What is fine art photography?

Barbara Merkley

The question of “What is art?” has occupied the minds of scholars for centuries. Definitions range from the very general (any creative work of a human being) to the very specific. There was a time when photography itself would not have been considered “art.” When it first emerged, many traditional artists decried photography as a mechanical process lacking creativity or skill. Even after it was welcomed into the fold, pioneers of the medium such as Ansel Adams and Walker Evans were themselves dismissive of the discipline in certain forms. The latter, for instance, described color photography as “vulgar.” Today, the definition of photography as art, or fine art photography, is much broader. 

What is Fine Art Photography?

At Wonderful Machine, we define it as “pictures that express an aesthetic or intellectual (rather than commercial or editorial) message.” 

Similarly, the fine art photography collector David Hall sees it as “pictures made without commercial purposes. Photographs that reflect the artist’s view on a subject and are created in a style that represents an intention or concept.”

Fine art photography, if nothing else, is an expression of the self, which is inherent in all fine art mediums.

Rebecca Morse, Curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s (LACMA) Wallis Annenberg Photography Department, used the concept of self-expression to draw a distinction between commercial and fine art photography. 

Commercial photography and film are not driven by self-expression; they are paid enterprises used to advertise, sell, or market commodities or change people’s opinions based on the needs or wants of the funding source. The work is propagandist in nature and pushes the viewer to feel or act in a prescribed way. Conversely, art is a form of self-expression, and artists have varying opinions about the role of the viewer. 

However, the worlds of fine art and commercial or editorial photography are not mutually exclusive. Over the past few decades, one has leaned on the other and vice versa, revealing a role for fine art on billboards, magazines, and beyond. This avenue isn’t solely reserved for the likes of prints and fine art photography gallery spaces. Brands, advertising agencies, and publications equally covet abstract representations of subjects to sell their products, services, and stories. This intersection is the focal point of this article. 

Fine Art Photography in Practice

In practice, it’s usually a photographer’s personal work. Atlanta-based fine art photographer Patrick Heagney expanded on his understanding of the genre. 

It needs to be something compelling, something that draws you in and makes you want to linger on the piece. More of a vibe than a set list of qualities. It’s important for it to be something very distinctive from my commercial work. So I try to incorporate a sense of experimentation and alternative processes.

Patrick views his personal fine art projects as an antidote to the tight briefs and deadlines of his commercial work.

I love the freedom to create work for the pure visual joy of it. Commercial work is not always fulfilling on a personal level. With my fine art photography, I’m free to do whatever I want. I can experiment, fail, experiment some more, and if something good comes from that, great. It’s wholly my own, which is really fulfilling.

Photos from Chimera, one of Patrick’s fine art projects. Using multiple exposures, he illustrated how two people experiencing the same event walk away with different stories, diverging further over time with each subsequent recollection. Ultimately, they’re left with “an interpretation of the story, not an actual representation of the moment.”

In Commercial and Editorial Contexts

The eminent and world-famous photographer Howard Schatz has established himself in both the worlds of fine art and commercial photography, shooting campaigns for major brands from Clarol to Sony. He sees the two as so far removed from each other. 

Fine art photography is made with the heart, spirit, imagination, and creativity of the photographer. The artist has to dig deep and explore what moves them. Commercial photography is done by a committee of business people and an art director, who discuss and figure out what would work for their company. The photographer is a contractor, who creates these images, and for this, they need technical skills, as well as being able to direct the models and so on. They are two different worlds.

But there is real potential for an approach in commercial and editorial sectors, beyond fine art photography websites and art galleries. In a world that’s saturated with standard images, an unusual take or new approach to a subject can often capture people’s attention where predictable images fail.

Images by Olgaç Bozalp for Zegna, a luxury Italian fashion house, to promote their Fall 2022 campaign.

Some of the most successful photographers of our time have heavily borrowed from fine art. For example, Annie Leibovitz’s approach has been described to be at the intersection between fine art and commercial photography. This is why cutting-edge magazines and brands will commission professional fine art photographers – to stand out.

Just before the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Annie Leibovitz photographed Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, considered to be two of the greatest soccer players ever, playing a game of chess. It was part of a campaign for Louis Vuitton.

This intersection has been an object of fascination worth studying, which is what LACMA did with its exhibition, Objects of Desire: Photography and the Language of Advertising, curated by Rebecca. She wished to explore the increasingly blurred lines between fine art and advertising. In the latter half of the 20th century, artists appropriated the aesthetic of commercial photography as a form of critique. But over time, the usage and relationship became less defined. 

One of the things that originally interested me in this topic was the way that contemporary artists absorbed commercial tendencies for their own work… As platforms shifted with the advent of online art viewing, digital publications, and the arrival of social media, commercial and art images butted up against one another in new ways. In this arena, it became increasingly more difficult to differentiate the two.

Austin-based Cathlin McCullough has had great success blending her fine art with commercial photography. 

I have been able to mix some of my fine art work into my portfolio, and when I was starting out, I did some photo shoots to beef up my portfolio. My work is seen as “too artsy” for some brands, and I’m ok with that. I want to work with brands and creatives who appreciate the art of photography and a vision that stands out from the pack. I look for brands that have a good fit for my style, and creatives who get me. The brands, agencies, and creatives I’m pursuing appreciate personal work and fine art projects.

Inspiration for Fine Art Photography

Artists take their inspiration from the world around them, plugged into the artistic community where they critique and inspire each other. For others, like Ukrainian landscape photographer Yevhen Samuchenko, it’s all about the interaction between a space, his creativity, and the medium of photography.

It is the ability of the photographer to resonate vividly and completely with the space when creating a photograph that fills the picture with the energy the viewer feels.

In Yevhen’s experience, it’s important to keep track of those light bulb moments as they happen, unless they get lost into the ether forever. 

Think about the idea and concept of your future work. When an idea suddenly strikes you, immediately record it in a note on paper, on a smartphone, or in a voice recorder. But you don’t need to think through everything to the smallest detail – leave room for spontaneity.

Self-doubt and the desire to improve are integral to the creative process. Peers and formal study can help, but at the root of it is the artist being critical about their work, which is a familiar process to Patrick. 

I constantly question whether my work is good enough, interesting enough, or unique enough to stand out in a world saturated with images. But you must have this interesting balance between confidence and insecurity. Confidence is necessary to promote your work to galleries and potential collectors. But the insecurity, that feeling that you can always improve, is what drives your work forward and keeps it from getting stagnant.

Many photographers who pursue fine art photography on the side are happy to have the images live under a ‘fine art’ section on their website. Those who are more serious about this genre (or are trying to make a living from it) often spend considerable time and energy putting their work out there. Cathlin said, 

It’s important to follow the sparks where they lead you, even if it’s work that’s just for you. A lot of my fine art work is made on medium format film, and commercial clients usually prefer digital so they can tether during shoots for the extremely tight turnaround times. For me, this means constantly working with both mediums, making sure I’m always practicing and elevating my style in both.

Cathlin’s project New Normal arose from the Covid-19 pandemic, exploring how distance and barriers became commonplace and accepted due to the virus.

Outlets for Fine Art Photographers

The platforms for showcasing and monetizing fine art photography are incredibly diverse. They span from social media platforms like Instagram to specialized print-selling websites such as 500px, then extending to upscale art galleries and commissioned projects. The spectrum is broad, but the objective remains consistent: making a photographer’s work stand out. In this genre, more than any other, visibility is key.

Prints, Fine Art Photography Websites, and Auction Houses

Selling fine art photo prints might be the most recognized path for monetizing fine art work. Once again, on one end, there are photographers who leverage platforms like 500px to sell their prints to a global audience. These platforms democratize the art world, allowing photographers to reach enthusiasts and collectors worldwide. 

On the other end, there are internationally renowned photographers whose works are coveted by collectors and sold through prestigious auction houses. A prime example is Man Ray’s “Le Violon d’Ingres,” which recently fetched $12.4 million. This underscores the appeal and value of fine art photography to different markets, from the accessible to the exclusive. 

When a collector decides to purchase an image, their decision is typically influenced by two factors: their personal preferences and their belief in the image’s potential as an investment. David added,

I have different themes that I collect — my main interest is in portraiture. I prefer classic black and white photographs, many from the twentieth century, by artists that have attained a level of success in their careers. Although I collect images primarily based on aesthetic quality, I also consider the potential worth of the photograph in years to come.

David charted a course for photographers to make their fine art portfolio more visible over time. 

Ultimately, the best way to sell fine art prints is to have your work in the world, as seen in juried exhibitions and solo shows. Eventually, having gallery representation will elevate an artist in the fine art market and, in turn, attract collectors.

Fine Art Galleries and Agents

Most professional fine art photographers strive to be represented by a gallery or agent. Patrick, for example, is represented by Kai Lin Art in Atlanta, Georgia, and recently started a relationship with SOZO Gallery in Charlotte, North Carolina. Agents and galleries will have different criteria when evaluating photographers for their rosters. Yu-Kai Lin, owner of Kai Lin Art, described the core aesthetic featured in his gallery. 

We tend to gravitate toward photography with mixed media and mainly 2D work, as well as photogravures and other printmaking work. We look for work that is not purely commercial but work that’s compelling, has a message, and is fine art for our gallery. 

In addition, Kai Lin Art also helps its roster of creatives with art placements for commercial clients. 

We work with curators, art consultants, design firms, architecture firms, and interior designers to select and curate art collections. Each client we work with has a unique perspective of what they’d like to curate into their spaces, so it’s a niche selection process based on their specific needs.

The right representation can help photographers bridge the gap between their artistic vision and a specific client’s needs. Fine art photography doesn’t have to live on the walls of an art gallery, but can work its way into private residences, boardrooms, and C-suites through an agent or gallery that understands your creative identity.

Patrick Heagney’s images on display at a fine art photography gallery.

Photo Contests and Grants

Participating in photo contests allows photographers to compete against peers and showcase a unique vision and style with their fine art. It’s an opportunity to push creative boundaries, experiment with different techniques, and gain exposure to a broader audience. Many contests offer substantial prizes, whether it be cash rewards, equipment, or publication opportunities, which can further support a photographer’s career and artistic development. Contest wins can put photographers on brands’ and agencies’ radars, leading to paid assignments that might previously have been out of reach. As an example, London-based Pete Muller’s AOP Awards honors led him to work with William Hill, a UK sports betting company. 

Conversely, grants provide financial support and resources to pursue projects or creative goals. They often have specific criteria and requirements, such as a project proposal or a portfolio review. In addition to funding, grants lend credibility to a photographer’s work and increase their chances of securing future opportunities in the commercial and editorial space. 

Stock Libraries

Brands and magazines often turn to stock libraries to show both concrete and abstract concepts. For this, fine art photography can be particularly suitable, as it tends to be more open to interpretation. While Rhode Island-based photographer Cate Brown sells fine art prints through her personal website, she also lists some photos on Cavan Images. It’s another avenue to improve her visibility and generate an additional income stream. 

Moreover, the ambiguous nature of fine art photos can engage different audiences looking to utilize the same images in varied contexts. For example, a picture of the fog hanging over the mountains could quite easily end up on a book cover, blog post, or poster. Through image tags, a photographer can invite a range of potential buyers to consider the same image.

Cate lists some of her fine art photos on the stock photography platform Cavan Images, with each photo marked using multiple tags.

Editorial Projects

If a photographer has established themselves as a fine artist, they can get commissions from magazines to illustrate more conceptual articles. In particular, cutting-edge and higher-budget publications often commission the best fine art photographers to find more unusual and different takes on a subject.

It’s not a one-way street, either. Chicago-based Lyndon French pitched an idea to Victory Journal, a publication devoted to the intersection of sport and culture. Lyndon wanted to photograph Daniel Schetter, more commonly known as Surfer Dan, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Even in the depths of winter, Surfer Dan can be seen riding the waves of Lake Michigan despite the harsh temperatures. Victory was interested, so Lyndon headed over to his subject and got started. 

I wanted to document and show how crazy it is to surf during the winter months on the Great Lakes. It’s cold, really cold, usually during a storm, and it takes a lot of commitment and dedication to jump in that water, let alone surf. If you have a beard, it’s got icicles on it. Wetsuits are as thick as they come, and the wind will just get you. In the end, I wanted a breath of what it’s like to do this, getting ready, prepping boards, studying weather patterns, and then, some surfing.

Working with Brands

Increasingly, brands have also been looking for new ways to produce eye-catching content. They look for photographers who can deliver edgy images to cut through the clutter and reach their target audience.

Howard made a name for himself with beautiful and artistic underwater photography published in books and exhibited in museums, demonstrating extraordinary skill. Brands came knocking on his door for this expertise. 

Commercial clients approached me because they knew I could manipulate the underwater world. Sometimes they come to me for my creativity, but more often than not, they come to me because I made beautiful underwater pictures. Any photographer who wants to work needs to get their work out there. But I’m at a point in my life where I’m very careful about what work I accept. I ask myself if it takes me away from the pictures I want to take or not. The work for Sensai (a perfume brand) interested me greatly, as it was a variation of the work I was already doing, and I really enjoyed it.

Howard Schatz’s underwater photography caught the attention of numerous clients, including the beauty and cosmetics brand Sensai.

Social Media

Instagram has transformed photography for many, serving as an exhibition space and a venue to sell work and get commissions. Full-time photographer-influencers are posting their art and selling prints from the platform.

Some have gone further, garnering the attention of brands and publications with their signature aesthetic. One example in recent years is Minh. T, a modern surrealist and architectural photographer with a continuous visual narrative on his feed. Whether his photos showcase a building or landscape, a mysterious figure, suited up with a bowler hat on top, can be seen in the frame, traveling and observing the surrounding just as the viewer does. 

Most recently, his aesthetic and narrative inclinations landed a partnership with Monos, featuring their luggage and travel pieces. 

The traveler, featured in Minh T’s Instagram photos.

The Vision and the Challenge

Although the idea of pursuing a creative vision is attractive, the reality can be challenging – from loneliness to self-doubt and uncertainty. However, there are great rewards for photographers to develop their creativity, style, and vision. Some edgier work can allow them to stand out and even get high-profile commissions. Yevhen said that photographers need patience, calm, and persistence for this.

Persistence helps you continue to create when everything around is not going according to your plan.

However, it’s extremely rewarding for those who do make it work in the fine art photography specialty, and Patrick recommended diving straight in. 

Just do it! Having a creative outlet is the best. Showing your work and getting critiques and validation from an outside audience is great. It will help you grow as an artist.

About the Authors

Sonia Klug is an inquisitive writer specializing in writing about digital technology and is fluent in three languages. Other than working as a writer at Wonderful Machine, she also contributes to The Independent and various print magazines. You can learn more about Sonia on her website and connect with her via LinkedIn. This article was originally published here and shared with permission.

Sankha Wanigasekara graduated from Drexel University with a degree in Entertainment & Arts Management. Since 2017, he’s worked at Wonderful Machine as both researcher and publicist, currently writing and editing a variety of articles in the publicity department. You can find more of his work on Medium and connect with him through LinkedIn. This article was originally published here and shared with permission.

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