By TIM ASHLEY
I want to set out a sort of manifesto that puts some structure around what I think is good photography. To do that, I need to spend a few paragraphs holding forth about what makes my eye and brain happy in photographic imagery and why I think that a lot of contemporary photography is uninspired, unoriginal and uninteresting to anyone but the photographer. Which is fine. Most people who pick up a camera don’t intend to challenge Steichen, the Bechers or Arbus. But there’s also a lot of stuff around calling itself art when it isn’t and holding itself up for a critique that in reality it is not prepared to hear.
My rough yardstick for wanting to own a photo made by someone else, or to make one of my own available for sale as a fine art print, is that I have to believe that if it hangs on a wall for a long time, it will continue to have something to offer. Clearly this largely excludes images of loved-ones, pets, homes, holidays etc. But there are of course shots of these subjects that have something to say which is larger and more universal in visual impact than the photographer’s personal relationship to a particular family member. The work of Sally Mann and Elliott Erwitt comes to mind.
What Is Fine Art Photography?
I think that quite a lot of what is offered as “fine art photography” is at best merely pretty, and at worst garish*. Of course there’s also a lot of wonderful work out there — stuff that has a profundity of perception, intent and effect far beyond the pictorial — but it is in the minority and it is too often lumped into the fine art category alongside material which should really be placed elsewhere on the spectrum that runs from unoriginal cliché to artistic genius.
For the sake of concision I am going to concentrate mainly on landscape photography from hereon in: but the ideas are the same, whatever the specific genre.
In the largest producing and consuming nation of FAP, the USA, the norm seems to me to be overly dominated by the twin shadows of Ansel Adams and by the output of those who lead workshops to Slot Canyons and similar. I saw a photo recently, taken by a workshop participant, which zoomed back from the scene itself (a desert, viewed from a high ridge at about sunrise) to show an ant-like cluster of around thirty participants, tripods a-ready, perky zooms pointing into the landscape. All taking approximately the same photo. Which will probably look very similar to the one on the front of the website or brochure used to advertise the workshop.
There are key places in the U.S. for those shots: parts of the midwestern desert; those bloody slot canyons; El Capitan in Yosemite, etc. etc. etc., and I am 100% honest when I say that I frequently recognize shots of the exact same individual rocks (not rock formations or dolmens, just small rocks) taken by different people on different days or even in different years.
In the U.K. we have the Northumberland coast as the pre-eminent amongst a variety of other tripod littered wildernesses.
Having found the “right scene” (i.e. one in which other people have taken lots of nice shots) it becomes necessary to emulate “the look.” This involves
- Perfectly focussed foreground interest with…
- … an almost impossible depth of field through which run….
- … lead-in-lines towards…
- … perfectly focussed mid- and far-grounds, themselves topped by…
- … skies stained by graduated filters in unlikely colors (in theory to “protect the highlights”; in fact, to add some artificial coloring to bland food).
- All of the above marshalled into place by the rule of thirds grid in Lightroom.
Add some sci-fi HDR effects, round-trip through Nik filters, make sure that any water in the frame is made dreamy by using a slow shutter speed and you have the finished product: a “fine art photography landscape.”
Now this is, of course, satire. But only to a degree. And I would be the first to add that there are some very accomplished photographers who can use one or even all of the above techniques and still make work that is inspired and original. The key is subtlety (even when seeking a dramatic effect), moderation and not throwing the kitchen sink into the bath with the baby.
The problem is that there are so many magazine covers with lurid images in this vein, so many books and workshops that promote variants on it, that it becomes hard to see the world differently. So while I find little visual stimulation in work which merely “photocopies the world,” I am downright disheartened by work which photocopies the work of others and then bumps up the saturation slider. Copying is fine as part of the learning process but in the end, good photographerds must move on and become good photographers, if they want their work to be, and to be recognised as, truly original and genuinely creative.
There’s a distinction that struck home with me in a book called The Philosophy of Art by Theodore Gracyk: that between popular and fine art. My personal feeling is that an awful lot of what is generally referred to as fine art photography would better be termed popular art photography. It is often pretty (though generally in a sugary way), always conventional, and very rarely original.
There was a thread on roughly this subject recently on the excellent OnLandscape website (subscription but very worth paying for). It started with a very good article by David Ward entitled Giving Beauty a Bad Name, in which he discussed an image of the above mentioned El Capitan by Thomas Struth. But this one wasn’t an Ansel-a-like, it wasn’t pretty and it had attitude. This article formed the nucleus of a very mature and long-running discussion about the elitism of the artistic establishment versus the aesthetic tastes of the masses, roughly characterized as “clever-versus-pretty,” a false opposition which was recognized as such in the debate but which proved useful. Other ways of putting it might be “conceptual-versus-pictorial” or “aesthetic-versus-antiaesthetic.”
My contribution to the thread included the following paragraph, which came after a few comments similar to those I have made above:
On the other hand, the an- (or anti-)aesthetic school, with its lack of ability to unpack beauty from the bourgeois, running scared of making the former for fear of being accused of the latter, misses a number of possible tricks. Those who follow in the photographic footsteps of the Bechers… run the risk of being slavish to a different convention than that which ensnares the “foreground interest” crowd. But it is still a convention. Much traditional Japanese art made hay in this territory, forcing enormous tension of perception into the simple, haiku-like conventions of their form; but unlike the photographic in-crowd they did not fear beauty.
The thread went on for weeks and was very civilized, thoughtful and respectful, and in the end the majority of the participants saw both sides of the aesthetic argument and quite a few felt as I do. So I know I’m not alone in being bored with the practical-photography-magazine-cover-look but also wary of stuff which is so clever that it has little visual appeal. When it comes to “conceptual lens-based art” I suspect the emporer isn’t always wearing knickers, however clearly visible his trousers are.
So I do like to look at work, especially landscape work, which is primarily photographic in addition to stuff which is more “Tate and Moma” in its ambition. I love Steichen and Kander and Burtynsky but I’m quite partial to Gursky too, and to the Bechers. On the other hand I have never been totally convinced that Gregory Crewdson isn’t quietly “going commando” — or wearing the artistic equivalent of a thong.
To summarise an answer to my own question, therefore, I see “fine art photography” as having the following characteristics:
- It has to have extended “wall hang appeal”
- It has to be more ambitious in conception and effective in execution than the merely pictorial.
- It needs to be visually or intellectually original.
- It should avoid novelty techniques unless it really understands why it is using them.
- If it uses the tropes of the genre it should do so quietly, or ironically.
There are a lot of photographs, and I would include the current work of Gursky in this, which are in my opinion primarily art, not photography. They just happen to have been made with a camera. The work of Tacita Dean is another example of this. It is a tough distinction to make between this sort of work and work which fits my fine art photography definition and there are clearly areas of shade and grey where the two meet but I hope my attempt at a distinction is clear nonetheless.
In traditional art media, I love Rothko, Heron, de Stael, William Gear, Adrian Heath and a host of others, very often abstract or on the exploratory edge of abstraction. I dislike, vehemently, Fragonard. Torture for me would be having The Swing suspended on my wall for eternity. Which is a pity because it hangs in the Wallace Collection, the nearest museum to where I live.
So what kind of thing would I like to hang on my wall? Work I wish I had made myself. Stuff, maybe, that wonderfully evokes how a scene feels, rather than how it looks — or worse, how the photographer thinks other people think it should look.
* For an extreme example (and I thought long and hard about whether to include this link but even the photographer himself agreed with a comment made by someone else saying, “You are correct, there’s no accounting for taste”), take a look at this.