Photography as Fine Art

By Jonathan Bourla

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Photography as fine art

'Muriwai-colony'-by-Jonathan-BourlaPhotography as fine art. To some, this statement just doesn’t add up. Consider this – take an average person, give them an easel, some paints and brushes, and ask them to paint a picture. Would they consider themselves a painter? In fact, most would produce something similar to that of a two or three year old.   But  give that same person a modern automatic camera, and they would probably feel comfortable calling themselves a photographer.

With the proliferation of 35mm compact cameras, and then more recently their digital counterparts, focusing and approximate exposure seem to have been demystified. Of course, the photographs produced by the average snapshooter are just that – snaps, mere records of family groups and holiday destinations, not photographs of artistic merit.

Some seventeen years ago I attended a photographic workshop run by one of America’s top fine art photographers.  He recalled an experiment he had taken part in with his circle of artist friends. They had a go at each other’s chosen media, be it painting, sculpting, photography and others. The non-photography artists had expected photography to be easy, but were surprised how difficult it was.  Of course, this wasn’t snapshot photography; it was fine art photography of the highest order.

So what is fine art photography, as opposed to other forms of photography? Well it refers to photography pursued solely to fulfil the creative, artistic vision of the photographer.   Compare this to Commercial photography, whose raison d’être is to sell a product or service. Or Photojournalism, which aims to record events or activities. Here the shot is usually a direct representation of the action being photographed, with no artistic element, and where technical quality is not paramount. Fine art photography, however, needs technique to be excellent, so that the photograph is fully capable of capturing the artistic vision of the photographer. Fine art photography has traditionally been in black and white, but more recently has grown to encompass colour.

An extremely important fine art photographer of the twentieth century was Ansel Adams. His photographs and teachings have been the inspiration for many aspiring fine art photographers, myself included.  Adams coined the term “previsualisation”, which takes place before the camera’s shutter is released.  It refers to the process of visualising the desired final print, and then exposing and developing the film accordingly.  This method particularly suits photographers using large format cameras with sheet film, as each sheet of film can be developed individually. This is in contrast to the shots on a roll of film, which all receive the same development. A large format view camera, in principle, is like the plate cameras of a century ago, and although not a common sight, are still the camera of choice for those who aim for the highest in quality. Incidentally, these cameras are highly suited to fine art photography, as despite the difficulties posed, they encourage a slower, more contemplative process from the photographer.   My camera always provokes interest from the general public, and one young boy asked me if I had a proper camera hidden inside!

I digress. The fine art photographic process can perhaps be split into two parts: the negative and the ‘performance’.   Adams, a highly accomplished pianist, had an analogy between photography and music, saying that the photographic negative is akin to a musical score.  The musical score has the musical notes, but the final interpretation is left to the musicians and conductor involved. Likewise, the negative is the start of the photographic performance.  If the photographer has done his/her job well, the negative will contain all the information needed, in a form that is easily accessible.

The ‘performance’ has traditionally been carried out in the darkroom, but more recently is being carried out on a computer. The basic techniques are the same, and some of the computer tools even have the same names as their darkroom counterparts. Dodging and burning are two such tools.  Dodging refers to making an area of the photograph lighter, while burning makes an area darker. This ‘performance’ is where the main creative, artistic input from the photographer comes in, and the process can be lengthy, taking several hours or often days to complete for a single photograph. The finished print, however, should look natural and seamless – if manipulations are obvious to the viewer, then the photographer has failed.

I know that some people think of this ‘performance’ as cheating, but they fail to understand that fine art photography is a creative process – the photographer is not aiming for an accurate representation, but rather a creative, artistic interpretation.

The American market in fine art photography is well established. Numerous photographers and galleries have contributed to this over time, but I think Ansel Adams played a significant role.  His images of Yosemite and Yellowstone were used to promote conservation of these areas, and became American icons.  He was also a great educator in photography, teaching workshops and writing a series of technical instructional books.  Although the books were aimed at photographers, and some concepts were hard to grasp, they gave an insight into the creative and technical processes involved in making a fine art photograph of the highest standard.  The galleries, and then the photography-buying public, became aware that the photographic process was complex, both creatively and technically.

Adams wrote a book called “The Making of Forty Photographs”. Although aimed at photographers, it is worth getting a copy from your library. Even if you do not understand the techniques described, the book gives an insight into the photographic process. If you ever get to travel to San Francisco, take the opportunity to visit the Ansel Adams Gallery.  Inside you will find that his photographs in the flesh are visual masterpieces.  With your newfound insight into the photographic process, you will know what technical and artistic masterpieces they are too.




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