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What Makes Fine Art Photography


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.

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.