been created now, an abstract object or scene only living in the minds of people as an integral part of their personal experience, but no less important and decisive. The photo is also still there, and also changed in its function: the photo now not only functions as a recording of the building in objective reality, as a celebration of the architect’s design but also functions as a medium giving access to the final subject that is an abstraction and only resides in the conceptual world. It is that abstraction that rises above the real world, above the photo, and above the architectural object. It lives in our cultural memory of a person, an object, or a place. It lives there because the artist has given the image to our cultural memory and collective experience.
To paraphrase Mark Rothko in his book The Artist’s Reality, Philosophies of Art: Art is the unique, individually experienced specification of a generalization. Something individual and specific that points to something abstract and universal. It is that abstraction that everyone can relate to that connects the artwork with the observer. It is that abstraction that I want to bring into being as an artist, that is separate from the photographic and pure documentary recording of a building, and also separate from the architectural object itself, but the specific photographic capture and the building are necessary to create the abstraction.
That is what I’m trying to create as a fine art architectural photographer: a recording that is a celebration of the architect and their design, and an abstraction that can become part of our collective memory.
I am aware that this article is ambitious for trying to analyze the nature of art and what its importance is and I’m surely not of the opinion that my views reflected in this article are conclusive. If there’s anything in this article that makes you think deeper about the art you create, then the objective has been achieved.
Related articles on this website
Since I started this website/blog almost 14 years ago, I’ve written several articles about art and fine art photography. 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.