Photography as a Fine Art

Compared to most art forms, photography is a relative newcomer. Having been around for less than 200 years its place in the art world is still being established. Interestingly, there have been many arguments against photography being considered art, one of which is that the camera is a ‘machine’. However, one must ask if a camera is any more a machine than a musician’s instrument, a sculptor’s chisel or a painter’s brush?

Another argument is that because of the nature of photography, endless prints can be made from the one negative. While true, it is for this reason that many photographers will produce their work as limited editions just as screen-printers, etchers and wood-block artists will. Some photographers have even been known to destroy their negatives after they have completed printing the edition. However, the ability to produce numerous prints is usually considered part of photography’s uniqueness.

Historically, many photographers themselves once considered photography a lesser art form. Called ‘Pictorialists’ these photographers produced work using soft focus, and often, poor quality, lenses hoping their work would look like Imressionist paintings. Although the Pictorialists won a small battle in having photography recognised and given wall space, they certainly didn’t help win the war of photography being recognised purely on its own artistic merits.

There is a great quote that states: “There is no art, only artists.” Very true words, as there are many great artists who use photography as their chosen medium. It would be very hard for people to argue that the landscape and nature work of Ansel Adams; the natural world, nudes and still life’s of Edward Weston; the abstract forms and textures of Brett Weston and the compositions of Paul Strand are not art.

Because of the passion and extremely high quality work produced by these and other American photography pioneers, the American public and those within art circles could no longer deny that photography was a valuable and expressive art form. Oddly, Europe never seemed to have any trouble accepting photography as art. The work of Henri Cartier-Bressen, Brassai, Latrigue and others has always been held in the highest esteem.

The modern-day ease of photography has also led to a lot of very poor photographic work being passed off as art. Automated cameras have also lent considerable weight to the argument that it’s the camera doing the work, not the so-called artist. It is little wonder that many gallery owners are reluctant to give wall space to photographs. It must be remembered that the camera doesn’t make a good photographer any more than a piano makes a good pianist or a brush makes a good painter. An artist is an artist no matter what the medium.

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Where Photography Becomes Art

What constitutes a fine art photograph would be quality: quality in composition, quality in the negative and quality in the print. Edward Weston once said that, “composition is the best way of seeing.” Like other mediums, how the image is composed is of vital importance regarding how the print will be viewed. The photographer then needs to be able to put onto film what he or she is seeing and ‘visualising’ for the final print. Lens choice, film choice, aperture and shutter speed relationships, what to exposure for and which filters to use (especially for black and white film) all play a vital part in what the final print will look like. Finally, the photographer needs to bring that ‘feeling’ and expression out in the ‘fine’ print using a very demanding darkroom technique.

How a Fine Art Photographer Prints

Ansel Adams was fond of saying that the negative is like a musician’s score and the print is like their performance. Good photographers will know how to do both very well: photograph to produce good negatives and then make an expressive print that conveys what they saw and felt at the time of exposure.

A photographer will go through a few stages before arriving at the fine print. This begins with making a ‘proof print’ of the negative and evaluating it to determine how best to properly print from it. The photographer then moves through a series of ‘work prints’ as he or she fine-tunes the print exposure, cropping and contrast. More often than not, certain areas of a print will require more or less exposure than other areas. Giving more exposure to specific parts of the print, ‘burning’, will darken those areas. Holding back exposure on specific areas or ‘dodging’ will lighten them. When the photographer believes that the print is as expressive as possible, they will make a ‘fine print’ using their (often) extensive notes regarding dodging, burning and contrast.

Most fine art black and white photographers will use fibre-based paper for their fine prints. Fibre-based paper tends to have the edge over its cheaper cousin resin-coated paper. Fibre-based paper also has more archival permanence, however, modern resin-coated papers claim to be the same. Fibre-based paper is harder to print on successfully, however, generally looks better, is preferred or demanded by museums and galleries and is also somewhat demanded by photographic tradition. Good photographers will have no qualms about this and would feel as though they were cheating if they produced their work on resin-coated paper.

There are myriad other variables in fine art photography that include: choice of film developer, choice of paper brand, choice of paper developer and whether to tone the print. All affect the look of the final print and it is the experience of the photographer to know how best to pull all these together to produce a print worthy of being called ‘art’.

About the Author

By Matthew Smeal, who is a fine art black and white photographer and journalist based in Sydney, Australia. His work can be viewed on his website at

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