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Author Topic: What is 'fine art photography'?  (Read 145074 times)
ChrisS
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« on: May 21, 2008, 05:07:17 PM »
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The question I want to ask is: what is 'fine art photography', as the term is used on this site?

Fine art as it's used in relation to photography in these pages often (by no means always) seems to be used to describe materials (Fine Art Paper, for example); to describe what photographs aren't (documentation and journalism, for example); to describe an intent to 'express' or visualize feelings, emotions and so on; and to explore and reproduce the 'beautiful'.

To my understanding, fine art is a term that applies to an incredible variety of things, and defining it is certainly beyond me. But it's clear that the term 'fine art' DOES (more usually) include photographs done on 'non-Fine Art Paper,' it can include documentary photography, it need not express or visualize feelings and so on, and it certainly need not explore or reproduce the beautiful. In fact, such notions are often quite the antithesis of contemporary fine art.

So: if I'm right in suggesting that none of the criteria for 'fine art photography' often forwarded in these pages necessarily (or even remotely) justifies use of the term 'fine art', how might we extend the criteria and thus agree on an answer to the question: what is fine art photography?

Or: is it just better not to make the claim at all, and accept that the category 'fine art' is entirely context-specific, so the same photo can have a different status depending on where it appears - a fridge, a newspaper or a gallery?

Think I'll stop there...
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Nick Rains
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« Reply #1 on: May 21, 2008, 06:51:27 PM »
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The question I want to ask is: what is 'fine art photography', as the term is used on this site? [{POST_SNAPBACK}][/a]

Hi Chris

I investigated this term myself for an article I wrote for a magazine:

[a href=\"http://www.nickrains.com/article11.html]http://www.nickrains.com/article11.html[/url]

"The term 'fine' does not in any way reflect the quality of the work, which is of course highly subjective. It comes from Aristotle's concept of Final Cause i.e. the purpose or end point of the work. In Latin, Fine means 'end' (In fine – at the end), and so in Fine Art the work is an end in itself, its very existence is its purpose."

It's an interesting concept, and one like the 'limited edition' concept that has been hijacked from its original meaning in the interests of sales and marketing.
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Nick Rains
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ChrisS
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« Reply #2 on: May 22, 2008, 04:19:07 AM »
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Right, Nick - I guess we can learn a lot from the history of the term. 'Fine' as an end in itself certainly works in relation to some forms of contemporary fine art, too.

But it's also clear that much of fine art is by no means an end in itself - a lot of important art today seeks to change the way we see things, and to change things. No doubt such forms of photography as journalism, documentation, and advertising can work to do this. But do you think fine art photography should not have ends beyond itself? It seems to me it can, and sometimes should.
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Nick Rains
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« Reply #3 on: May 22, 2008, 07:53:56 PM »
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But do you think fine art photography should not have ends beyond itself? It seems to me it can, and sometimes should.
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Why not?

"Fine Art" is really now used as a sales tool - it means "I want to be considered  a serious artist". Of course merely claiming this is not enough - just look at the vast array of flaky websites selling (or not) 'Fine Art' photos. I personally make no claims to produce "Fine Art", like "Giclee", I'm not comfortable with such a contrived phrase.

In my jaded opinion many people using the term so stridently are aspirational photographers - those that have achieved full art status don't really need to. Having said that, there are those who do use the phrase ligitimately. Alain Briot has lots to say on this subject and he uses the term on his website.

Should Fine Art Photography have ends beyond itself? Yes, if it chooses to, no if it doesn't - it's up to the 'artist' to decide this.
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Nick Rains
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alainbriot
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« Reply #4 on: May 22, 2008, 09:18:47 PM »
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Hi Nick,

Thank you for the kind words :-)  

I agree that the term fine art is overused, but then limited editions are also over used.  Currently I only offer my portfolios in limited editions.  On request, and for certain images, I will date the print.  That seems more genuine to me than placing a number out of a huge edition, such as 25/2000, which is eventually meaningless since there are so many prints, even though each of them has a unique number.  Ansel Adams did not number his prints either, unless I am mistaken.

For me a fine art photograph is one that is done with the goal of creating a work of art. It is an image that is done with a high level of craftmanship and care.  It has to be mounted and matted to museum standards, in an archival manner.  

Above all the cost should take a second seat to the concern for quality.  Fine art is about quality, not about quantity.  It is not about trying to save money by buying lower-priced inks, paper, matboard and other supplies.  It is about creating the finest piece you can create, regardless of cost.  

The goal is an artistic rendering of a subject in the finest manner possible.  

Regardless of price and cost, a fine art print should sing. It should have a lyrical quality.  It should transport you to a different place.  It should open a window on another world, the world the artist is inviting the audience into.

it should demonstrate an above-average printing skills.  Ideally, it should demonstrate outstanding printing skills.

A full definition of fine art photography is challenging.  it's a little like defining what is a luxury home, or a luxury car.  Some brands and features come to mind, but how do you rate a new brand, a new product?  

In photography we all know that specific photographer's work can be safely considered fine art: Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Joel Meyerowitz, all produced fine art work.  But how about a new photographer whose work hasn't been "stamped" with the fine art label by his or her peers?  More difficult to say.  I hope the above list, however partial, does help.
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Alain Briot
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« Reply #5 on: May 22, 2008, 09:35:54 PM »
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Hi Nick,

Thank you for the kind words :-) 

I agree that the term fine art is overused, but then limited editions are also over used.  Currently I only offer my portfolios in limited editions.  On request, and for certain images, I will date the print.  That seems more genuine to me than placing a number out of a huge edition, such as 25/2000, which is eventually meaningless since there are so many prints, even though each of them has a unique number.  Ansel Adams did not number his prints either, unless I am mistaken.

For me a fine art photograph is one that is done with the goal of creating a work of art. It is an image that is done with a high level of craftmanship and care.  It has to be mounted and matted to museum standards, in an archival manner. 

Above all the cost should take a second seat to the concern for quality.  Fine art is about quality, not about quantity.  It is not about trying to save money by buying lower-priced inks, paper, matboard and other supplies.  It is about creating the finest piece you can create, regardless of cost. 

The goal is an artistic rendering of a subject in the finest manner possible. 

Regardless of price and cost, a fine art print should sing. It should have a lyrical quality.  It should transport you to a different place.  It should open a window on another world, the world the artist is inviting the audience into.

it should demonstrate an above-average printing skills.  Ideally, it should demonstrate outstanding printing skills.

A full definition of fine art photography is challenging.  it's a little like defining what is a luxury home, or a luxury car.  Some brands and features come to mind, but how do you rate a new brand, a new product? 

In photography we all know that specific photographer's work can be safely considered fine art: Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Joel Meyerowitz, all produced fine art work.  But how about a new photographer whose work hasn't been "stamped" with the fine art label by his or her peers?  More difficult to say.  I hope the above list, however partial, does help.
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Yep, that pretty much sums up my own thoughts too.

Regarding the "stamping by one's peers"; that's an interesting point - I have a forming suspicion that being hailed as an artist is more progressive than calling oneself an artist. Anyone can proclaim themselves an artist, but to be acclaimed by others is not something that can be acheived easily.It usually involves being young and very very hip in NY, sticking around long enough, or, better still, dead!

Of course it can be argued that this is missing the point of art but it's an interesting concept nevertheless...
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« Reply #6 on: May 22, 2008, 10:15:11 PM »
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I think being "stamped" by someone else, who has authority to do so, is a good thing.

However, personally  I have no problem with anyone calling themselves artists.  Being an artist is not indicative of a specific level of quality.  It is only indicative of a specific intent.

Whether that intent is realized or not is for the audience to decide.
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Alain Briot
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« Reply #7 on: May 22, 2008, 10:28:30 PM »
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I think being "stamped" by someone else, who has authority to do so, is a good thing.

However, personally  I have no problem with anyone calling themselves artists.  Being an artist is not indicative of a specific level of quality.  It is only indicative of a specific intent.

Whether that intent is realized or not is for the audience to decide.
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Yes, I like that - very succinct.

Very broadly speaking, being an artist seems to be simply about intent to create art. Being considered an artist by others (authorised or not), and whether the claim of art is made or not, is just another path. The two are not mutually exclusive, you can be one, or the other, or both. Both is obviously desirable but not essential

Personally I do not claim to be an artist or to create art - I am a photographer who makes attractive images for people to enjoy. However, I have been called an artist by others, a title which does not sit entirely comfortably with me since my intent was never 'art' in the first place. But I politely thank them anyway for their appreciation of my images!
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Nick Rains
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ChrisS
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« Reply #8 on: May 23, 2008, 07:51:57 AM »
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I think I agree with the idea that anyone can call themselves an artist - it's then up to others to decide if their art is at all important, and thus if they are an important artist. I also think that fine art photos would normally be made with the intention of making a fine art work. But I'm still less than clear what constitutes such an art work. Alain raises other criteria that I'm not sure about/ don't agree with:

You write of 'a high level of craftmanship and care' as an important characteristic of a fine art photograph. In the broader world of fine art, craftsmanship and care in the making of the work may be important, or it may not. Since the early 1900s, much important art - much of it the stuff that fills our art history books - jettisoned the need for craftsmanship, and much contemporary fine art does the same. Indeed, the leading fine art journals often include works that are very much 'throwaway', snapshot images that, because of the concepts that underlie them, are important fine art. This contradicts the assertion that fine art photography 'should demonstrate an above-average printing skills.  Ideally, it should demonstrate outstanding printing skills.' I'm not saying it shouldn't, just that it needn't.

You're right that cost is not an issue in the production of a fine art work, but there seems to be an implication that it's going to cost a lot to achieve the 'fine' outcomes you describe. Again, the history of fine art challenges the notion that only the 'finest' (and presumably expensive) materials should be used - use of cheap materials and waste has been common since the first decades of the 20th century in fine art. It could be important to a fine art photograph precisely that it is printed on cheap photocopy paper in a cheap printer.

I think the danger is that 'fine art photography' defined on such terms is akin to fine art painting as it was defined in the academies of the 19th century, from which many important artists seceded precisely because of their opposition to such academicism. Just to be clear - I'm not saying that what you describe cannot constitute an important part of fine art photography - just that it's a very particular position that ought not to exclude the breadth of the concept 'fine art' as it exists in the broader art world.

OR - is there something particular about photography that allows it to insist, when it becomes 'fine art', on precisely the 'skill' and 'quality' that Alain describes, and thus allows it to resist the traditions that I've mentioned?
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jecxz
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« Reply #9 on: May 23, 2008, 08:20:10 AM »
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I will contribute that this book may help this discussion:

http://www.lenswork.com/lgc.htm
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ChrisS
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« Reply #10 on: May 23, 2008, 10:04:38 AM »
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Just had a quick read of the first two chapters - great stuff! Does it carry on in that vein?
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« Reply #11 on: May 23, 2008, 12:35:46 PM »
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Just had a quick read of the first two chapters - great stuff! Does it carry on in that vein?
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If you are referring to my post, yes, it does, and it gets better and at this point in my artistic career I feel this book is like a bible to me. His other to books are not the same, unfortunately. I read this one continually. Be well.
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ChrisS
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« Reply #12 on: June 11, 2008, 11:40:10 AM »
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If there is  a special case for photography to resist the traditions I mentioned when we define the term 'fine art photography', it hasn't been established in this thread.

So:

I would say that photography as it exists in the world of fine art is free to be as diverse in its form and content as any other form of fine art;

and it seems that 'fine art photography' as it's often applied on this site (see my earlier posts in this thread for what I think this consists of) may describe a combination of 'fine art' / expensive papers, a high standard of technical skill, a quite romantic understanding of how art can operate, and a claim to 'quality' that separates it from advertising/ documentary photography, but which none the less underpins the monetary value of the works described as 'fine art photography'.

The second form of photography has its importance, but I'm not convinced it's fine art at all, except in that it might form a very small (and probably critically unimportant) sub-category of the first form of photography.
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Rob C
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« Reply #13 on: June 11, 2008, 12:54:59 PM »
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If you are referring to my post, yes, it does, and it gets better and at this point in my artistic career I feel this book is like a bible to me. His other to books are not the same, unfortunately. I read this one continually. Be well.
[a href=\"index.php?act=findpost&pid=197546\"][{POST_SNAPBACK}][/a]

Youīre allowing yourself to slip onto very dangerous ground, jecxz, because taking anotherīs say-so as any form of personal bible is not safe practice; it isnīt even particularly productive to you, the reader/follower either, because it can cloud the view from your own mindīs eye.

Look, let me try to explain this a bit: I have always liked H-CB, Jean Loup Sieff, Frank Horvat, Sarah Moon, Hans Feurer (very much), Sam Haskins, David Hamilton to finger but a few. Yet, none has, to my knowledge, ever dictated a path, promised a golden future or peddled a dream I might buy. What all of these people have done for me, however, has been to serve as examples that there is indeed something great out there that somebody with camera, models and talent can achieve. I did not adopt their styles for myself though every one of them has touched my own thinking at one level or another and that, I think, is as far as one should allow influence to go. Quite apart from the obvious fact that to mimic well requires almost the same talent!

Added to that, I have a sneaky suspicion that the moment one of those people was to try to mimic his/her own style, it would all go ass over elbow. It comes naturally or not at all; being self-conscious would probably be the kiss of death!

I found Feurerīs new agent just by chance the other day, and for once, it was possible to read something about the man to which he had contributed himself. Turns out he was originally an art director in London in the early 60s then, later, after spending a couple of years using up all his money fishing in Africa, he returned to London and decided to be a fashion photographer. Just like that, as Tommy Cooper used to say. (So, I wonder what the atmosphere was like in the Seychelles when he as photographer and Derek Forsyth as art director were making the ī74 Pirelli Calendar in Mahé!)

However that might have been, it sure does add muscle to my theory about the Golden Age of photography (commercial) having been and gone.

Rob C
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« Reply #14 on: June 11, 2008, 01:40:43 PM »
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If there is  a special case for photography to resist the traditions I mentioned when we define the term 'fine art photography', it hasn't been established in this thread.

So:

I would say that photography as it exists in the world of fine art is free to be as diverse in its form and content as any other form of fine art;

and it seems that 'fine art photography' as it's often applied on this site (see my earlier posts in this thread for what I think this consists of) may describe a combination of 'fine art' / expensive papers, a high standard of technical skill, a quite romantic understanding of how art can operate, and a claim to 'quality' that separates it from advertising/ documentary photography, but which none the less underpins the monetary value of the works described as 'fine art photography'.

The second form of photography has its importance, but I'm not convinced it's fine art at all, except in that it might form a very small (and probably critically unimportant) sub-category of the first form of photography.
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Chris

Yes, you are right, no new definition has arisen from the swamp. I think that the reason this might be so is that the particular title of art photography/photographer is basically meaningless, so how do you ascribe meaning?

I donīt subscribe to the notion some have that art photography implies some distance from commerce: in my mind, much of what might be included in that genre is nothing if not commercially produced or, at least, produced with the hope of it being commercial enough to move off the wall! I feel that the term is indeed just a little bit of decoration meant to add gravitas to whatever form of image to which it is applied. Having said that, the term has achieved a certain validity because mostly one understands what is meant by it. And what is meant by it is something with added value, something which takes it one remove from the mundane. It might not really do so, of course, but once applied, the name creates a conception in the readerīs/viewerīs mind that might not have been there without the title. Naturally, it must have originated from a dealerīs lips...

You see the same trick when something is classified as nude or figure and why itīs not just termed naked. I was about to make the comparison using the word glamour, but it has been stolen from the vocabulary just as has the word gay: neither new meaning has any relevance to the original, at least in my lifetime, so letīs leave out Shakespeare and Chaucer from the equation, okay, guys?

In the case of glamour I think of Lauren Bacall, Rita Hayworth; today it means Pamela Anderson, about as far apart as one could get. (The two groups of women, I mean.) I doubt that glamour in the old sense exists at all in current experience; PSīd celebrities of the moment donīt fit the bill either. Glamour was never just pretty, neither did it really mean beauty though they were not mutually exclusive. I doubt that it even had anything much to do with sex appeal; more, it was a matter of the glamorous one being somehow beyond reach of mere mortals, even if the reality just meant some went to the highest bidder, much as today, one might say.

Possibly a far cry from qualifying art photography, but as everything else around us is slipping under the surface anyway, I suppose one term is probably just as good as another.

Ciao - Rob C
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« Reply #15 on: June 12, 2008, 11:03:19 AM »
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Hi.

This is a real can of worms and I too have certainly seen reasonably OK "record" shot photographs being sold as fine art, or web sites where the work is sent off to a Lab and then onto the buyer without ever being seen by the "artist." I have even seen mass produced poorly produced pictures branded as "fine art style." .......

However I think that the world is full of dubious marketing complications like this, take "green, organic, environmentally friendly as other overused and diluted words. Green Cars - "You really mean less brown!!!!"  "Organic - we only use chemicals when necessary!!" And what really is a "sports car?"

As creators of work, work that we may wish to share, market and sell, we will have to provide descriptions and these applications and I guess that these at times be a bit on the "hopeful side" from some people. I think it very unlikely that there will ever be a universal standard detailing the requirements for fine art photography, although it would be possible for an arts organization to provide a standard and provide certification to certain artist based on there adherence to a set standard. Again this is unlikely, although a local arts council to myself does certainly have a set of requirements that work must adhere too in order to provide some kind of attraction to potential purchaser, especially new collectors who may not fully understand all the con's.

In most fields where people collect things, then there is some responsibility for the consumer to make decisions about there purchase beyond the "marketing description." There are so many wonderful photographs available for sale in this world that if someone buys a pile of rubbish after visual inspection or over the web without being satisfied with credentials of the seller then I have limited sympathy.

I'm actually more concerned over the miss use of words such as "archival" which actually do have significant implications to the future enjoyment of work and the miss use of the term is actually seriously fraudulent.

Steven
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« Reply #16 on: June 13, 2008, 12:17:45 PM »
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The question I want to ask is: what is 'fine art photography', as the term is used on this site?

Fine art as it's used in relation to photography in these pages often (by no means always) seems to be used to describe materials (Fine Art Paper, for example); to describe what photographs aren't (documentation and journalism, for example); to describe an intent to 'express' or visualize feelings, emotions and so on; and to explore and reproduce the 'beautiful'.

To my understanding, fine art is a term that applies to an incredible variety of things, and defining it is certainly beyond me. But it's clear that the term 'fine art' DOES (more usually) include photographs done on 'non-Fine Art Paper,' it can include documentary photography, it need not express or visualize feelings and so on, and it certainly need not explore or reproduce the beautiful. In fact, such notions are often quite the antithesis of contemporary fine art.

So: if I'm right in suggesting that none of the criteria for 'fine art photography' often forwarded in these pages necessarily (or even remotely) justifies use of the term 'fine art', how might we extend the criteria and thus agree on an answer to the question: what is fine art photography?

Or: is it just better not to make the claim at all, and accept that the category 'fine art' is entirely context-specific, so the same photo can have a different status depending on where it appears - a fridge, a newspaper or a gallery?

Think I'll stop there...
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I use it, for lack of something better, to indicate that I intend my photographs to be taken seriously as Art, as opposed to being just a pretty picture or documentation of something or someone. I don't know that the materials matter so much. Of course the lines are not sharply drawn, as I would consider much of Henri Cartier Bresson's work to be both documentation and "fine art."

rmj@violetcrownphotographs.com
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« Reply #17 on: June 14, 2008, 09:12:13 AM »
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"Fine Art" is really now used as a sales tool - it means "I want to be considered  a serious artist". Of course merely claiming this is not enough - just look at the vast array of flaky websites selling (or not) 'Fine Art' photos. I personally make no claims to produce "Fine Art", like "Giclee", I'm not comfortable with such a contrived phrase.

In my jaded opinion many people using the term so stridently are aspirational photographers - those that have achieved full art status don't really need to. Having said that, there are those who do use the phrase ligitimately.
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Nick, I find your article insightful and genuine. And I concur with your view that "Fine Art" is now a (mis/over) used sales tool. When I look at some self proclaimed "Fine Art" photos, I often have the same reaction as when I eat an "all beef" hot dog.

Most current buyers of photos in the range of $$ to $$$ are probably treating them as decorative pieces, but not as collections that may have future values of $$$$ to $$$$$. But many sellers seem to hope/hallucinate that by simply calling their $$ to $$$ work as "Fine Art" would elevate their status.

Instead of debating whether AA's or HCB's work qualifies as "Fine Art", let us at least agree that neither of them ever proclaimed their work as such. At least not to my knowledge. Nor did/do numerous other photographers in the same class. While they may consider themselves to be artists creating art, they also seem to understand that art is ultimately in the eyes of the beholders, and wisely leave the decision up to them.
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« Reply #18 on: June 14, 2008, 09:48:31 AM »
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I agree that the term fine art is overused, but then limited editions are also over used.  Currently I only offer my portfolios in limited editions.  On request, and for certain images, I will date the print.  That seems more genuine to me than placing a number out of a huge edition, such as 25/2000, which is eventually meaningless since there are so many prints, even though each of them has a unique number.  Ansel Adams did not number his prints either, unless I am mistaken.
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To this I would like to add my subjective and often controversial view on limited editons of digital prints. The term "limited editions" is more meaningful when applied to traditional prints than to digital prints.

It takes time, effort and skill to create the first print, whether it is traditional or digital. After creating a traditional first print, it takes someone who knows how it is created (chemicals, filtering, toning, dodging and burning, etc.) to be able to repeat the process in order to duplicate *similar* copies. The process takes a non-trivial amount of knowledge, skill and effort, and hence is difficult to mass produce. Limited editions of such traditional prints are therefore indeed limited, and have an inherent value because they are difficult to duplicate.

Not so with digital prints. After the first digital print is created, it only takes a non-skilled person a few mouse clicks to duplicate an *identical* print in seconds. Limited editions of digital prints therefore do not carry the same value as limited editions of traditional prints. In fact, I find it rather silly.

The assumptions to the above comments is that each duplicator has access to the negative or digital file, and the knowledge of the media used for the first prints.

Which leads to how I value my digital prints vs my digital files. While I price my digital prints on the low side and often give them away, I take every measure to protect my digital files.
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Rob C
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« Reply #19 on: June 15, 2008, 06:08:59 AM »
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To this I would like to add my subjective and often controversial view on limited editons of digital prints. The term "limited editions" is more meaningful when applied to traditional prints than to digital prints.

It takes time, effort and skill to create the first print, whether it is traditional or digital. After creating a traditional first print, it takes someone who knows how it is created (chemicals, filtering, toning, dodging and burning, etc.) to be able to repeat the process in order to duplicate *similar* copies. The process takes a non-trivial amount of knowledge, skill and effort, and hence is difficult to mass produce. Limited editions of such traditional prints are therefore indeed limited, and have an inherent value because they are difficult to duplicate.

Not so with digital prints. After the first digital print is created, it only takes a non-skilled person a few mouse clicks to duplicate an *identical* print in seconds. Limited editions of digital prints therefore do not carry the same value as limited editions of traditional prints. In fact, I find it rather silly.

The assumptions to the above comments is that each duplicator has access to the negative or digital file, and the knowledge of the media used for the first prints.

Which leads to how I value my digital prints vs my digital files. While I price my digital prints on the low side and often give them away, I take every measure to protect my digital files.
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Chris, the problem with thinking your wet prints more valuable than your digital ones is that it still manages to reduce the concept of image to a question of time and materials.

I spent a hell of a lot of time in an industrial darkroom before I went solo and one of the chores was producing multiple prints off one negative, hand-developed, in deep dishes and getting them through fixer and wash onto the next bottle-neck: the rotary glazer. (Remember those beautiful Kodak machines?) We had the skills to push 10x8 prints through the process thirty or sometimes more at a time, and I bet you would NOT have know the difference between the first in and the last! I appreciate that 10x8 is not a normal art-print size, but even so, larger prints can be made to match pretty damn well, and it is largely academic anyway, as you seldom have two such things being on sale side-by-side.

So, I canīt accept that digital convenience equates with any lowering of artistic integrity or merit.

Ciao - Rob C
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