State of the ART: The Purpose of Fine Art Photography
Photo.net member, Pete Myers, is a fine art photographer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This is the first of four installments called State of the ART. You can visit this artist and explore his captivating portfolios here.
Image caption: American Grasslands Homestead—Image 4 © 2013, Peter H. Myers
For me, the purpose of fine art photography is to ennoble the beauty of what is in front of the lens. It is the photographer’s job to fortify the photograph with a clarity of view unique to his or her passion for the subject. But the image is not about the photographer; it is not about the photographer’s camera system; it is not about the photographer’s technique. The photographer is the conduit for the formation of the image, and what tools and techniques are used should invisibly support the beauty within the photograph in celebrating what is before the lens.
The fine art photographic print should be of such beauty that it cannot be reproduced by any other means. One of the most common comments I receive from people viewing one of my fine art photographic prints in person, having seen my work prior on my website, is “Wow! I cannot believe how amazingly different it is to see your work directly!” Whether it is your work or mine, having little iconic images viewed over the web simply does not offer the massive resolution, clarity, and intent of the original fine art photograph—nor should it.
Given the beauty of a fine art photograph viewed in person, the photograph itself should hit the viewer on a visceral level—completely “right brained.” That is to say, not to think, but to feel. If the viewer is thinking, not feeling, I would go so far as to say that it is not fine art. The reaction to the entire photograph should be immediate, and simply overwhelm the sensation of the viewer. Whatever techniques are used by the photographer to get there, they should not detract from the primary mission—which is the ennoblement of the beauty within the subject matter.
I have spent a lot of my career photographing the remnants of the homestead settlements of the American West. In the ruin, in the decay, I see the beauty of the dreams of those who came west to live a different life. Many times their dreams did not work out. The honor is in being able to see their ingenuity and passion in trying to make their dreams come to life, often times in very hostile and primate conditions. I do the work to celebrate the dreams of the dreamer, in the remnants of what was.
In the early stages of learning photography, it is all about technique. Which camera, how to shoot it—which lens, how to use it? It can take a decade or more of floundering around with gear, trying to find one’s “groove,” until the moment when the camera no longer exists, and the scene becomes the subject. The beginner’s common mistake is in having too much gear—particularly lenses—and chasing one’s tail trying to make sense of it all. For me, after decades of full-time work as a fine art photographer, I am down to one camera, one lens—and that is all I need. The photo manufacturers are bound to try to convince you that their latest lens and camera system is a “must have” to unlock the glories of your future images, but this is simply because their view of photography is business-driven.
In the mid-stages of learning to photograph, the photographers begin to see through the lens, and notice the elegance of what is in front of them. They begin to use the camera, angle, and view to create an illusion to the viewer of what excites them as a photographer upon their view of the subject. In this stage, composition of the shot becomes the link to the subject, and showing it in a certain light that benefits its understanding. The lens of the camera is taking a three-dimensional world, and converting it down to a metaphor of just two dimensions—and it is the photographer who must guide the translation. It almost sounds like a math school exam, as in “angle-side-angle.” But there it is! The light is often fixed (in landscape photography), and there is only angle and composition that will allow the subject to come into view with maximum clarity. For any given day and time, the hand is dealt, and it is the photographer’s job to make the best of it in their image—often times with no “go around” to save the day. On the best days, the light itself “inspires.”
For the advanced photographer, it is possible to use postproduction to further the image towards a moment of clarity. In the digital photographic era, this means postproduction software. And while there are many companies that promise that their software contains the hypothetical “Ansel Adams Button” that will automatically take their image to the next level, the truth is that clarifying an image to its maximum intent is done with much more conventional means. And it is done in a long, and carefully composed process, much like a painter works his or her canvas. I can comment from my own work that it takes no less than a week of postproduction and careful orchestration of technique for me to bring one of my images to full fruition—often, much longer, as I need to experiment with elements of the process over and over again, until I get the technique to match up with what is in my mind’s-eye. Further, less is always more, and it is in “the pruning of the bonsai tree” wherein one gets to maximum fidelity and clarifies within the image structure.
But there is more—a further step one can take in his or her photographic work. At a certain point in one’s career, the fine art photographer has undergone the process in such repetition that making an image has become second nature. He or she knows his or her camera gear, and has a minimum of it to get in the way of the process. The photographer can form and compose an image in the field to create visceral engagement with the subjects he or she finds so dear. And the photographer can back it up in postproduction with technique that clarifies the image’s beauty. That is routine. That is the norm. But what happens next is when a fine art photographer hits full-stride.
That full-stride moment comes when the fine art photographer simply FEELS. The rest is irrelevant. And it comes at a personal cost of gaining maturity of self that is beyond ordinary “things.” It is beyond the point of worrying about what the photographer is getting out of the process in art or reward. It is beyond the point in what others might think of the work. The photographic tool simply has become the means for the photographer to connect with the meaning of life’s truth, through beauty. What is seen through the lens is a metaphor for truth as shown through beauty. And to get there, the artist must give up all the rest. The perfect light is that which is imperfect.
So how does this all have relevance to your own personal work? For most, photography is an advanced hobby or part-time vocation as part of a very hectic life. Driving one’s passion to the limit might not be fully achievable with the time available. But nevertheless, there is a lot that can be ventured that will have immediate benefit upon the direction of your own work.
- The print is the print. There is no substitute for a fine photographic print. Electronic files will not do. Until it is a print, it is not a photograph. It is not real. It is not creating the visceral impact of the photo’s full potential.
- Gear is just gear. It is fun. It is necessary. But in the end, less is much better than more. Prune down to the essential elements, and don’t let anyone talk you into “solving” your photographic dilemmas with more equipment.
- Composition is something that can be learned and practiced. All it takes is a single light, a dark room, and a box. How do you want to see the box so that it has dimension, and is not flat and lifeless? If your box contains pizza, all the better!
- Postproduction software does not in itself solve image problems. The use of software can only provide tools to support what is already within the image. Using overt technique to call attention to a photograph short circuits the celebration and ennoblement of what is in front of the lens.
- Want to get beyond the photograph, and create art? Feel, don’t think! Our society is excessively left-brain biased towards thinking—and we obsess our children with that behavioral bias from an early age. The infant children feel, they don’t think—their reaction to the world is visceral. It is we adults who destroy that intuitive connection of self to the world. Learn better! You can do it!