We tried a new concept in our local camera club this year: small special interest groups that would do a deep dive into one subject. The group would decide how, what, where, when and why, and also for how long. One of the groups I joined is looking at Fine Art, in all its forms, as a key to improving our own photography.
But first we had to decide what the heck is “fine art”? We’ve had several animated discussions in the past few months, even a field trip to our local art gallery. In the past, I’ve written about photography as art and thought that experience would help, but no. For all the “deep diving” on this subject, I’m not really much further ahead. Why is this so hard?
Here’s what I have landed on so far:
- Art is about interpretation. Whether painting or sculpture or video or photograph, the maker takes an idea and interprets it to convey a specific message. To me, anything that is strictly documentary is not art. The art gallery included collections of photographs among the paintings, sculptures and carvings. For some reason, almost all of these were documentary – cataloguing an event, lifestyle or situation that existed at the time (usually historic – nothing more recent than the 1970’s). There was little to no effort to “interpret” the scene. I was puzzled that this form of photography qualified as art. But I suspect the appeal here is exactly that – patrons are either curious about or nostalgic for what life was like in those days. And yet, some modern photographs, artistically created, might also have been a good fit.
- Art changes significantly over time. The stark differences in art from the 1600’s, 1700’s, 1800’s and modern times is compelling. But that makes sense, since art is interpretation and interpretation is fashioned by societal norms of the time.
- I can like a piece or I can hate a piece but both are still art. Perhaps the important point is that it evokes some sort of reaction or emotion. I might be trying to understand the maker’s intent, or just offering a conclusion on my reaction to it.
- So I think I can define art, but I’m no closer to understanding the difference between art and “fine art”. Perhaps they are the same. Or perhaps not – see below.
- And from a purely personal point of view, I do have deep biases. For example, we often joke about the blank white canvas that sells for millions of dollars. There were several examples of exactly that taking up entire gallery walls in the modern wing. And also simple coloured squares nesting inside each other, and a bathroom sink stuck to the wall. But each piece met the standard of “interpretation”. I just didn’t know what they were interpreting (and frankly, didn’t care).
So how does this help me with my photography? I’m comforted by the view that art is about interpretation. Each time I take a photograph – but mostly each time I work on a photograph in post-processing – I’m deciding what I want that photograph to say to others. I used to make only technical adjustments for white balance, colour, contrast or the recovery of highlights and shadows. Now I start there then move on.
Some photographers know exactly what they want to say the moment they arrive on the scene or set up in the studio. Others take many images of the same scene at different settings in case they have a brilliant idea later. And still others simply play and ask themselves “what if we tried this” when editing. Each approach can work magnificently.
On further research, it seems that “fine art” may have evolved to distinguish work that was aesthetically or culturally appealing from work that could be considered utilitarian or tradecraft. Wikipedia says: “The word “fine” does not so much denote the quality of the artwork in question, but the purity of the discipline according to traditional Western European canons.” There was initially a class difference inherent in the meaning – but that has essentially disappeared, except for the price tag often associated with such fine art works.
So I think I’m happy with my definition of and approach to fine art – and I will work to apply more and different interpretive elements to my photography as I continue to grow. Heck, you can even become a digital painter now, converting optically captured images into seemingly brushed masterpieces through custom filters, paint colours, textures, brushes and blend modes in Photoshop or Topaz Studio or other software. And the best part – there is no mess to clean up afterward.