What is Fine art Photography?

Art photography known also as “photographic art”, “artistic photography” and so on, the term “fine art photography” has no universally agreed meaning or definition: rather, it refers to an imprecise category of photographs, created in accordance with the creative vision of the cameraman. The basic idea behind the genre is that instead of merely capturing a realistic rendition of the subject, the photographer is aiming to produce a more personal – typically more evocative or atmospheric – impression. One might simplify this, by saying that fine art photography describes any image taken by a camera where the intention is aesthetic (that is, a photo whose value lies primarily in its beauty – see, Aesthetics) rather than scientific (photos with scientific value), commercial (product photos), or journalistic (photos with news or illustrative value). (See also: Is Photography Art?) Artistic photos have been used frequently in collage art (more correctly, photocollage), by artists like David Hockney (b.1937); and in photomontage, by Dadaists like Raoul Hausmann (1886-1971), Helmut Herzfelde (1891-1968) and Hanna Hoch (1889-1979), by Surrealist artists like Max Ernst (1891-1976), by the avant-garde Fluxus group in the 1960s, and by Pop artists like Richard Hamilton. Photos may also be incorporated into mixed-media installation art, and assemblage art. Today, photography is exhibited in many of the best galleries of contemporary art around the world.

Use of Photography in Art

Photography evolved from the camera obscura, an instrument that projected an image through a small hole, allowing the artist to make an accurate tracing of an object or scene. The first mention of its use as a drawing aid appeared in Magia Naturalis, a scientific treatise by the Italian scientist Giambattista della Porta. Many Old Masters from the 17th and 18th century, including Jan Vermeer (1632-75), and Canaletto (1697-1768), are believed to have used it in their sketching.

With the spread of camera-photography from 1840 onwards, the use of photos became common in the production of both portrait art as well as landscape painting. Many figure painters and portraitists began using the new medium of photography in addition to models, to reduce sitting-time. The great 19th century American realist painter, Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), for instance, was an avid user of the camera, who employed photography as part of his pursuit of realism, rather than as a short-cut or aid to composition and perspective. Photography was also employed by landscape artists – notably the French Impressionist painters, as an aid to plein-air painting. For more details, see: History of Art.

Photography as a Fine Art

Although by the late 19th century, photography had become accepted in both Britain and America as a minor visual art – due in part to the promotional efforts of magazines like “American Amateur Photographer”, as well as bodies like the “Society of Amateur Photographers”, the “Society of Amateur Photographers of New York”, the “Photographic Society of Philadelphia”, and the “Boston Camera Club” – several photographic artists were keen to show that the new medium could be just as artistic as other types of art, like drawing and painting. Two such artists were Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) and Edward Steichen (1879-1973). Both were instrumental in helping to make photography a fine art, and Stieglitz in particular (and also his wife, Georgia O’Keeffe) was responsible for introducing it into museum collections. A landmark event occurred in 1902, with Stieglitz’s formation in America of Photo-Secession, an association of creative photographers, and the publication of its magazine Camera Work (1902-17), which rapidly became a forum for modern art of all types. In 1905, Stieglitz and Steichen founded the “291” gallery in New York, a venue specializing in avant-garde art, notably photographs, paintings and sculptures.

Pictorialism (c.1885-1915)

While Stieglitz and Edward Steichen were doing their best to promote photography as a full-blown art form, Pictorialism – the first major style of photographic art – was becoming high fashion among lens-based artists, around the turn of the century. Pictorialism referred to (typically dreamy, ‘soft-focus’) photographs that were effectively “created” in the dark room. Instead of recording the image of a particular subject, the photographer manipulated the printing process, in order to create the desired effect. For a pictorialist cameraman, a photograph was something to be manipulated just like a painter manipulated his canvas and palette of paints. Among the most famous pictorial photographers were Man Ray – noted for his rayographs – Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, F. Holland Day, Clarence H. White, William Notman, Sidney Carter, Constant Puyo, Pierre Dubreuil, Heinrich Kuhn, Hugo Henneberg, Ogawa Kazumasa, Harold Cazneaux and John Kauffmann. Although Pictorialism enabled experimental artists like Man Ray to take photography to a new level of creativity, as an art form it proved disappointing, since most of the creativity had little to do with camera work, but involved the manipulation of chemicals and instruments in the dark room. See also the German Dada photomontage artists Raoul Hausmann (1886-1971) and John Heartfield (Helmut Herzfeld) (1891-1968), as well as the innovative but controversial camera artist and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003), who was associated with Nazi art in the form of propagandist pictorialism.

For later 20th century artists who have relied on photos as subject matter for their paintings, see: Gerhard Richter (b.1932).

Sharp Focus Modernism

As an influential style, Pictorialism faded after 1920, being superceded by the new idiom of photographic Modernism, as the public began to prefer more sharply-focused images. Despite the disappointment of Pictorialism, photography gained in artistic status from its new sharper-focus, due to the evocative landscape photography of Edward Weston (1886-1958) and Ansel Adams (1902-84), as well as the Precisionism of Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), which he explored in his famous series of photographs of the Ford Motor Co’s River Rouge Car Plant in Michigan, and the Cubist-inspired works of Paul Strand (1890-1976). Modern photographers who have continued this tradition include Bernd and Hilla Becher (1931-2007) and (b.1934), the influential husband and wife team who founded the Dusseldorf School, whose followers include the postmodernist camera artist Andreas Gursky (b.1955).

20th-Century Portraiture

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the photograph began replacing the painting as the modern form of portraiture. During the following century, as camera technology improved, photographic artists extended the medium to embrace a variety of different types of portraits, notably fashion and street portraits, as well as the more conventional formal portraits. Fashion portraiture was pioneered by such highly talented artists as: Irving Penn (1917-2009), Helmut Newton (1920-2004), Richard Avedon (1923-2004), Patrick Demarchelier (b.1943), Mario Testino (b.1954), Nick Knight (b.1958), and David LaChapelle (b.1963). Street (or ‘genre’) portraits were the province of artists like Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), Walker Evans (1903-75), Diane Arbus (1923-1971), and Nan Goldin (b.1953); while more conventional portraits were developed by modernists like Cecil Beaton (1904-1980), Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002), Norman Parkinson (1913-90), Andy Warhol (1928-1987), David Bailey (b.1938) and Annie Leibovitz (b.1949). (Note: Given the widespread use of ‘conventional’ portraits in the press, many fashion photographers also took formal portraits.) The German-American photographer Hans Namuth (1915-90) introduced a new dynamic approach to portraiture with his photos of the controversial painter Jackson Pollock at work in his studio.


Now a major branch of modern illustration in newspapers, magazines and online media, news photography has always attracted high calibre camera artists capable of creating a pictorial narrative. Some of the greatest photojournalists include: Robert Capa (1913-54), Larry Burrows (1926-71), Don McCullin (b.1935) and Steve McCurry (born 1950).

Stieglitz: 1924-46

By 1924, Stieglitz’s exhibitions and writings in support of photography as an artistic medium were beginning to have an impact. In 1924, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts acquired a collection of 27 of his photographs: it was the first time a major American art museum had included photographs in its permanent collection. Stieglitz himself was consumed by two things: the promotion of Georgia O’Keeffe’s art, and also his three hundred or so photographic studies of her – many of which were female nudes – and the promotion of high quality modernist American art, including fine art photography such as the black-and-white lens-based images of Ansel Adams, for whom he put on one of the first shows in 1936. In 1937, the Cleveland Museum of Art held the first major exhibition of Stieglitz’s own photography.

Edward Steichen: 1946-62

Stieglitz’s partner in “291”, Steichen was a photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair during the period 1923–1938, during which he was the best known and highest paid lens-based artist in the world. After the war, he was appointed Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MOMA) until 1962. A highly influential figure, he did a huge amount to raise the status of photography among American institutions and the public. In 1955, for instance, he curated the exhibition known as The Family of Man, which toured to 69 countries, and was visited by 9 million people.

John Szarkowski: 1962-91

In 1962, Edward Steichen hand-picked the photographer, curator, historian, and critic John Szarkowski (1925-2007) to be his successor as Director of Photography at MOMA, a position Szarkowski held until 1991. Awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships, as well as numerous one-man shows, he published several seminal books, including Looking at Photographs – a practical handbook on how to write about photographs, which is still required reading in the best art schools. A lecturer at Harvard, Yale, Cornell, and New York University, he was one of the most successful advocates of artistic photography.

Famous Fine Art Photographers

Memorable contributors to photographic fine art include the following.

Man Ray (1890-1976)

American-born Paris-based modernist artist who was an early exponent of both Dada and Surrealism, and showed at the first Surrealist exhibition at the Galerie Pierre in Paris in 1925, along with Jean Arp, Max Ernst, Andre Masson, Joan Miro, and Pablo Picasso. Noted mainly for his avant-garde photography, he also practised as a renowned fashion and portrait photographer, whose subjects included many of the great artists of the day like James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau and Antonin Artaud. He developed the photographic method of solarization and invented a technique using photograms which he dubbed rayographs (as in his print, Rayograph, 1923, Private Collection). In its review of 20th century visual arts, ARTnews magazine listed Man Ray among the 25 most influential artists, citing his pioneering camera-work and dark room experimentation, together with his exploration of film, painting, sculpture, collage, assemblage, performance and conceptual art.

Ansel Adams (1902-84)

A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, recipient of three Guggenheim fellowships and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, whose black-and-white photographs of the West became the foremost record of the scenery of US National Parks before the advent of tourism. His masterpiece photographic prints include: Storm in Yosemite Valley (1935), Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (1941), and The Tetons and the Snake River (1942), one of the images on the Voyager Golden Record of human civilization aboard the Voyager spacecraft. Ansel Adams archive resides at the University of Arizona Center for Creative Photography, in Tucson.

Eugene Atget (1857-1927)

French photographer renowned for his documentary photography recording the architecture and street scenes of Paris. He was the subject of a four-volume biography by John Szarkowski and Maria Morris Hamburg.

Walker Evans (1903–1975)

American artist noted for his photographic work for the Farm Security Administration. See also the great Dorothea Lange (1895-1965).

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004)

Another great French photographer, considered by many to be the greatest exponent of street-photography in the 20th century. Influenced in the early 1930s by the street photographer Brassai (Gyula Halasz) (1899-1984).

John Goto (1916-94)

Professor of Fine Art at the University of Derby in England, Goto is a British artist specializing in montage colour photography, who is noted in particular for the “High Summer” pictures in his Ukadia series of photos. His photo digital art has been shown widely in Europe, as well as at solo exhibitions at the Tate Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Photographers’ Gallery in London.

Irving Penn (1917-2009)

Best known as one of America’s great fashion photographers, he is also noted for his portraits, and still lifes. See also the influential fashion photography of his younger contemporary Richard Avedon (1923-2004), who became the lead camera artist at Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

Robert Frank (b.1924)

Author of the influential book “The Americans” giving an outsider’s view of American society. Highly innovative in compositing and manipulating photographs.

Garry Winogrand (1928-1984)

New York fine arts photographer famous for his portrayal of American life in the early 1960s, and his pictorialization of important social issues. Influenced by Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and to a lesser extent Henri Cartier-Bresson.

William Eggleston (b.1939)

An important pioneer in helping to raise the artistic status of colour photgraphy.

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-89)

One of the first postmodernist artists, noted for his large-scale, monochrome portraits of celebrities (Andy Warhol, Deborah Harry, Richard Gere, Peter Gabriel, Grace Jones, and Patti Smith), his statuesque male and female nudes, and delicate still-life compositions of flowers, although he was best known for his controversial Portfolio X series of photographs, which brought him instant notoriety due to its explicit content.

Jeff Wall (b.1946)

Probably the most famous exponent of “staged photography”, Wall specializes in digital manipulation to create his works. A professor of fine art in Vancouver, he is an important and influential contributor to Canadian postmodernism.

Nan Goldin (b.1953)

Taboo-breaking American camera artist and installationist Nan Goldin, whose works include Nan One Month after being Battered (1984, Tate Museum London), Siobhan in my Bathtub (1992, Winterthur Fotomuseum, Switzerland), and Sisters, Saints, and Sinners (2004, Chapel of Salpetriere, Paris).

Cindy Sherman (b.1954)

New York photographer and film director, recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, famous for her postmodernist art, notably her conceptual portraits. In 2010, Sherman’s six-foot tall colour print Untitled #153 (1985), was auctioned by Phillips de Pury & Company for $2.7 million. In 2011, a print of Untitled #96, fetched $3.89 million at Christie’s.

Andreas Gursky (b.1955)

One of the best known exponents of large-scale (sometimes digitally manipulated) colour photographs. Favours commercial and financial subjects, as in Schipol (1994, Metropolitan Museum of Art New York), Singapore Stock Exchange (1997, Guggenheim Museum, New York), Parliament (1998, Tate Museum London), and 99 cent (1999).

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *