What is Fine Art Photography?

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By Brian Auer • blog.epicedits.com

The poll this week will be another open-ended question rather than a click-and-vote. The last time I ran one like this, we had some awesome answers and I highlighted them in a follow-up post the next week. So we’ll do the same here.
The question this week spawns from my own involvement with fine art photography. I find photography in general to be a highly subjective topic — what’s good, what sucks, what works, and what doesn’t is typically a matter of taste amongst other things. Fine Art Photography tends to be even more subjective since it’s a narrow slice of photography as an artistic medium.
So, What is Fine Art Photography?
How would you define it? What makes a photo Fine Art rather than something else? Can photographers really call themselves Fine Art Photographers? And what conditions would make it feasible for a photographer to include themselves in this category? Offer up your thoughts, take the discussion where you wish, and I’ll pick out some of the more insightful comments for an upcoming featured article.
And since we’re on the topic of insightful polls, be sure to check out the results and comments from last week asking the question “Do You Take Photos or Make Photos?” It looks like a majority “take photos” rather than “make photos”, and a good portion also says they “do both”. Several commentators also hit on the topic of what these terms really mean, so be sure to check that out.

FIFTEEN YEARS AFTER THE DE-mise of Life as a weekly magazine, photojournalism is reclaiming its former glamorous, legendary status. Pictures that were taken on assignments for magazines and newspapers now regularly reappear – in frames – on the walls of museums and galleries. The photojournalists of yesteryear are being enshrined in biographies and celebrated with retrospective exhibitions. Today’s photojournalists are big draws on the photography lecture-and-symposium circuit. Meanwhile, college-level programs designed to produce the photojournalists of tomorrow are growing at a rapid rate.
The signs of photojournalism’s new cachet extend to the bookstores, where the patriotic anthology ”A Day in the Life of America” has been on the best-seller list since before Christmas, and to the movies, where photojournalists have become the newest breed of Hollywood protagonist. In Oliver Stone’s 1986 film ”Salvador,” James Woods plays the role with considerable panache and a sliver of accuracy; he is a dissolute, macho, reckless and conniving Quixote. But when he sees government brutality against the peasantry, he is filled with moral indignation. Woods’s photojournalist is the modern-day, male equivalent of the hooker with the heart of gold.
The resurgence of interest in photojournalism as a genre, and in photojournalists as moral actors on the stage of world events, coincides with the development of a new breed of photojournalism itself – what is being called the New Photojournalism. This notion of newness has been the subject, explicitly or implicitly, of a number of recent exhibitions and accompanying symposia. Two current examples are ”Contact: Photojournalism Since Vietnam,” at the ICP/Midtown gallery (77 West 45th Street, through Saturday) and ”On the Line: The New Color Photojournalism,” organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and now at the Spencer Museum of Art in Lawrence, Kan.
To some minds, what is new about the New Photojournalism is a matter of its style or, in the case of the show ”On the Line,” its choice of film. Be that as it may, a fresh and experimental spirit now prevails in the genre, fueled by a generation of photographers in their 30’s and early 40’s who are dissatisfied with the conventions they inherited from such patron-saint figures as Robert Capa and W. Eugene Smith. They want their pictures to convey more complex and sophisticated meanings, of both a social and personal sort, and to this end they want to control the contexts in which their images are presented. They also want to receive recognition as creative photographers.
Curiously, however, the New Photojournalism has arisen without any new vehicles for its propagation. If anything, the number of magazines and newspapers willing to run committed, hard-hitting photo essays in the tradition of Smith and Capa has declined here. This change in the marketplace, due in large part to the impact of television, has had an effect on both the form and presentation of photographic reportage. One of the most obvious and ironic characteristics of the New Photojournalism is that it is to be found in books and exhibitions as frequently as it is reproduced as news.
Perhaps the most significant token of this shift from journalistic to esthetic presentation was the establishment, last year, of the Life Gallery of Photography in the Time-Life building. That the long-pre-eminent magazine devoted to photo essays should market photographs as works of art worth buying and collecting on their own merits surely says something important about its current relationship to photojournalism, and about photojournalism’s relationship to photography as a whole. So does the gallery’s current exhibition, which is devoted to the work of John Loengard, a former Life staffer who has been the magazine’s picture editor since its reincarnation in 1978.
One could date the emergence of the New Photojournalism to the publication of ”Nicaragua,” Susan Meiselas’s 1981 book of photographs chronicling the Sandinista revolution. Not only did Meiselas’s pictures lack captions underneath them to guide the viewer’s responses (explanations were provided only at the end of the book), they were in color. They were not the first war pictures in color, nor even the first in which the color actively served to heighten our emotional responses to war – that honor belongs to the Vietnam pictures of Larry Burrows and John Olson, which were published in Life. But they used the vivid, saturated qualities of the Kodak rainbow in a way that struck some observers as artistic, if not decorative. Even their compositions seemed esthetically premeditated.