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Fine art


Active Member
Much is written and said about fine art in photography. But occassionally I wonder what really defines an image as fine art?

Is there something objective that defines it or is it a very subjective thing - in the eye of the beholder; or the eyes of the viewer?

When I see a nicely made LF image, say of a very old door, or a wonderful Adams image of driftwood or the like, I do wonder - what defined this as fine art (regards of how enthused or otherwise I feel about it)?

Is, for ex&le, fine art restricted to the realms of larger formats; can a 135 format image be "fine art"; can a street image be fine art? Doe the "artist" objectively decide that "today I will make a fine art image"?

How do I know if my "artistic" image is fine art to others?

Forgive me if you feel my questions are ridiculous, but they do arise as I thumb through lovely books made up of beautiful "art" images.

Do you make fine art images? How do you personally define that; how do you decide that what you made is not fine art?
I don't feel that the artist has the final say whether or not their art is "fine art" or not regardless of medium. I just try to be a good photographer, and hope everything else will follow.
"Art" and "objective" do not mix.

Doesn't mean that art is an individual thing though (can be, but doesn't have to be). Mostly, it is a matter of what 'norms' and 'standards' are used within a certain group.
What art is depends on the acceptance as such by a group, 'peer-pressure'/upbringing/identification/wanting-to-be-part-and-not-be-excluded makes individual people accept the 'norm' current in the group. Etc. (there's much to be said on this subject).

So to know whether your work would qualify as fine art, and if so, by whom, you must know what the current 'norm' is. That you do by looking at what is offered and traded as such.
"Conformity" is the big thing*...

Of course, being part of a group already, having been spoon-fed the 'norms' of a certain group, you can always rely on what you think fine art is. That will very probably be not far off from what your fellows think/feel art is.

... unless you are so well accepted within a group that they will look at you for guidance. Then, you can actually help set the norm, dictate.
For that you need to acquire 'status'. The really old fashioned way of doing that is by developing a good feel for what people will like, and producing exactly that, hoping an increasing number of your peers will associate you with art, art with you.
The more modern way is through the media. Advertising. Acquiring star status (on any scale).
In my opinion FINE ART PHOTOGRAPHY does not exist .
But FINE ART PRINTING does . What does that mean for me . ???
I am only talking about B/W . The fine art printing process starts with the exposure of the film , followed by the corresponding development of the film and then print the picture on a photograhpic paper of your choice . Sounds as absolutely normal , but is not . When your work is based on the ZONE SYSTEM , then you know , that it is not just expose and develop , but it is , expose and develop to turn out details in the final picture , which will most likely get lost when you do just "the normal" processing . So that is the ART , to produce an image of your imagination (greyscale) using ZONESYSTEM as a method of enhancing the possibilities our materials (films,developper and paper) give us . These pictures will shurely be better , but whether spectators regard your picture as ART or not , is an other thing . So you see ART and ART can have 2 very different meanings .
So , for me , ART (FINE ART) is the ability to create an "outstanding" image , using my knowledge , brain and hands .

What is it that you are printing that deserves that special treatment? Careful exposure, Zone-system...?

I think your 'fine art printing' has not much to do with art. There are many possible interpretations of what 'art' is (depending on context, mostly.)
But your distinction between two sorts of art presented here really is one between art and craft! Your 'fine art' is craftmanship.

Yes, craftmanship can be admired, much as art is. But it is not art.

Zone system, in my view, is hugely overrated. It is no more than the age old expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights (or vice versa) thing.
As a teaching tool it is great. But even St. Ansel 'cheated' any way he possibly could.
I respectfully disagree about fine art being of the "norm". Fine ART engages the viewer, hopefully eliciting an emotional reaction therein. The work does not necessarily have to invoke the reaction that the artist intended, but nevertheless instigates some thought process in the viewer, and the more "outside" the norm a work is, the more readily this goal is accomplished. Most of the more memorable artists of the last century created work that was outside the "norm". Monet, Picasso, Warhol, Hopper and Maplethorp all created work that was VERY different from the norm. This is, IMHO, is the essence of FINE ART. COMMERCIAL that appeals to the massses, work that buys you the new car, house and camera of the "norm"
Simon and all other members,

First of all, I apologize for my lack of fluency in english, but anyway...

I do believe in fine art photography. IMHO, yes, it does exist, independent of colors, B&W, zone system, photo journalism, street, portrait or whatsoever. If you ask me for a definition of fine art photography, I certainly don't have an objective answer for you. But if you understand it as a concept, you are going to find many answers. The first characteristic of a fine art image, is that the idea the Artist-Photgrapher is trying to convey, is not evident at first sight. The subtleties, by means of lights, shades, contrast, textures, colors temperatures, expressions, moods, aesthetics and many other factors, constitute a fine art image. It is denotative, the artist just insinuates and idea and the observer concludes. This concept extends to the most diverse kind of photogtaphy. Cartier-Bresson did it with photo-journalism and casual street shots. It is not restricted to the B&W world. Take a look into the portfolio of Steve McCurry. Just observe the way he manages colors. I would dare to say that this man is an impressionist painter with a camera in his hands. Give a time to Sebastiao Salgado. After watching his famous work, Exodus - Humanity in Transit - you are going to perceive, that his photography is like a text, it has syntax, he phrases with light in a monochromatic environment.

Doesn't literature admit poetry? Doesn't music has classicals? Why some kind of photography couldn't be expressed as a fine art also?

Simon, if you allow me to say, every time you look into an image with your eyes but only get to see it with your soul, definetely you are in front of a fine art photography!

Thank you very much for reading.
Best Regards,
In many discussion in the last years , private or in photoclubs , i have never ever got a common valid definition , about what ART is . And i am shure , there is no answer which is true for all .
Thats why i said : "For me" , indicating my opinion . Also i did not want to cut the discussion down to B/W . As i am only working in B/W (my colour work is done by a lab) i tried a view from that corner . My B/W pictures are of a much better quality since i am working based on the ZONE SYSTEM . And i am also shure , that Ansel Adams did some cheating , but you must take in consideration , that the quality of our darkroom equipment today has enhanced in quality since . (splitgrade heads for the enlarger and multicontrast barytpaper etc.) . And that gives us far better results . So , if you read my comment carefully , you must recognize that i gave you MY opinion , and i do not want to declare it , as an overall valid definition .
I ask you all , please go on with the discussion . I am pleased to hear more about , what ART is or could be .
Some very interesting "perspecitves" from all.

I was especially interested in Jurgen's comments about printing - it really clicked with me and why some images I see strike me as (to my view and taste) compellingly fine art.

Certainly Adams made that element of the finished artwork something of an art in itself - IMHO, it was his printing that grabs my eyes even when an image may not have been one that I would otherwise pay any special attention to.

However personally I feel that the image "substance" does, all the same, play a role but maybe not a major role.

But I don't take the view that "did some cheating" really matters at all. Whatever the processes during taking the image and post processing it, matters little to me - they are elements of the creative process - how the artist is able to end up what what he was "seeing" and wanted to convey to his audience.

I suppose fine art is like you've all said - the result and how the audience responds to it.

I think QG's comments about the current "norm" certainly influences how broadly an image may be accepted as fine art - what is not fine art today may be fine art on another day.

Nice discussion.

I really think we must differentiate between craft (what Adams did, what Adam's Zone-system was meant to teach) and art.

Craft is not art, not fine-art too. It is the mastery of a process that converts one physical thing into another physical thing.
Art is indeed confined to substance. Meaning.

By the way:
The 'cheating'-thingy is not meant to say that something reproachable happened, just that the Zone-System is not God's Gift to Photography. It is a structured and systematic represenation of what all photographers were and are doing. Spelling it out, explicitely, makes it a great teaching tool.

But no more than that. It's a bit of an open door, but all rules are meant to be broken. And so Adams did (too. Everybody does). Strict adherence to what Zone system prescribes is more limiting than not knowing about the Zone-system at all (which touches the reason Adams too 'cheated' every way he could).
In my view , craft definately can be ART and FINE ART too . The craftsmen could have put so much emotions into his work that his work is accepted as an outstanding work .
Ex&le : Tillman Riemenschneider , one of the outstanding woodcarvers in the late middle age , was primarily (using your words) a craftsman , but he is internationally accepted to be a great
artist .
So what is ART ? ? ?
Paul Klee's pictures , for me , are of no ART , but a waste of colours and canvas . For others he might have been a great genius . So what is ART ? ? ?
Am i an idiot , because i can not accept Paul Klee's Pictures as ART ? ? ? Or are those , who admire his work , idiots ? ? ? Do those people eventually admire an "artist" because they are afraid , that other people might declare them as "know nothings" when they dont say so ? ? ?
So this discussion leaves me alone , and i must admit , i can not explain ,what ART is . ................Who can ????????????????????
Yes, Riemenschneider was a great artist, who ALSO was a great craftsman. Or vice versa.

The two, art and craft, can be found in one person. And sometimes they are, sometimes they are not.
But they are not one and the same thing.

The fact that you can not like the work of Klee (or whoever), while others do, though the craftmanship he put in his work (however minute that may be
) is one and the same, is a good indication that art and craft are separate things.

If you like, art is concerned with statements. It is saying things. Conveys messages. Is part of the socio-cultural discours.
Craft is concerned with shaping things, and how that is done best to suit a certain norm of excellence.

Of course, sometimes, craft can appear to become art.
But only if by the fact that something is done with extraordinary care, to excell, beyond the highest standard; or with an extraordinary abandon of all standards; or by trying to adhere to quite different, 'traditional'/'antique' standards, a statement is made.
But even then the art is in the statement, the craft is merely an instrument used to make the statement. As ever.

No, you're not an idiot because you do not like Klee's art.
Again, if you look at art as (part of) a discourse, it becomes clear that nobody can agree with everything anybody says all of the time. Context, your own identity (i.e. your place in the context, your 'side' in the discours) determines what agrees with you, and what you (can) agree with.

And conversely, the fact that you do not, cannot see the art in Paul Klee's work does not mean that people who do are idiots seeing things.
They just agree with the statement, with the position he maneuvered to in the discourse of his time. Or at the very least acknowledge that he had an important contribution to make, whether they agree or not.

And that's where 'fine' arts come in.
They only seek agreement. They are not out to stirr anything. On the contrary. Conformity...
A conversation I had once with an established Texas artist comes to mind. We were discussing how to decide what to paint or what genre do devote your talents to when he suggested "Paint what you love. If you love painting garbage cans, and paint them well enough and long enough, sooner or later you will develop a following of garbage can painting collectors. You will succeed, of THAT I can assure you." While this may not DEFINE what makes ART, it may shed light on how one makes a transition from picture taker, or garbage can painter to ARTIST. When your passion for the subject becomes aparent to the viewer and you make that visceral connection with him or her you have arrived
What you have produced is ART. You are now an ARTIST. Then a knock comes at the door and you realize the landlord still wants the rent money and the wife still wants you to help with the dishes and the laundry
The *classic* definition of fine art I would say is:
Art created for purely aesthetic expression, communication, or contemplation.

The term fine art was first attested in 1767, as a translation from the French term beaux arts. It referred to the arts that were "concerned with beauty or which appealed to taste" (SOED 1991)
Probably, in this case, art which is created for its own aesthetic purposes rather than for any practical reason.

Roger Richards
Fernando, I found your views very compelling especially your reference to there being different "types" of the art and not just one as in literature and music.

QG's differentiation between art and craft is also interesting and one that I had not considered before.

But certainly for me, there is the key element of what ones sees as one looks at the image and what feelings that drives like Fernando said (more eloquently than I).
Melton and Roger, your comments actually make the terms fine art and art tangible. The translation of the French term is very useful. In music I was taught that music is "a succession of sounds that are appealing to the ear".

So, logically a painting would be art in the eyes of one viewer because it is an image that is pleasing to the eye; whereas, to another it may not be art because it is a mess to his eyes.

That French translation may go a long way to explain why some who hear a piece of music may claim: "that's not music, it is just a horrible noise!"
Simon, I would heartily agree with the definition of music you quoted. As a language music is capable of eloquent & meaningful expression, but of course, can also be unintelligible (spelling?) and subject to abuse. Hence atonality! Apologies for going off topic... & thank you for the link to your essay on the Xpan Cheers David
Thanks David. You're welcome. By the way, your English is superb and may be better than most native English speakers!

Now atonality is an interesting subject in itself. Ah! Webern, Copeland (spelling?) and Stravinsky.... wow! Maybe 12 tone scale was enough..... that use of the diminished 7th!
The visual fine arts, as a form of self-expression, are a relatively recent concept (as Roger pointed out) that came into being with the rise of the bourgeoisie following the French Revolution. Before then artists generally operated much as design or photo studios do today, it was a business and it wasn’t uncommon – particularly during the Italian Renaissance – for apprentices to do most of the grunt work; the master composed the image and thereafter signed-off on it when completed. Art before French Impressionism was rarely a form of self-expression, though style did have significance for that is was set the artist apart and attracted clients. Somewhat ironic isn't it, modern art being a concept that was born out of the middle class; and today to say something is bourgeois (middle class) is analogous to saying that it is tasteless or kitsch.

I bring up kitsch -- (‘art’ that overly sentimental, vulgar, often mass produced (ex&le: black velvet paintings) -- because it is commonly regarded as the antithesis of fine art. So what is fine art? Well, as Q.G. pointed out, it has substance and aesthetic appeal. Aesthetics is perhaps the key concept here: it is the philosophy of beauty, and is generally reflected by a synergy of fine design, fine execution and considered intent (substance). Something that is aesthetic does not need to be beautiful; something ugly can have an aesthetic. An ex&le of the latter would be Kathe Kollowitz's drawings: her subjects were often the most ordinary of the ordinary -- the poor -- and through her expressionistic style she re-presented her subjects and rendered them extra-ordinary and transcendent in form. And there you have the essence of 'fine art'.

How then can photography be art, since the image is not formed directly by the artist? Well, the answer is through style, through how a photographer chooses to visualize their subject matter, and how they then manipulate the medium to create their intended result. Though there is a definite technique (craft) involved, craft is the means to the intended image rather than the end itself. This is not to say that a finely crafted photograph cannot be beautiful, but does that make it art? Well, that may well depend on whether the photographer has been able to transcend both the medium and the raw material of their subject matter to create an image that stands outside the ordinary.

And all that is academic, since what is regarded as art generally depends on people agreeing that it is art. Art is a concept that is laden with value judgments; sometimes what is regarded as ordinary or kitsch in one era comes to be regarded as art in another. I imagine that part of this is due to the fact that the former comes to represent a way of seeing that stands outside the ordinary or conventional. Another reason is possibly because the artifact was set apart because it had a ‘certain quality’ and better represented the essence of its genre or circumstance. And since one really cannot say what will and will not be considered art, the best thing to do is not to be concerned about creating art but instead strive for excellence in one’s craft and in the images that one creates.
Hallo Wayne
This is a very interesting discussion and i want to thank all , who took part here . I have learned a lot and I read the differnet contributions again and again . Not to miss important parts and i must say , that one sentence , the last one from Waynes contribution , gives me a lot of confidence . "And since one really cannot say what will and will not be considered art , the best thing to do is not to be concerned about creating art but strive for excellence in one's craft and in the images one creates". This is great help for my work .