(This talk was delivered a few times to fellow photographers, in late 2013. It proposes a definition for “fine art photography” based on that which “the fine arts” as a group, have in common, and thus distinguishes between “fine art” and “high-concept art.”)
A Talk: “On Photography and Fine Art.”
© 2013 Tracy Valleau
My name is Tracy Valleau. I started taking pictures over 50 years ago. Today, my work is in private and public collections, as well as the permanent photography collection of the Crocker Art Museum.
So you’ll know where I’m coming from: Although I’m a straight photographer, there is nothing dogmatic about my work; I don’t subscribe to a particular school of thought. I started with film 56 years ago and built my first darkroom at age 10. Then, having experimented with it from the middle 90’s, I switched to digital in 2004, when the first 6 megapixel camera came out. I prefer the extended range and creative possibilities of digital, and while I obviously use Photoshop, I don’t “put butterfly wings on elephants.” For me, PS is a tool to massage my image into what I thought I captured.
I am a fine-art photographer. Now I know some fellow photographers who hesitate to say that’s what they do, because it sounds so self-aggrandizing…but that’s just a confusion of terms since the phrase “fine-art” is used so many different ways.
First, fine art photography is a type of photography, like wedding photography, food, science and architecture. And, just as there can be poor wedding photography, and bad product photography, there can be bad fine art photography as well.
There is also the colloquial use often heard as “that rises to the level of fine art.” (That’s where most of the confusion comes from.)
There is “fine art” as determined by gallery owners and collectors (a definition as often based in price as any innate quality.)
Finally, the “fine arts” are a series of courses taught in college. These include music, theater, architecture, painting, sculpture, poetry, photography and I think ought to include literature. That these are grouped together under one heading indicates that there’s something essentially similar among them; some unifying aspect or nature that they all share.
In short, to get a grasp of what fine art photography is, the best starting point has to be what fine art itself is.
So: today I’m going to talk about fine-art generally, and then as it applies to photography. That means you’ll be getting my considered opinion, with which some of you, no doubt will find objection. Think of this as an editorial… you are free to disagree.
I was born into a family of artists. My mother was a painter, and my father a writer, and actually, both of them were pretty good. I was exposed to the fine arts from a very early age, beginning with music, both recorded and live. There was theater, dance (watching, not doing), and the obligatory reading of the classics. I recall that at about age 5, my father persuaded a symphony orchestra to remain behind for a few minutes after one evening’s performance, while I climbed on the conductors podium and directed them from my 5-year old pinnacle of musical wisdom.
Because of all that, I learned to appreciate the arts. I studied them in school; they were patiently explained to me; and I began writing, drawing and playing music.
But as time went on, one thing slowly became apparent to me: across all the different arts, music, reading, drawing and so on, my response to each was surprisingly uniform. There was a change in me, a feeling, as I experienced each artform, and in some odd way, that change was quite similar in all cases.
It took me many years to finally put my finger on it, but that experience of similarity has defined fine art for me ever since. It was, I finally realized, a deep sense of comfort.
Now I’m going to see if I can explain that word “comfort” to you.
Why all this thinking about art? Because I believe that photo artists have to think clearly about what they are doing. We need to do that because we have such a short amount of time in which we create our art…. and also because we cannot push forward, nor create what we want, without understanding what we’re doing, and why and how it works.
But, what if “fine art” is overkill for you? What if you’re happy with simply “good-art” photos? There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but as a genius advertising executive, Leo Burnett, once said: “When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.”
About the Fine Arts
So let’s begin with a few thoughts about the fine arts in general.
Buying a camera doesn’t make you a photographer, any more than buying a hammer and chisel makes you a sculptor, or a fist-full of brushes makes you a painter. None of us are born with the ability to make fine art, nor are we born with the ability to appreciate it. It takes time and work and study to learn the art of writing or painting or composing or photographing. And that’s 1/2 the conversation. There’s no reason to expect the viewer to fully understand without some education in the arts as well.
But then, artists talk to us all the time, and we’re not all schooled in painting or literature or photography. So how does the artist succeed then?
I’ll get to that in a bit… and talk about what a fine-artist actually does.
First however, comes the understanding that “craft” is not “art” – a craftsman spends years learning his trade, until the tools and techniques become secondary… only then, after that mastery, and should he choose, can he or she become a fine artist. As Robert Adams noted, only a work that appears to have been done effortlessly can be convincing.
As your understanding of fine art grows so does your appreciation and sophistication. Spend years with a musical instrument, and you’ll hear and appreciate quite different qualities in music than will a 12-year old with an iPod playing the latest boy group. The reason you see fine art coming out of older adults and not teenagers is that it simply takes time to acquire the craft, and the sophistication and the understanding to create it. It is the same reason “wisdom of life” coming from a 20 year old doesn’t carry the same weight as when it come from someone who has made it through 60 or 70 years.
Also, by now it should be clear that I’m talking about serious fine art – Tolstoy, Bach, Picasso, Rothko, Steiglitz, Weston – and not the flavor of the day.
And in saying that, is the implicit statement that fine art comes in different degrees of quality.
Certainly, we all know that fine art is different things to different people. Flames on the side of the 56 Chevy may be fine art some people; over-worked, over-sharpened, over-saturated high-definition photography maybe fine art to others; and there are those who think that the paintings of Thomas Kinkade and his factory-line are fine art. A snapshot of a granddaughter may be fine art to grandma.
One thing to notice here is that these do not have a sense of universal appeal… the conversational, universal moments of life. You will find that the word “universal” will pop up again, soon and repeatedly, at the very core of fine art.
There is also what I call “commodity” fine art: that is, what the salesman (publisher, producer, gallery owner) says it is (usually in order to make a sale.) The success of this definition hinges on a lack of education in the arts, leaving a person with no other criteria in selecting art but to rely on price and the recommendation of others.
Additionally, there is the contemporary “fine art” that is a product of its time and the current artistic movement. Of course, all art was once “contemporary art” and remembering that Rembrandt’s work was “contemporary” at one time, certainly contemporary art can be excellent. Frankly however, much of current art is merely fashion or novelty, and novelty is not fine art.
The dictionary defines “fine art” as ” the attempt to capture beauty.” Frankly I find that a bit lacking, so let’s expand it a bit, and see if we can get to a better description.
Stieglitz said “Beauty is the universal seen.”
Combine these two, and you have fine art defined as the attempt to capture the universal… and the essence of something universal is indeed found at the core of all types of fine art: it is those universal human experiences that are similar across all the fine arts. That is precisely why it appeals to millions and is so treasured: something close to the essence of being human lies there.
And critically in the arts, at the heart of that essence of universality, is “form”. Form is the tool of expression within all the arts. It is the mechanism of art. It is the vessel for the universal, and the very basis for “how art works.” I mean this most literally: the change of form in music changes our internal response to it: music can be exciting or laconic; happy or sad, and it is the musical form that determines our response.
Try this: paying attention to your internal reaction, think of, or look at, a simple square. How does your response change when you look at a circle? A triangle? (There are, in fact a number of basic shapes and forms that all human beings relate to, regardless of culture or era or chronological age.)
Aristotle (through Sophocles) defined the form for virtually every story ever written since. Aristotle puts plot first – the “arrangement of incidents” – the form of the events.
(In case you’re curious, here is the form of every fiction you ever read or saw: someone is yanked from his normal situation, presented with a complication which must be overcome, wherein failure will result in tragic consequences and thus begins a long chain of cause and effect. Something or someone is acts in opposition to the required solution, and this leads to increased actions, a climax, a crisis (where it looks as though all is lost) and a reversal of fortune, and cause and effect bear their fruit. Then a flash of insight causes our hero to accept the change he’s been resisting, and there follows a resolution of the issue, a completion of action, and a return to normal.)
Music’s form is rhythm and pattern; sculpture is pure form, while painting uses form often a bit more surreptitiously than these… and photography even more so.
In composition, whether designing a building, writing a play or novel, painting, composing music, or taking a photograph, the artist imposes form on chaos, and thus simplifies, extracts and clarifies some aspect of the universal human experience. In so doing, we discard the cruft, and expose the beautiful.
“The [beauty] to which art points is of incontrovertible brilliance, but is also far too intense to examine directly. We are compelled to understand [it] by its fragmentary reflection in the daily objects around us…”
Hold that thought of “form manifesting the universal” for a second so I can return to it, and let me now come back to “movements” in art. There have been really two major movements, with most of the rest under these two larger umbrellas.
The first, and for hundreds of years, the only movement was what photographers call “pictorialism” (and others refer to as romanticism) – the depiction of an idealized reality. The second is “modernism” which has as its base, the recognition and emphasis of form. One could say that modernism was born during the time of the career of Paul Cézanne, having gone from pictorialism, to impressionism, cubism and onward. Now admittedly, this “two grand parts” is my own grand perspective, and it is an over-simplification, but I’m making the point here that in modernism (beginning the the post-impressionists) art dug into its own innards, and found the essence of form.
One cannot look at any modern art without being overwhelmed by the centrality of form. From design in art nouveau, to art deco; the Bauhaus and Russian constructivism… Picasso, Brach, Miro, Rothko… art became less about “things” and more about form itself; the archetypical universal.
And contemporary literature, music, sculpture… and photography tagged along, influenced by modernism’s simple observation that form lies at the core.
Have you wondered about Cindy Sherman? Robert Prince? Andy Warhol? Contemporary art turned to “post-modernism.” Whereas pictorialism was about the subject matter; and modernism about the underlying form; post-modern is what I call “referential” – without any discernable meaning if you do not understand that to which each piece refers. Instead of referring to essential and universal humanity, it merely references previous cultural icons and prior art. In short, it is art-about-art, and honestly, I’m afraid it’s born of artistic ignorance. Let me quote this post-modern expert:
In discussing Post Modernism in photography, art historian Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette says:
” In an Image World overflowing with images and stuffed with history, it is impossible to “take” pictures with a fresh and innocent eye: all pictures are seen only through other pictures… Photography is no longer about capturing realism…but was concerned with re-creating images of images. Without the possibility of reality, postmodern photographers are not photographers in the historical sense and they cannot photograph objects in the traditional sense. They can only record …the hyperreal of the Postmodern world… “Photography,” as a direct and immediate capturing of reality takes a certain amount of naïvité, no longer available in the Postmodern era. All photography has already been done. ” (Italics mine. I would also disagree with her contention that photography ever was about “capturing realism” – photography is inherently editorial.)
That said, I doubt anyone advised Shakespeare to quit writing because ” Aristotle had already done it.”
She goes on to say (and to further make my point): ” Photography as a discipline began to participate in the favorite Postmodern pastime–that of devising strategies and creating tactics that would allow the artist to make art in a world where everything had already been done. (Italics mine.) Photography became photography about photography–a form of conceptual photography. “
Post-Modernism is* as I said, art-about-art.
( *I should say “was” since the consensus is that we are now in the “post-post-modernism” era. This as yet unnamed movement, has at least and at last done away with the conceit that “everything has been invented, so we can close the patent office” and is now caught up in Art-as-Transitory-Event, propelled by the use of cell-phone camera mentality. I’m tempted to consider it post-modernism with the rug pulled out from under it.)
However, the definition I’m proposing here is that “fine art” is a capturing and sharing of (some aspect of ) the universal experience of being human. For that reason, I find that post-modernists, kicked off by Andy Warhol, are not creating “fine art.” There is nothing universal, nothing essentially part of the human experience, in soup cans or Marilyn Monroe’s stylized face. Warhol’s work has meaning only in reference to its culture. Equally, you cannot place Richard Prince or Cindy Sherman in anything but the same referential-art category. Please note that I’m not saying post-modern art is bad, or poor; just that it’s not “fine art” as I’m defining it. In the post-modern movement, Sherman, Warhol and Prince are the masters. Because I understand the references, I can appreciate and even admire, their work.
However, I suspect that in a few generations when those references have been forgotten, these artist’s works are likely to be curiosities, while works that resonate with the universal experience of life will still be powerful, important, (and likely expensive.)
If the best we can currently do is art-about-art, then frankly, I cannot help but attribute post-modernism to a failure in artistic education. Art-about-art asks us to consider the culture’s influence; notes that the environment for a piece of art affects the viewer’s perception; that deconstructionist thinking affects perception as well… to which I’d have to say “Of course. That’s the kind of stuff we covered in our second-year art appreciation courses.” Young artists, ignorant of art history, make art to answer these basic (and already answered) questions, failing to understand the imperative of the universal.
And buyers, for the very same lack of understanding and therefore appreciation of anything better, are depending on gallery say-so and prices alone, purchase these works, thinking they are “fine art”.
As I said, Novelty is not fine art… but it is easy to understand.
Yet if the post-modern is not fine art, then what is it? The film and the theater worlds have the term “high-concept art” and it generally means that the idea behind the piece can be explained by asking “What if…?” What if soup-cans were painted large? What if I dressed up like old film stars? What if I re-used advertising photos?
Post-modernism is really “high-concept art” and not, as I’m defining it here, “fine art.”
What is Fine Art?
So, what then are the criteria for art to be “fine art” as I am defining it? (Again, this could be music, literature, painting or any of the arts, including photography.) How does the artist communicate successfully with the beholder – each individual member of the audience (educated or not?)
In a nutshell, the artist makes the universal more simple.
The world is messy, complex and relentless: fine art selects, extracts, simplifies and ultimately clarifies a universal, shared experience. That experience could be harmony or discord; connections previously unseen or rhythm or pattern. It could be the compassion of The Peita; the anguish of operatic themes or the pensive look of a Rembrandt portrait.
Fundamentally however, fine art is about the human experience – and because of this, it endures. Because it’s about our living experience, fine art is timeless and each piece can stand alone. This is why the post-modernist belief that “everything has been done” betrays a lack of understanding of fine art. The universal human experience of life is an infinite subject, with time and culture providing the variation, richness and color. It is simply not possible for everything to have been done.
If you have any doubt that it is the universal humanity itself that underlies fine art, consider how we commonly remember great artists: as people, by their names. “That’s a van Gogh; a Rothko; by Brahms; by Beethoven. That’s a Weston.” Certainly it is no more possible to separate the artist from the art, than it is to separate the sun from the daylight.
Finally, I’d say this: all fine art is an allegory, a story told between two souls – artist and beholder. For this reason, fine art leads you on a journey, albeit an internal one: the contemplation of the allegory as you experience it. Speech communicates mind-to-mind; fine art communicates soul-to-soul.
Just as Shakespear’s work is not about kings and princes, Weston’s work is not about vegetables.
Now, as artists, you may be wondering if this doesn’t impose an almost overwhelming responsibility on you. Here’s the wonderful joy of being an artist: no – it does not! The responsibility you owe is to yourself!
When I behold a work of fine art, I simultaneously experience my own perceptions, and the perspective of someone else. That is the experience of the universal inside myself. I am connected deeply to another’s experience of life, as well as my own. It is in that way and for that reason you hear that great art is universal, and that “the work stands alone.”
Remember that art requires two people, the beholder and the creator, and as one experiences art, it reveals the universal from two unique and personal individual perspectives. Were that not true, then there would be only one expression of sorrow, or compassion, or joy or love. The very reason there are so many expressions; that art is so rich and varied; that not “everything has been done” are those unique perspectives of the artist and the beholder.
So, fellow artist, your responsibility (I’m happy to say) is to yourself, because without that, you fail to keep up your half of the bargain; you fail to contribute anything unique.
On to photography
At last, turning to photography, I’ll start with a trivial annoyance of mine – “take” vs “make.” We all used to “take” photographs, and at some point (perhaps after listening to Ansel) decided we were “making” them instead, as if somehow “make” more closely allied us with the other art-forms: painting, writing, sculpture and so on… giving the photographer the same gravitas as the composer or painter. Ansel meant much more than that, of course, but still on hearing “I’m going to go make some photographs” it grates on me a bit… and here’s why:
Music takes me inside myself; writing takes me to other venues; sculpture rings with 3-dimensional form; and painting… well, painting comes most close to photography: form, composition, color or tone, story-telling, grandeur and allegory.
And photography shares all those attributes, but adds one more: the actual real, immediate experience of the sight of artist.
The painter, the author, the composer … all the other fine artists can create over a long period of time; weeks for a painting, months or years for a symphony or book. But photographers have only an instant. In fact, to properly capture a photograph takes years of preparation, but in a single instant, we reach out into the real world, and we -take- from it.
No other art form does that – it is unique to photography… and that incredible constraint is why we need to think about photography.
In “taking” an image, we acknowledge that it is external to us; presented by nature in one singular moment. We reach out and grab it… we steal it… it is not ours… except as how we “make” it: how we compose it; waiting for the light; cropping, and so on.
While the other arts have their leisure to create, to make, the universal in the work, if it is not in our initial capture, no amount of dodge and burn or pixel pushing, will bring it forth.
As photographers, we are unique artists… from painting we take composition and color; from music rhythm and timing; from literature, allegory… from all the arts, we take form, and using all that, and more, we make the image we take.
Fellow photographer Stephen Johnson, on hearing the “take-vs-make” conundrum, suggested that instead we refer to it simply as “photography” as in “I’m going out to photograph. He makes the interesting point that “shoot” “take” and “make” all carry some baggage, while “I was out photographing” (as a verb) does not.
I digress… Let me return to Alfred Stieglitz’s statement here : “Beauty is the universal seen.”
… and of course, the universal is by definition everywhere; in everything. An early realization for many photographers is that everywhere you look, there’s a photograph waiting to be taken. I used to think, and largely still do, that I could stand in one place and find at least 10 photos without moving a foot.
So if photos are everywhere, why do we have such a hard time finding them? This, I believe, comes down to why photographers so love traveling to new places… and the answer is pretty much hard-wired into our brains and being. Overcoming this wiring is one of our biggest challenges.
Our brains are programmed to ignore the familiar, so that we can pay more attention to the threatening. Once we have become familiar with our surroundings, our brains literally ignore the non-threatening familiar things. There are hundreds of studies showing that we actually do not see these things anymore. They simply don’t register. (If you’re not sure of this, Google “moon-walking bear” some time.)
And that pretty much explains why photographers love to travel to new places so much: everything is new, and with nothing familiar, our attention is heightened. It’s just human nature.
Learning to see in familiar surroundings takes conscious effort – it’s hard work.
What do I personally do about that when I’m out photographing? I try to stop seeing “things” and instead concentrate on forms; relationships; connections or contrasts; patterns. I squint my eyes. I visually “zoom in” or “zoom out” to see if I missed something. I look for reflections, or shadows. Not only does this help me get past the creative block of familiarity, but it’s good practice as well.
As to other techniques I use…
We all remember the axiom that we should “not photograph things; photograph the light.” That may be a realization to a beginner, but here’s the advanced version: we can’t photograph light, except as it reflects off something. What we are photographing is shadows. it’s the shadows, the luminosity, that gives shape, form and texture to an image. Remembering that it’s shadows we’re exposing for is useful.
And that reminds me of this tip: I also find it useful to remember that I have 5 senses, not just sight. What is the most salient thing about the place I am; about the scene I’m capturing? I have a photo of Burney Falls I think came out well, and the most overwhelming sensation there was the sound. I used that to determine my shutter speed and composition to try to capture the sound of that water. Is it hearing and shutter speed? Touch and texture? Smell and lighting; Would you use contrasting textures with taste? Sight alone does not a photograph make.
Next, I have learned to remind myself that the heart of photography, form, is not just line and shape, but is also surface, value, texture and tone, connections, relationships, patterns and so on. So while a shape may not leap out at me, there may well be form in some other mode.
From my own artist’s statement, there’s this thought: everything is on a journey – don’t capture the thing; capture the journey.
For Robert Adams, form is beauty; for Alfred Stieglitz, beauty is the universal seen. In the fine arts it is form itself, in all its guises, that is the vessel for the universal . And the universal, because it is all of us, is the basis of compassion.
So: here we are – a room full of photographers. Each of us seeing and shooting differently; each of us reaching for our own stars, trying to push our vision forward, where ever it may lead.
As for myself: I shoot for the love and self-challenge of it. I shoot to discover the next step; to push my art fearlessly forward. I shoot to see if I can select, extract, simplify and clarify enough to get to the Essence of things. I shoot for the adventure of it all, and I shoot to share my journey.
It is a journey that began years ago, a child listening to music; reading books; experimenting with painting and writing… and building that first darkroom. In some ways, I’m still that little boy who had that same response to all the arts… that sense of comfort.
Behold the universal, and you’re experiencing compassion, for it is the same within all of us. As an adult, I finally realized that fine art is, ultimately and in its broadest sense, compassion.
And as a child, I found that compassion in the soul of a stranger, an artist, whispering to my soul:
“I see what you see;
I feel what you feel;
I dream like you dream…
You are not alone.”