Fine Art Photography Being Lost

Fine Art Photography Being Lost

Not Everyone Claiming To Be An Artist, Is!

This is more or less a continuation of the previous post, but sufficiently tangential to call for a different title other than, Part II.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t care very much for the title Fine Art Photographer. I’ve also stated here and there that the reason for this is the fact that the world’s portrait, wedding, Bar Mitzvah, baby picture, calendar, and cute pet photographers are now all calling themselves fine art photographers. The phrase has lost all practical meaning. (If you Google, fine art photography, the results returned will contain so little related to actual fine art photography, as to render the search, utterly useless.) But there is more to it than just that. There are other people calling themselves fine art photographers who are also, no such thing. Sadly, an ignorant and blind public fall for it, easily.

Abrigado De Periodico
Abrigado De Periodico (Arequipa, Peru ~1980)

Drowning In Amateur Wannabes

One thing that has never been lacking in the art world is groups of artists who point their fingers at other groups of artists, loudly proclaiming: “You’re not real artists!” Which, I guess, is pretty much the same foolishness I am committing here. But, there is justification for example, in musicians proclaiming that a group of people who simply own pianos without knowing how to play them, are in fact, not musicians. (Strangely, famous musicians who happen to own cameras are often heralded by ignorant morning show stars as fine art photographers, when they are in fact, just amateur snapshooters with access to a gullible and fawning press.)

Photography has always been very alluring to would-be artists because of its superficial simplicity. In fact, advances in technology have made it so simple to produce a technically acceptable image that it has made photography into an anyone can do it exercise, to a degree never imagined by George Eastman.

This has resulted in a peculiar phenomenon. There are now some fine art photography galleries that refuse to see the work of newcomers, at all. This might seem foolish on the surface, but the motive is one of self-preservation. That previously mentioned ocean of wedding and pet photographers, along with a sea of hobbyists, are inundating galleries with requests to show/buy their work. They sincerely believe their work qualifies as art because they cannot see any difference between their work and that of photographers they admire. That giant chasm, as mentioned in the previous post, is utterly invisible to them. There are so many of these people trying to get their vacation pictures into art galleries that some of those galleries have had no choice but to slam the door on everyone, preferring instead to seek out artists secretly.

D’Onofrio (Arequipa, Peru ~ 1980)

Counterfeit Artists & Galleries

The general public is an easy mark for the unscrupulous when it comes to art, and especially, photography. Start with a population utterly and completely uneducated about fine art photography. Add in the fact that they believe fine art photography is nothing more than photographs just like theirs, only technically better. Make those photographs into gigantic, severely oversaturated prints framed in very poor taste, and you have a recipe for swindling thousands, if not millions.

In recent years it has become popular in low circles, to dress up like Steve Irwin, sling a camera around your neck, photograph yourself climbing over rocks while dangling that camera, and give yourself titles and awards that don’t even exist for fine art photographers. These people then open gigantic so-called art galleries in high-end shopping malls in order to sell too-large, gaudy, oversaturated, out of focus, color vacation pictures, using promises of el Dorado made by staff employing the sleazy techniques of used car salesmen, to gullible people who don’t know that real art galleries are seldom found in shopping malls, much less that the Christmas tree decorations masquerading as art in those galleries look nothing whatsoever like real fine art photography and will in fact, never be worth anything at all. (Promises of financial gain are the favorite tool of the art swindler.)

But Wait, There’s More

It is difficult to resist diving into a long dissertation here about art education and how it has been taken over by entrenched academics who would like us all to believe that one cannot be an artist without a degree, while they issue those degrees for the express purpose of producing more inbred art teachers whose sole purpose is to produce even more of themselves. It is also supremely difficult to deny the urge to talk about how all that inbreeding has led to art no one understands, because there is nothing to be understood, and that is being used in a global multi-billion dollar game of The Emperor’s New Clothes for the sole purpose of swindling the rich.

I will therefore restrict myself to discussing the new photographers who are the product of those schools, who know nothing of the history of fine art photography, are entirely unable to produce a technically proficient photograph (because those same art schools have taught them that talent and skill no longer matter; only intent is important), who have no desire to learn from those who went before because they believe their predecessors have nothing to teach them, and who wish to produce only one of three things:

  • Illustrations of a vague art theory they are too superior to explain
    (and that are of interest to no one else)
  • Political statements intended to promote a collectivist utopia
  • Visual non sequiturs, designed to relieve the rich of their money
    (The Emperor’s New Clothes)

Complete Loss of Continuity

It is as though at some point in recent history, the timeline for fine art photography was totally severed by some giant celestial axe. New, would-be, fine art photographers have no idea and no interest in knowing. Ask them who Edward Weston was, they don’t know. Stieglitz? Minor White? Hell, they don’t even know who Ansel Adams was?! How is that even possible? To bring this point completely home, this would be on a par with a student of music admitting to never having heard of a single classical composer.

Do these new photographers desire to seek out still living masters to learn from them? Not a chance. And they simply cannot produce anything remotely resembling a fine print, to save their lives. If fine art photography is not about the fine print, then I must admit, I have no idea what it is about!

Mujer Con Dos Bolsas
Mujer Con Dos Bolsas (Arequipa, Peru ~ 1980)

Is It Our Own Fault?

Fine art photography seems to be a rudderless ship. New photographers believe they have nothing to learn from the past, especially on a technical level. This is peculiar since art schools have always stressed the importance of art history. One would think that at the very least, new photographers would desire to know what went before, if only to avoid repeating it. Most can’t even tell you the difference between a fine art photograph and any of billions of ordinary photographs.

Lots of people, and I mean a LOT of people are masquerading as fine art photographers, without even bothering to first find out what that means. At the same time, some are pretending to be fine art photographers for the express purpose of bilking innocents of their money.

What is especially odd is that swindlers can cheat innocents out of thousands of dollars for a single photograph that is not remotely art, while most genuine fine art photographers have a terrible time selling their work, costing only a few hundred dollars, to anyone. This is in no small part due to the fact that fine art photography tends to be subtle, B&W instead of color, and requires some investment of effort from the viewer. Big, gaudy, oversaturated photographs of crashing waves at sunset require no investment other than cash, and must only match the colors of the sofa.

Art schools are pretending to teach fine art photography when they too seem to know nothing about it. (The attitude appears to be: “We are artists. Photography is art. Therefore, we must be photographers and qualified to teach photography.) Oddly, the greatest teachers in the history of fine art photography could not today get hired to teach fine art photography at a junior college!

The question that begs to be asked is, “Who is at fault, here?” Aside from the obvious, the swindlers, the artists with political agendas, etc, etc., there is one overriding, inescapable answer.

We’re at fault! Fine art photographers are at fault. In our desire to be accepted as artists, we have allowed the art world to re-define fine art photography and to steer it in directions that make no sense. We have let them define fine art photography as something foreign, unfamiliar and undesirable. We have not stood up to say, “Stop, that is not fine art photography”.

We have not exposed the swindlers in khaki shorts. We have not told the wannabes that what they are admiring in those glossy magazines is not art. We have not ridiculed the morning show hosts who hold up pretenders as the real thing.

But worst of all, we have simply not bothered to teach the public what fine art photography is, thereby allowing those with agendas, or the simply ignorant, to do it for us.


All discussions of what is or is not art, eventually spiral away into nothingness. That is the nature of art. If you can explain it, it probably is not art. Even those things at the extremes of ‘not art’ can be seen as art by someone. There are in fact, homes proudly displaying day-glo orange Elvises on black velvet. And there are certainly more than a few rich fools willing to pay absurd sums of money for a piece of string stuck to a wall with a thumb tack, or a home appliance encased in plexi-glass.

All we can do is try to educate people when the opportunity presents itself and loudly denounce those who are deserving of it, whenever possible. It would do my heart good to see a few dozen fine art photographers picketing a shopping mall ‘gallery’ with signs saying, “This is not art!”


3 thoughts on “Fine Art Photography Being Lost”

  1. This post is very timely. Yesterday, while showing a friend (from away) the sights of our little ocean-side community here on the east coast of west coast BC’s biggest island, we stopped at a little art gallery (run by a group of local artists, of various media) that prominently featured a wide array of those big, colourful, oversaturated, canvas printed inkjet prints being passed of as fine art.

    The gallery was just opening and my guest stopped to admire a photograph in the front window. Just as I was about to make a comment, the artist looking after the gallery that day came from the little bistro next door with his coffee and invited us into the gallery. My guest mentioned she liked one of the window images and the gallery attendant (sales person of the day) said they were his. (and I was thinking I just avoided an interesting moment by not having yet voiced my opinion).

    Inside one wall was covered with a range of images, all pretty colour pictures, from this photographer. All printed on “canvas”, many seriously “overcooked”, and many quite large and none terribly sharp (canvas artifact?). I’m sure some of them would go well with somebody’s sofa. (Another local gallery/owner has a big HP colour printer and prints for many of the local photo club members – at a discount).

    I chatted with this photographer while my wife and our guest looked around and learned he’d been persuaded by the aforementioned printer owner (art swindler?) to pursue showing and selling his colourful images (all a variation on pretty local scenes, clouds, beaches, rock, trees, fishing boats, etc.). As I’m not qualified, nor comfortable with giving photographers critiques we just chatted generalities.

    I’ve considered myself a photographer of sorts for the past 50 years or so. I even spent a decade working commercially and even longer teaching fundamental darkroom techniques to a wide range of people. My education was not formal but consisted of a lot of reading, experimentation, and bothering other photographers. My formal education was in the physical sciences and contained NO art history, photo or otherwise so I can’t speak with any “authority” on art. When I see exhibits like yesterdays’ and read the statements of other local photo-artists (seen in other local venues) I can’t help but wonder if these days all it takes is a long list of adjectives and obscure words to be an “artist”.

    Sorry for the rambling, parenthetically stuffed comment, but it just hit me as apropros. (right on, and Write On…)

  2. Most of the people you refer to have no clue their work is not art. They are just caught up in the massive ignorance that exists and therefore can’t be faulted. Art fairs are full of them. And their work sells. (That’s REALLY annoying!) The public’s delusions feed the photographers’ delusions.
    The people I fault are the ones who know what they are doing does not qualify and they are purposely selling it at high prices with empty promises of future riches. Don’t know if the khaki shorts ala Steve Irwin are required dress, but they seem to be the swindler’s uniform. That and the khaki vest with 300 pockets. I wouldn’t have the nerve to step outside dressed like that! Plus, if you go around in the desert in shorts, your stay in the desert may be a whole lot longer than you had planned!

  3. The multi-pocket kahki vests are definitely part of the uniform up here, but not the shorts…a bit cool most of the time. (And, giant white lenses on spindly tripods abound.)

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