Over the past few years I have been moving more and more into printing. As a photographer who is transitioning into selling my work, as well as continuing to shoot for my own benefit, printing is a vital part of the process. After all, experiencing an image that has been printed and hung on a wall is vastly different, and more enjoyable, than just looking at it on a computer screen. During my time learning about printing I have come across debates about prints and printing, and how they relate to creative expression. I often hear the term “Fine Art “ thrown about. But what does it actually mean? Many of us assume that ‘fine art’ relates only to paintings (usually paintings of a particular style or time), but fine art photography is a niche all of its own. It’s slowly growing in popularity as our digital interaction with the world increases and the quality of photography improves to create images that other methods simply cannot. So, what defines a fine art print?
Back to basics: a fine art print definition
At its heart, the ‘fine’ aspect of fine art did not always necessarily denote quality, reputation, value or age. In fact, it was taken from Aristotle’s Final Cause concept, which stated that a piece of fine art was one which was in its final form, or had an ultimate purpose.
Today, however, the Oxford Dictionary defines fine art as ‘creative art, especially visual art whose products are to be appreciated primarily or solely for their imaginative, aesthetic, or intellectual content’.
Since art and tastes are subjective, a fine art print can refer to various artistic expressions that span a range of sensibilities.
As a landscape photographer, my aim is not to just take a shot with exceptional attention to detail, producing the finest sharpness. This is just technical knowledge in the end and is not creativity which to me is not necessarily my definition of ‘fine’ art. Landscape photography can tell us a lot about the emotional resonance of a place or a moment in time. The way a towering mountain peak contrasts against a uniquely hued sky, or the symmetry (or asymmetry) of a tree balanced within a snow-scape, might carry just as much aesthetic value for a certain viewer.
Thus, you could say that fine art photography is about capturing the perfect shot in the perfect moment, one that balances artistic merit and technique with an unusual perspective. It may experiment with shadows, filters and editing techniques, as well as composition, colouring, exposure and grain to generate something new.
Is a fine art print about making money? For many purists, the only genuine art is that which has no direct commercial aspect; they believe a photographer takes pictures for the joy of artistic expression that they can then display.
In reality, patronage (for which we might today use the term sponsorship) has existed since ancient times. Artists with exceptional talent would paint works, often on request, and were supported by a patron who would pay them a stipend. So a fine art print doesn’t have to be hung on the artist’s or a gallery wall – it can be bought by individuals to enhance their own space.
The copies are as good as the original
A hundred years ago, an original copy of a photograph was often stored in the pictorial negatives. There was no way to showcase it other than making copies for people to view. Modern printing sets no limit on the number of copies that can be produced. This is still a problem for people who are used to the idea of a single, original piece of work, viewing any copies as inferior. This is because, previously, the quality of a photograph declined with each subsequent copy. However, modern technology has eliminated this problem, meaning a reproduction can capture just as much detail and depth as the original, regardless of the number of copies produced.
Price doesn't always define it
Today, some artists and photographers produce a limited number of photos and sell them at higher costs. This can generate a sense of exclusivity and help a fine art print retain an original quality. However, a fine art print is only as good as the materials it is printed on, so the quality of the medium and the equipment used to print are particularly important. All my prints are made with the highest quality papers and ink available to me today. For example, I avoid paper with optical brighteners as they can quickly deteriorate with changes of colour in the image. I follow strict archival processes in the handling and mounting of my images, not only because this ensures value for my clients, but also for my own satisfaction in knowing that I am producing the absolute best quality in my printed work.
When it comes down to it, fine art photographs are those that fulfil the creative vision of an artist, which is best expressed in the form of the print itself for the viewer to enjoy. As such, a fine art print is defined by: the creative nature of the work, the quality of its reproduction, and its uniqueness. Not necessarily how much was paid to acquire it.