FINE ART PHOTOGRAPHY - No, it is NOT FINE to exploit this field for profit
The meaning of "fine art" as applied to photography becomes clearer when we consider the practical function of a photograph to represent reality. It is a mistake to take fine art photography to stand in a strict opposition to documentary photography per se. There are forms of documenting that very effectively incorporate a creative approach to the content of the photographs. The fine art element of a photograph is something which (1) is part of the photograph's content and (2) does not belong to its role of representing some chunk of reality.
Fine art photography does not require elaborated manipulations turning ordinary looking pictures into creations resembling the works of Dalí. (It does not preclude them either.) Andreas Gursky's photographs are a great example of fine art without manipulations of the scene (with the notable exception of the famous "Rhine II"). His way of ironizing capitalism, industrialization and mass production is visual par excelence (as opposed to conceptual in the linguistic sense) and far beyond mere documenting. The choice of the subject and particular ways of capturing it (e.g. use of the panoramic format, aerial photography) and framing it can amount to a creative tool powerful enough. The landscape pictures of Anselm Adams are in a subtle way fine art pictures as well. They are stylizations of the photographed areas into a vision of Garden of Eden - a vision of something which came long before us, whose value transcends anything we could make to replace it and which, for those reasons, should be preserved. See the instances bellow: A. Gursky - Bahrain I (2005), A. Adams - Yosemite Valley Clearing Winterstorm (1942).
Both photographers promote enviromentalist values. Neither activism, nor the aspect of documenting contradicts the possibility of them being joined by a fine art element.
It is ok to take the concept of fine art photography to serve as a category wherein pictures are deemed good, bad or somewhere in between. I appeal to the fact that the meaning of the attribute "fine" motivates a more exclusive character of the fine art photography institution. In other words: Sometimes it is okey to say that a given photograph comes from a failed attempt to create fine art. This is specially desirable in our era which produces each month an amount of pictures that easily exceeds the amount of all photographs produced before the invention of internet. Should the concept of photography become slushy and embracing mindlessly as something great every questionable creation? I don't think it should. Nonetheless, the branch of the fine in photography cannot be a prostitute who opens its door to anyone willing to pay!
Have you noticed the following thing about Instagram? People (or bots?) as a rule write "I love your gallery", "Amazing shot", "Great, keep going" and the like. During those several years of being active on Instagram, I did not spot anything like "This is shitty" or, at least, "This is not good" followed by a constructive critique. Instagram's abundance of applause is partly fake, partly a genuine outcome of aesthetic retardation. Those who flatter are either without a cultivated taste, or, which is more believable, they are simply victims of the desire to receive their positive evaluation back (in the form of likes, comments or new followers).
Something similar is happening in the fast-growing world of photography awards. You perhaps noticed that there is plethora of new photography awards. The forms of a photography award seem to take the shape of templates which every clever entrepreneur can turn into a money making machine. I hit upon one such project. It is called ONE EYELAND and this is how it presents itself:
What a bold statement! Ladies and gentlemen, no room for modesty and moderation here! An authority which "elegantly" identifies the finest fine art photographers in every country and crowns the best in the world has finally arrived to guide us. But wait a second - What about the pictures they have so elegantly identified in the immense tangle of so many candidates? Here are some examples:
The best fine art photographs? Seriously?
For starters, if what you sing is embarrassingly dumb, no matter how much you try to sing it beautifully, it remains as dumb as it would be had you tell it in some irritated and unpleasant way. Something like this applies to the first picture. A violin made of the hair of a pretty girl who is going to play it? And the look in her face - like she wants to provoke you or something. Moreover, can you imagine the sounds made by a bow playing a bunch of hair on someone's head? Ridiculous (and possibly dangerous too if she wanted to play the violin hard).
I can only guess, but I think there was no vision at play. Most probably the photographer found, in a premature way, the silly combination interesting and the rest of the team blindly followed the blind man. Sure, the scene in the picture can mean a lot of things depending on how you decide to read the picture (actually infinitely many). But this is trivial! If someone calls himself/herself a fine art photographer, I suppose that such a person will not expect his/her creative vision to be guessed from the picture in the way characteristic of reading the clouds.
The scene of the second picture is not dumb, but it is creative only in creating an instance of something not interesting at all. A woman with a parrot? So, okey... hmm... a woman with a parrot... and what about it? This picture shares a flaw seen very often in lots of the street photographs circulating all over the internet: I call these street photographs "pictures of walking people". For example, look at these (these pictures are taken from this gallery at Lens Culture):
Certain appealing elements are present, like strong colors or an unusual composition. By themselves, these features are just formal - perhaps they are not in the sense of bringing nothing to the content of the picture, but surely they are in the sense of bringing nothing sufficiently interesting. Furthermore, walking people are just walking people - something you see every day. Finally, if the walking person(s) is (are) in a nice position within the overall composition, we still get just a formalistic play on the elements in the scene. A picture like this feels like a magician whose dress is more entertaining than his/her magic tricks. The picture with a woman and a parrot is similar. It relies on a visually appealing formal feature that is wrapped around something boring and uninteresting.
Finally the pink landscape. If you explore Zak Van Bijon's (the author) site, you find out that his landscape pictures are manipulated with an intent to visually articulate an idea lying in the core of his project. The idea is not dumb or uninteresting (you can read about it here). However, in the award site the picture is recontextualized, put into a new context which tends to trivialize it. Going right after a picture whose vivid colors try to desperately cover the absolute lack of relevance of what they make visible, the pink landscape picture feels like exemplifying the same fallacy. Putting this aside, still it is difficult to believe that this landscape picture belongs to the world's best fine art photography. (Compare with Gursky's works or the photographs by Edward Burtynsky)
The first two pictures taken from the ONE EYELAND award site should be taken as failed attempts to create fine art photographs, not as bad fine art photographs in the literal meaning of this phrase!
The property of being fine art secures a higher aesthetic status to its bearer - higher in this sense: Every artistic artifact which is fine art is eligible to claim a certain serious aesthetic appreciation just on the basis of its being fine art. Thus every sensible adoption of the term "fine art" requires that we refute the notion of an outrageously bad art which is fine. Surely, we would protest, had someone prescribed that we must apply "delicious meal" to unpalatable meals (in the general sense of "delicious" and "unpalatable", so I am not talking about, e.g. "delicious for me" and "unpalatable for you"). When talking about a picture which aspires to be fine art but is bad in a serious, pitiable way, the term "bad fine art photograph" makes sense only as an equivalent of "photograph failing in its aspiration to be a fine art photograph". This approach does not confuse or cripple art criticism. The opposite is true: Art criticism gets empowered with a significant distinction.
Whichever a special property the word "fine" suggests, it must be something belonging to the content, at least when it comes to photography. We saw at the outset of this article that fine art photography is defined by a property of its content: Its content is not exhausted by the function of representing what was photographed; there is a creative contribution coming from the photographer. And it is this contribution which must be fine enough for the photograph being deemed a fine art photograph. But what is meant by "fine enough"?
The answer is actually up to us! The term "fine art photograph" is prescriptive. I prefer to use it in a way which renders the first two ONE EYELAND award pictures devoid of being a piece of fine art. The decision is in part pragmatic: The criteria must be strong enough to make ascriptions of "is a fine art photograph" substantive (non-trivial) enough. In part, it manifests and celebrates the strive for excellence as opposed to the satisfaction with a convenient version of the good enough.
I have shouted that fine art photography cannot be a prostitute who opens its door to anyone whose willing to pay for its submission. So, Mr. ONE EYELAND, get lost... really! I doubt that the jury of the award involves people ignorant about the history of fine art photography. I think it involves people who know that the pictures discussed above are either dreadful or not so bad, but not great either. This applies to other pictures presented on the site as well. So, why are they okey with all this? Expectedly, money is the right answer ...
The more inferior are the pictures chosen as winners, the more people rise their hopes of winning next time and, in turn, the more of them submit their pictures & pay the required fees. An analogous effect applies to a single participant: The more inferior are the past winners, the more photographs in one's portfolio will appear competitive enough. Again, this increases the profit. This is the petty mathematics lurking behind the verbal grandiose of ONE EYELAND and other such awards. As a result, not only that the award manipulates the layman's taste into misjudgments about what is good and bad in the field, but it systematically trivializes and exploits the concept of fine art photography - if not for money, then out of crude ignorance and ungrounded megalomania about the quality of the works which this award is capable of bringing to exposure.
Can an award be designed better than this? Sure, it can. It can if its designer cares ...
Milan Soutor (@Wildflower_Samurai)
@ellophotography #photography #polemics #essay #theory #aesthetics #philosophy #documentaryphotography #fineart #fineartphotography #photographyawards #capitalism #manipulation #adriangursky #anseladams #edwardburtynsky