Sorry, but Your Photography Is Not Fine Art. Here’s Why

The words “fine art” have got to be some of the most misused and abused in photography. For a term that is pretty much meaningless, it’s quite impressive.

The likes of Peter Lik definitely haven’t helped with this problem, and nor have countless print labs around the world. Let’s be clear: making something black and white does not make it fine art. Hand printing does not make it fine art. A naked body is not fine art. Fruit in a bowl is not fine art. And most of all: just because you want it to be fine art does not make it fine art. Artistic? Maybe. But it’s not fine art.

I stumbled upon this article last week. We might never reach consensus on what constitutes fine art photography, but I'm pretty sure it's not this.

Print Labs Have a Lot to Answer For

In the art world, for something to have value, a buyer has to know that an art piece isn’t going to degrade in quality in the foreseeable future. For painters who use oils on canvas, this isn’t much of an issue and it’s only after a couple of centuries that deterioration starts to become a problem. Typically, the purchase of a work of art is a financial investment, in part relying on the fact that it’s not going to fade, flake away, or fall apart after a few years.

For photography, it’s a little more complex. If I suddenly fancy splashing out on an edition of Madonna by Cindy Sherman, a digital print from Costco isn’t going to make me feel too comfortable about spending $7,900 (excluding shipping). Instead, it’s sold as a gelatin silver print (edition 97 of 100) which, assuming it’s not subjected to a lot of bright sunlight, will retain its quality long after I’ve handed it to my grandchildren, and probably even after they’ve handed it to theirs.

Prints by Cindy Sherman on sale from Kunzt Gallery. Screengrab from kunzt.gallery

Like most investments, acquiring pieces of art is purely speculative and buyers should be aware that prices can fall as well as increase. (It’s worth noting that Peter Lik prints will probably drop in value as soon as you buy them, however.) If it suddenly came to light that Salvador Dalí was a Holocaust-denying serial killer with a penchant for eating slow loris, collectors of paintings featuring lots of melting clocks and unfeasibly tall elephants might be a little upset.

Salvador Dalí. Not a Holocaust denier nor a serial killer, and almost certainly didn't like eating endangered species, no matter how cute they were. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The longevity of ink and paper is why professional labs such WHCC or Loxley Colour charge more than Costco, and it’s also the reason that labs and manufacturers often call certain types of paper “fine art” — part of why the term gets bandied around. Unfortunately, just because you print your photo of your cat onto Hahnemühle FineArt paper doesn’t automatically mean that you have created a piece of fine art. It simply means that your lovely print of Boris the irascible tabby is going to last a very long time before it fades.

So What Is Fine Art?

Endless books have been written on what makes something art so don’t expect a slightly sarcastic article on Fstoppers to give you an easy answer. One element that connects the likes of Sherman, Jeff Wall, and David LaChapelle is that not only are they producing something beautiful, but the work also examines its own processes of production, presenting us with challenges as to how we perceive both the work and the world around us. This often draws deeply on art history, an aspect that can often make artwork inaccessible to those who don’t have the luxury of art degrees and who struggle to differentiate between epistemology and ontology. (Confused? Yep, me too.)

Artist statements often don’t help. If I told you that my work results from analyzing subjects and reinventing them, prompting the viewer to reconstruct the subject and space of the work by comparing the different shapes and forms to determine what each one represents, and demanding that the viewer participates in the process of experiencing the art, you might roll your eyes. But I’ve just described Picasso, and he seemed to do alright (source).

From the outside, this art bubble can seem horribly pretentious, and there’s a degree of truth to that. However, once you dig beneath the surface and start to learn a little of art’s history, it’s a source of inspiration. The world of fine art is is both amazing and appalling at the same time, characterized by contradiction, but one that’s almost certainly worth your time.

This art culture often acts as the arbiter of taste, deciding what is good and what is not, what is of value and what is worthless. Like the speculation involved when investing in an artwork, much of what is valued is only valuable because an art culture made up of curators, buyers, and magazine editors have decided that it is valuable. If enough people say it’s fine art, it is.

Photography as an art form is beautifully problematic by virtue of its potential for mass reproduction, something that has fascinated philosophers such as Walter Benjamin. What can be exceptional about this medium is that, at times, it stubbornly refuses to conform to this pretentious art world of white walls, private views, amuse-bouches, and ludicrously inflated prices. Photography is a democratic and populist medium that has a tendency to rip itself away from the art world and make itself much more middlebrow — and unashamedly so.

To call photography middlebrow is not a slur. In the words of Dr Faye Keegan, middlebrow art is a "subversive and vital bastion of cultural democracy that radically disregards established cultural hierarchies and chooses instead to make up its own mind." Lots of documentary and landscape photographers are regarded as fine art artists and photography is a bit slippery when it comes to creating labels and putting things into categories. If it makes us reflect on aesthetics and has the potential to connect us to something that is deeper than what the visuals alone convey, maybe it's art. In the right context, Boris the irascible tabby can be right at home.

Thank you for reading this far. This is Mowgli from Belgrade. Available to buy as a fine art print on Fuji Crystal Archival paper. Edition of 5, signed and numbered by the artist.

In short, what makes something fine art isn’t about realizing an artistic vision, nor is it about capturing what the artist sees rather than documenting a scene, nor creating a photograph simply for its aesthetic beauty. It’s not even about whether you write a fancy artist’s statement with lots of long words. Ultimately, it’s about whether other people think it is fine art, and the first step might be you calling your own work fine art. Just don’t expect everyone else to agree, and that might be a good thing.

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61 Comments

Spy Black's picture

Aren't all cat photos fine art?...

Alex Yakimov's picture

only of nice animals

Matthew Lacy's picture

You speak with repetition. All cats are nice animals.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Cats are all evil. Dressed up in fluff to fool us. :)

Matthew Lacy's picture

Just so long as we stay their subservient slaves, they treat us with kindness.

Timothy Turner's picture

If only my cat would cover her #2 in her litter box, then my life would be complete.

Martin Peterdamm's picture

I'm not quite sure if the Term "fashion photography" is even more often misused by photographers and "models" never hold any fashion magazine in their own hands

Alex Yakimov's picture

i think a slightly pinned photog on a high hill on a photo illustration for a boudoir tutorial in some circumstances could be considered an artistic expression. should it sell well and retain its value to be considered a “fine art”? what make the works of Nan Golding different?

Frank Jones's picture

Pretentious word salad drivel. It may not be fine-art, but this article certainly is akin to modern art.

LA M's picture

I dunno...I think fine art is subjective. Doesn't matter if it's a fat chick surrounded by buff men or a cat.

I've seen people pay for some things I find questionable but it's their money.

Daniel Medley's picture

"From the outside, this art bubble can seem horribly pretentious, and there’s a degree of truth to that."

A "degree" of truth?

Art always has been and always will be in the eye of the beholder. There is no objective manner in which to determine what is or is not art. It's all subjective; let alone "fine art." That's why rational people scratch their heads when they look at a giant painting of a yellow dot in the middle of a black canvas that sold for thousands and think to themselves, "This is supposed to be art?"

Long live Pierre Brassau!

Tom Pinches's picture

This was an interesting article.

sam dasso's picture

In my opinion photography art is oxymoron. And I have my take on art or fine art - if it is something I can reproduce it is not art. They can say anything about Malevich's black square or Kandinsky paintings. To me it is not art. Mona Lisa is.

Christian Lainesse's picture

I prefer gonzo photography

Tony Clark's picture

The use of "fine art", "curator" and "influencer" are greatly exaggerated these days.

Jeff Walsh's picture

you forgot entrepreneur

Iain Stanley's picture

and influencer

Jeff Walsh's picture

it's the third one he listed

Iain Stanley's picture

Reading was never my strong point :)

Jeff Walsh's picture

I had to recount a few times just to make sure it was in fact the third one. haha

Jeff Walsh's picture

I use the definition of art that I heard from Chase Jarvis, art is based on intent and execution. If you go out and intend to create art, then you execute that intent, you've created art. After that, no one gets to define it. You wanted to create art, thus you created art. This article however seems to be pointing at marketable art, which is far more subjective. You can create all the art you want, but that has no bearing on whether someone will be willing to pay for it. And whenever I've heard the term "fine art" it's ALWAYS wrapped around the idea of selling the art. The only real difference between the word "fine art" and "art" is public perception. "Fine art," is simply a marketing term to cause the market to perceive a higher value. That's why I say fine art is just a term people now use to say they want to sell their art for an inflated price.

Even the very base definition of "fine art" is stupid: creative art. Really, is there such a thing as non-creative art? There can't be because the definition of art is: the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination. So art is a creative expression by definition, thus fine art is apparently creative creative art? It's all rather ridiculous.

Intent and execution of creating art results in creating art. Marketing, advertising, your particular market, and public perception determine whether or not your art is worth money. Fine art, is just the word "art" with extra, but meaningless, letters preceding it.

Iain Stanley's picture

“If you go out and intend to create art....” but how do you categorically define “art”? And if I go out with the intent to create art, and execute my intentions perfectly, is it still “art” if your criteria and perception of it is completely different from mine?

Jeff Walsh's picture

My perception of your art has no bearing on whether or not you created art. You created art because you intended to do so, then executed on that. After that, no one other than yourself can define what you created. You are the creator therefore you are the only definitive on what you created.

Iain Stanley's picture

hmmmm then perhaps we come full circle on the topic of this article.....is it "fine art" because I intended to create "fine art"? As the author says (which I tend to agree with) it isn't fine art just because I say it's fine art (in my opinion). What I create might be fine art to me, but I'm not sure it gives me the right to advertise it as fine art to the world if it's a piece of utter turd and doesn't fall within some kind of universally accepted parameters.....that's the issue I suppose - what are those parameters?

Jeff Walsh's picture

Well, here's the problem with classifying fine art under the condition that it's universally accepted: Maurizio Cattelan's "Comedian." It was a banana duct taped to the wall. It sold for $120k. It sparked so much debate on what is and is not art, fine art, cost, meaning, effort, and a slew of other things. Was it art? Was it fine art? Well, in my opinion, it was art because Maurizio intended it to be. Is it fine art, well, it was sold as a fine art piece, in a fine art gallery I believe. So, based on those, I can be okay with calling it fine art, even though I don't understand it. In the end, after looking into it a bit, the word fine art comes greek and french which both end up translating into finished art. So the original concept of fine art is a completed piece of art. Based on that, it seems the term has been morphed into a more marketable, sellable, addon to art.

Iain Stanley's picture

yes I think the last sentence, in particular, is spot on. Someone, somewhere, somehow, marketed it as fine art. Someone, somewhere, somehow, saw fit to pay $120k for a banana on a wall. Again, to me, that doesn't make it fine art. If I duct-taped a banana up on my wall at home and asked the next door neighbour to give me $120k for it, how do you think I'd go?

Presumably Cattelan was famous enough by then that he had some gravitas......kind of like when famous movie stars have a "photography exhibit" in an uptown NY gallery. We all roll our eyes.....is it fine art? No doubt some picklehead will pay $100k for Gwyneth Paltrow's "Central Park Pigeon"....but....

Deleted Account's picture

It's became almost ridiculous with the post-post (etc.) modernism, eh?
Myself, I have a rather simple definition (not that it's simple to apply):
(good) art is something that comes from that special inner place (that is oftentimes called creativity and such) that will simply make you to do it (or attempt it at least). It generaly bugs your mind during the day and keeps you awake in the night until you release the energy. That's (for me) where worthwhile art comes from and it's irrelevant if it's most technical or just smears of paint or sells for millions or five people will see it. For me, something done this way has strange quality you can't put a finger on - nearly impossible to voice, but you just 'know' that particular piece is something else. In my opinion a good example are Adam's first portfolios compared to later works - e.g. done on commission from ministry of defence (or someone like that). Visually they are nearly the same, I'd say that later ones are even 'bolder' in some aspects, but the early ones has that strange quality that makes them something else.

Iain Stanley's picture

I think you're right about that inner energy needing to find a release in some manifestation. We all want to create, and be creative, to varying degrees. But where does anyone draw the line on whether those creative releases are art or not? We could say the market, or the galleries, or the people who pay to see them......I don't think we'll ever agree uniformly.

Jan Holler's picture

"Fine Art", the expression is originated in Europe and in Germany it is called "bildende Künste". It seems you misunderstand the meaning completely. It has nothing to do with being creative or non-creative art.

Venson Stein's picture

Thank you for posting the only intelligent comment I have seen in this section. The term has a long history, dating back to 1700s Europe. "Fine" is not a judgement of the work's quality, rather it's just a term used to distinguish it from "cruder" types of art such as pottery or furniture building. I guess most modern moron photographers have done zero research on the term, not even a quick Wikipedia check.

Jan Holler's picture

Thank you and indeed. What we see today what is called fine art is basically the opposite: decorative art. That said, as example, take a look at a self claimed fine art photographer named Peter Lik. Finally one could argue that photography is no art, at least no fine art. Cheers!

stuartcarver's picture

I hate any sort of pretentious term to describe anything, especially when the goal is for the person using these words to make themselves sound clever or more important than you. If only people could look in the mirror and see how twatish they sound.

Iain Stanley's picture

Goddammit, I just had my new business cards made up!!

Name, Master of F.Art
Contact: 1234567

Jeff Walsh's picture

HAHAHAHAH, that legit gave me a solid laugh

GI PAMPERIEN's picture

jus cause you say it ain't fine art doesn't mean it ain't...

Patrick Meulnet's picture

Fine Art exemples there, in the "gallery" tab: https://www.bwvision.com

Nick Rains's picture

Art is what artists do. if you are not an artist, it's not art. That's a semi-serious definition with a kernel of truth but whose attribution eludes me.
Also, the term 'Fine' Art does not mean 'Good' Art. It's a modern appropriation and a mistranslation from Greek (and then French) and means Finished Art, nothing to do with any concept of quality (Fin = Finished in French). I think the term was first used by Aristotle, but I could be wrong.

Patrick Meulnet's picture

in French, fin means "end", finished is "fini"

Jan Holler's picture

Really? Great explanation, but no! The origin is from the 19th century and is a collective term for the visual arts. "Bildende Künste" is the corresponding German expression.

Nick Rains's picture

Reference?
I'll find mine when I get time.

Jan Holler's picture

Please, here we go:

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bildende_Kunst

"Zu den Kunstgattungen der bildenden Kunst zählten ursprünglich die Baukunst, Bildhauerei, Malerei, Zeichnung, Grafik und Fotografie sowie das Kunsthandwerk."

"Der Begriff bildende Kunst hat sich seit dem frühen 19. Jahrhundert"

...since the early 19th century.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fine_art

"Historically, the five main fine arts were painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and poetry, with performing arts including theatre and dance."

And to distingiush:

"...In European academic traditions, fine art is art developed primarily for aesthetics or beauty, distinguishing it from decorative art or applied art, which also has to serve some practical function, such as pottery or most metalwork."

Cheers!

Deleted Account's picture

No. No. They are just wrong.

Rk K's picture

So you define fine art by what people think is fine art, which is bad enough of a circular logic. But only people who are marketing the pieces and people who can afford to buy them are allowed to weigh in? Sounds like a scam to me. Looking at your examples, definitely a scam. I mean, some are downright ugly, and not even because of the subject, but the baffling execution.

tyler h's picture

I categorize "art" as something created. and "fine art" is something that someone else is willing to pay a lot of money for in relation to the amount it cost to produce. I take a picture of my puppy...It's art....Someone pays me one million dollars for that picture of my puppy it is now "fine art". Ok, let the hate begin.

T Scarb's picture

Because you read a manual and push a button... photographers are not artists... not even close. They document a fraction of time in history... end of story. Are there great, good and bad photographers, sure... but none of them are artists.

Alex Yakimov's picture

mind to share a few names of good ones in your opinion?

Jeff Walsh's picture

Damn man, you gotta mask your troll comments a little. You can't just rush the finish line like that, makes it too obvious. You'll get more people a lot more angry if you take your time with the stupid shit you wanna say.

Richard Bonine's picture

“Naked bodies aren’t fine art” Umm... that depends on the naked body. 🤠

Venson Stein's picture

Perhaps the reason most modern photography is utter, worthless garbage, is the sad ignorance and lack of knowledge by 99.9% of photographers regarding art and art history?

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