First, let’s understand fine art photography a little better
Just about everyone who can see and press a button can take photographs, it is a democratic medium. The pictures may not be great but the processes of photography have become very easy. Anyone with a creative mind can now take photos without being required to master specialized photographic techniques, like learning how to paint. However creating fine art photography prints is not easy and continues to require great skill from the photography artist.
Simply taking a photograph has always been the easy part of the photographic process, making prints has always been the more difficult part of the picture creation process, and although making prints has become much easier with technology it is still the part of the process that separates the everyday picture taker from the “fine art” photographic artist.
My view of what turns photography into fine art photography
It is my view that a fine art photograph must contain a number of elements that are not normally present when an image is captured by the “average” person and by that I mean the person is not an artist.
Message, intention, choice, technique and print are the five elements I consider when preparing to capture an image that I plan to make fine art photography prints from. Each of these five elements must be present in my thinking and in the images composition before the shutter is pressed.
I should mention, I don’t need to like the subject of a fine art photograph, for it to be fine art, the “content” of the photography makes it fine art. I can fully appreciate the work displayed if the content informs me of the artists message, his or her intention, choices and technique.
I am intentionally separating here “subject” from “content”. For me, subject refers to the object depicted in the photograph. It may be a few fresh flowers or some pebbles on a beach. What they stand for is what I call the “content”.
The “message” within the photography
First, and foremost, a fine art photograph begins with a message, an idea. I don’t mean a social commentary or something extraordinary, but a meaning embedded into the photograph is essential. Many people have ideas and most people can produce photographs, however those who can bring these attributes together produce memorable fine art photographs.
The “intention” of the photography needs to be evident
Intentionality must be visible. By this, I mean the intentional execution of the photograph should come across with reasonable force. The choices (see next) the photographer has made will be clearly visible in the photograph. This intentionality separates the accidental snap shots from fine art photography.
“Choice” brings the photography closer to the fine art domain
It conveys the choices the photographer has made, not only in choosing the elements within the composition of the photograph, but also choosing a particular frame from among several or even many. The way the photo is presented is part of this dimension as well as the appearance of the photograph, printed-down, high key, low or high saturation, print media choice, and so on. These are the result of the fine art photographer making a series of choices, which should all be intentionally presented. Making these choices forces the photographer to commit to the way the photograph will be presented.
“Technique” and technical excellence
Each artist will choose from his repertoire or tool box the technique most appropriate for the piece of work. He may choose to make the image look faded, distressed, torn, or otherwise imperfectly exposed and printed, that is ok and I consider proper execution of these as part of technical excellence.
I favor “prints” for fine art photography
A print shows the choices the photographic artist has made more strongly than a slide or a digital photograph on a monitor. This will go against those who enjoy a good slide presentation, either simply going from one to the next or a more elaborate show with effects and music. I enjoy presentations like that too, but for me the process of setting up the gear and being forced to enjoy the art the instant the image is on the screen does not allow me the opportunity to appreciate and understand the art before me.
For me to truly appreciate the photography and the fine art I am viewing, I need to be able to read the artists message with more than just my sense of sight, I need to experience the whole story and only prints can do that for me. Prints have a texture, and two or three dimensional form, a physical presence that I can walk up to, sit and study or move around to gain a different viewpoint on the story, it is the prints, I believe bring all the elements of the story together, bringing the artists message to life in a real and readable way.
Does the fine art photography artist need to print his own prints?
That is a question that has been around for as long as photography itself and one to which I have very firm views on. My answer is yes and no depending of the printing processes chosen by the photographic artist for his or her fine art photography prints.
The true fine art artist will always be experimenting, pushing the boundaries of their medium and causing fine art critics to be in constant debate, however I offer this as my general guide. For those working with film photography, I say you must print your own work to be fine art. For the digital photography artist making a digital photography print, it is not necessary however as an artist myself I would prefer to print my own works of art thereby completing the whole process. Writing the whole book if you like, knowing that every part of the print being viewed is from my own hand.
There are many printing processes open to photographers of the modern age, prints can be made by anyone with a digital camera or image using a home computer and fifty dollar printer. The papers and inks to make these prints will cost more than the printer itself in many cases, but none the less, prints can be made on these easy to operate machines and could well be considered fine art photography prints.
At the other end of the scale, an artist’s photography prints could be printed using light sensitive substrates and chemicals in one form or another to bring the exposures to life just as was practiced in years gone by. Great skill and experience was needed by early print makers using these technologies to produce prints, skills that are no longer needed unless the artist chooses.
My answers of “yes’ and “no” should by now be better understood.
The “yes” case,
For prints made by hand in trays of chemical where every step of the process is un-automated and each part of the procedure can affect the outcome of the prints, I say “yes”, the artist must do his own printing. In earlier times this was the part of photography where the fine art was created. There was very limited opportunity for film development processes to substantially affect the final image as is now possible with digital technology.
In my early career it was common to have film developed by automated processing as this gave the photographer a consistent result allowing him to bracket exposures and get predictable results to work with, in the printing process.
The “no” case,
The prints made by machines such as digital ink jet printers (giclée printing) are so accurate and consistent in their reproduction ability, I do not see any need for the fine artist using these printing processes to print their own fine art photography prints. These digital inkjet prints or giclée prints are produced from digital files where the entire composing of the image, its colour and tone, in fact every last detailed adjustment has already been made by the artist in his computer studio. So long as the operator of the printing machine prints the digital file with correct colour and ink density profiles, there is no need for the artist to take a hands-on role.
What about me, what is my practice?
Earlier in my photography practice I developed my own black and white film and had my colour films processed by a lab. I printed my own prints with an enlarger and trays of chemicals. I had no fancy equipment for making prints; it was very much hands on.
I embraced digital photography as I could see myself being able to create far better fine art prints than I was ever able to do, in a darkroom. I now have full control of the outcome of my prints by doing the hands-on work in my computer software. The fine details that I can now enhance or even introduce has given me far greater satisfaction as it is in the fine detail that the simple photograph becomes a work of fine art.
With a number of years experience operating large format digital printers in the signage and commercial graphics industries, I have learned the capabilities of these incredible machines and this experience has enabled me to prepare my photography images on my computer to print exactly the way I choose.
I have no need to print my own fine art photography prints. I would love to make the prints and one day I shall, just as soon as I can justify the investment in the machinery. My fine art landscape and nature photography practice demands I use the best technologies and latest equipment to print my story telling images, each digital photography file becoming a beautiful fine art landscape or nature print.
How does my experience compare to another Australian fine art photography artist, Peter Lik?
Peter Lik has built an reputation as an artist capturing the beautiful landscapes of the world. It doesn’t matter whether you like his style or presentation, he is an artist and a photographer making prints that capture his viewers imaginations. His fine art photography prints tell his story and the story of his travels. He is successful as an artist because people like to read those pictures, they get to experience their own version of what it was like to be on location.