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Louis Montrose

Hello Brooks,
With all due respect, none of your uses of "fine art photography" seem to me to define the term or to be its exclusive properties. They are primarily value judgments, and while value judgments are very important and we all make them all the time, they have nothing to do with defining "fine art photography." Conceptually, I tend to think of fine art photography and documentary photography as two theoretical poles of a continuum--at one end, purely formal elements are dominant in the experience of the photographer and/or the beholder; at the other, subject matter is wholly dominant in the making of the image and/or in its impact on the viewer. At one theoretical pole, meaning and value derive from the photographic object in itself; at the other, from the subject represented in the photograph. Individual photographs, however, are rarely pure and exclusive instances of one or the other; most photographs will realize these elements in varying and distinctive combinations. Although either fine art or documentary elements may be clearly dominant in the work of many photographers, others might meld them to varying degrees. Thus, most of my own work is travel photography with a strong documentary emphasis but in composing and editing my images, I am strongly guided by aesthetic considerations that give my work a strong "fine art" dimension--or so I like to think.

William Flowers

I find value in some of the remarks by both Brooks and Louis.

I particularly agree with the last sentence in Brooks' bulleted points: [that fine art photography] "goes beyond the mere presentation of the subject and begins to make connections between us about how we think and feel about the subject photographed."

It also seems to me that Louis would agree conceptually with this view, although with a different vocabulary.

I, too, agree with Louis' continuum. On one end exists documentary, representational, literal, or objective photography; and on the other end of the continuum exists subjective photography— for Brooks, a photograph that demonstrates "how we think and feel" about that which is photographed.

I would also go somewhat further in saying that on this strictly objective/subjective continuum, there are relatively few strictly objective photographs taken. These would be the photographs taken by a blind person, another primate, or perhaps someone photographing the scene before him in a grid pattern like an archaeologist planning a dig. Other than those perhaps "pure" examples of the objective photograph, from the moment a photographer begins "framing" or composing the elements in the photograph, he or she is making subjective choices based on how they "think and feel" about the appearance of the image.

A purely subjective photograph would almost be as if the lens of the camera were recording the mind of the photographer at the culmination of the “decisive moments” of a photographer pressing the shutter, selecting the photo for printing/processing, and printing or processing the photograph for viewing. This subjective image would be influenced by all the “rational thoughts,” emotions, and life experiences of the photographer.

Most photographs, then, fall somewhere along the continuum, with relatively few on either extreme. I think it is a useful way, though, to think about photography and it helps us better conceptualize what “fine-art” photography is about.


Hmm, just my 0.02 € on the objective end of the continuum. I can't think of many images more sober, straightforward, objective even in the reason they were made than Blossfeldt's plants photographs, like this one: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/ce/Blossfeldt_55a.jpg

And still this is art.

These images taken into account, I tend to believe that Brooks' observations, being whatever value judgements they are, come close to the point of how to define art - in the end 'fine art photography' is just a differentiating term to indicate that an image was not made for exclusively mundane reasons and contains, both in the making and in the expression, a certain depth or gravitas that justifies a in-depth engagement with that specific image.

It does - in my eyes - not indicate if a picture is 'Art', and in the current confusion through markets, augurs, trendsetters and -followers I tend to leave this question open for our descendants: Time has a much better judgement than (often self-appointed) apostles of one school or the other. In that sense Brooks' sentences do point (me) in the right direction of the involvement with the world and its (the involvement's) representation by the means of photography.

Chuck Kimmerle

I am not literate or clear-thinking enough to be able to define "fine art", but I do know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you cannot exclude documentary photography from it's definition. The term "Fine art" photography is a definition of intent, emotion, vision, presentation, talent, and intellect, among others, it simply cannot be defined by any one genre, nor can any genre be excluded, including documentary photography. To claim otherwise would be wrong.

One definition that simply does not matter when defining what is, or is not, "fine art" is "aesthetic consideration." It's not hard to make a photograph that is well composed with pretty colors or strong elements. If iPhones have taught us anything it is that those criteria are easy. What is hard, what is tantamount to being a photo worthy of the term "art", is communicating something worthwhile and meaningful to the viewer, evoking a personal response, be it an emotion or memory or feeling. Now THAT is fine art.


I like to think of a bunch of cave guys sitting around discussing this with their hand and animal prints on the wall... I wonder what they discarded as advertising and non-art.

Frank Calidonna

Fine art. Ah, the Holy Grail. I agree with most of your points. People with highly creative minds, able to translate their thoughts into concrete media expressions are quite rare. We call them Artists. They are successful because they contribute three precious things to the general body of art: originality, imagination, and communicable ideas all delivered with consummate technical skill. Be it photography, painting, sculpture, music or literature. These are some objective criteria to consider. And yes, I do consider modern art a refuge for the untalented.

Fine Art, Art with the capital A I do feel is a blend of creative expression in concert with high technical skill. I love Truman Capote’s description of John Updike’s fiction, "If you diagrammed his sentences you would have fleur-de-lis.” I guess I use that whenever I look at my own or another photographer’s work. I look for originality along with the fleur-de-lis before deciding in my mind whether I would call it art.

It does not matter to me if the work is from a photographers own personal choosing or a client. I do not distinguish between “real” art and commercial art. If a person is quite good at something someone will probably pay them to do it. Thus professionalism. I often ask my students if they have been to the Sistine Chapel. When they look at the ceiling and walls I ask if that is Art with the capital A? All respond, yes. I then remind them that they are also looking at commercial art. The artist did that for money. Sure many other motives too, but he was very good and was paid for his talent.

Most of us do try to do our best work along with honing our technical skills. Whether we create Art is probably, to some extent, in the eye of our viewers. Not wholly, but it is a factor. We do it for the pleasure of creativity. We do it for the ego boost of knowing we are very good at something. We do it for the applause. We would rather you criticized our children rather than our pictures. We are deeply wounded by criticism – warranted or unwarranted. We are deeply invested in our creations. That doesn’t mean we create art, but it is a clue to our quest.

By the way – do we create or record? A question for another place, but one I think about. I think PhotoShop puts us more in league with creativity than the darkroom. Again another question for another place. If I (we) never sell one piece the quest will continue. Ever was it thus.

Craig Arnold

I agree that it is primarily a question of intent.

If we grant that the term "Art" is not simply a superlative, then it must be possible to make bad art, good art, great art, art which might be good but isn't to my taste, etc.

To what extent then can one distinguish "Fine Art Photography" from "Art Photography"? Perhaps not at all, but by labelling one's work as "Art" or "Fine Art" one simply declares that the primary intention behind the making of it was as a work of art, not as a documentary image, etc.

Doesn't mean it's any good. Just that the maker wants it to be considered so.

I don't think any of this disagrees with Brooks' view.

Mark Olwick

Fine art photography is art that transcends the functional and becomes something of lasting beauty.

Chuck Kimmerle

Mark, that describes ALL photography as photographs, aside from covering holes in walls, are far from "functional."

Emilian Chirila

I try to explain myself (to compensate my low English level) with an example of a Constantin Brancusi work named ' bird in space'.
For me, fine art photography catches the essence of a subject using simple elements.
I can choose to make photography of a bird in a normal way, and this is a documentary photography, or in its essence way (like in my example) and this is fine art.

Steve Gledhill

Time to don my tin hat ...

Some interesting points have been made here, in particular those making reference to what actually is "art". But I can be a bit of a pedant and have an issue with what has become common usage of 'fine', as in Fine Art. This may not be quite on the point raised by the originator, but it certainly has a bearing.

It's not the 'fine' appellation specifically that grates but the self nomination that a photographer accords to their own work. Some photographic work certainly deserves to be labelled Fine Art, but for me it only attains that status by acclamation, or more simply in the eyes of an individual viewer (you or I for example); but not by the photographer telling us that their work is 'fine'. I'm reasonably ok with work being called "art" by a photographer. It can help distinguish it from "sport" or "architecture" or "wedding" or "war" photography, although some examples of these are certainly art too. It's the 'fine' that I really have trouble with. I know my views fly in the face of the views of many, even some of my good photographer friends, but that doesn't prevent me observing an often unmerited label where letting the work speak for itself would be more appropriate. Then again, perhaps I should just be relaxed about it, after all caveat emptor really applies throughout the "art" world. Anyone ignoring that dictum perhaps deserves what they get. Perhaps my gripe would carry more weight if I offered a solid alternative - how about "Expressive Photography". This has the advantage of avoiding the baggage of both 'fine' and 'art' whilst conveying what I think is its essence.

I like the quotation attributed to Banksy - “A painting isn’t finished when you put down your brush. That’s when it starts. The public reaction is what supplies meaning and value."

Chuck Kimmerle


Your point was closely echoed by a friend during a recent conversation on this same topic. While I can understand that viewpoint, I do wonder if allowing viewers to gift the label "fine art" is any more fair considering that personal preferences, biases, styles and tastes will no doubt influence their perceptions, rendering the classification of fine art, or not fine art, irrelevant to all but the individual viewer.


Tom Potter

I guess that we all are assuming that the final product, i.e. the print, is well done using proper techniques regardless of whether digital, silver, or any of the other print processes. "Fine" in part may represent the effort that is put into the finished product as well as the image itself. One could have a great image but do sloppy work in reproducing it for viewing. In my opinion that would not be part of what we call fine art regardless of content. So, if I respect my work as art, however we define it, the "fine" part may or may not be added to the phrase if I do not apply my ethic of the use of the best attempts at the final "performance", to borrow a phrase.


But who decides? What do with do with someone like Atget? Purely descriptive, documenting the streets and architecture of Paris when he made them...


Iam a bit late joining in this discussion if not to late. It just struck me that we tend to use a second hand language to describe most aspects of Photography the use of fine art photograph seems no more appropriate than saying fine art music or fine art poetry , although Photography uses a visual language thats where the similarity ends Photography is something separate and distinct from the other visual arts and deserves to be treated as such.

J Riley Stewart

A discussion I'm sure will outlive us all. As I read Brooks' take-home points, I found myself agreeing in concept (and really, that's all there is..concept). IMO "art" or "fine art" photography produces something (i.e., a photograph) that someone....anyone wants to keep merely because they find it emotionally rewarding to have. I don't keep Google street photos once they've outlived their purpose (yes, there are indeed functional photographs). Neither do I keep the pictures of my license plate going through the red light that the court sends me. I don't consider them 'art' or 'fine art.' But I have two small postcards attached to my sun visor in my car; both by Ansel Adams, and they have been there a long, long time.. just because I like to look at them. Apparently, Ansel Adams was a fine art photographer, and this I know.

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