What is a fine art photographer?

What is a fine art photographer? Here’s a question to create debate. The snarky answer, of course, is someone who makes fine art out of photography. This is a post from another blog I wrote several years ago, but worth discussing if you like talking about photography instead of making photography. Naturally I like doing both.

 

Ballet #1

by Billy Brown

 

I took a long ride to Mobile and back this past week with my good friend/great photographer: Billy Brown. We went to interview and photograph Bob Soulliere, head of ThyssnKrupp USA. Billy is an incredible photographer and philosopher, and the nine hours in the car were pretty entertaining.

Billy said something toward the end that’s well worth thinking on. Years ago, he’d read a piece that talked about the traits of a fine-arts photographer. And while the specifics of the article were vague, the essential philosophy had marked his entire career. To be a fine arts photographer, he supposes you have to have three things:

Technical competence. Your ability to use your equipment and how to modify your surroundings—to control the light, the subject, everything—must be absolute. Like speaking a second language, you know you’ve mastered it when you no longer think about speaking it.

Intent: A fine-arts photographer had to pursue projects, rather than random images. I’ve heard editors say when they receive a portfolio, they expect it to contain 60 or 70 images. Only then, they say, can you expect someone to understand their subject. Which leads to…

An absolute understanding of your subject. This is where many people fail here because they don’t take the time to truly learn their subject. Billy mentioned Ansel Adams’s early days shooting Yosemite, when he packed his camera and eight glass negatives on a mule and hiked up into the wilderness. He studied the landscape for weeks on end and finally only made a handful of exposures in an entire trip. But he knew everything about the light at every point in the day.

Great projects result from spending a lifetime with your subject. Shoot it at differing times, under differing conditions. Spending time with it just watching and not shooting at all. Understand what defines it, what motivates it.

For Billy, that lifelong project has been photographing the Alabama Ballet. I doubt many people have a better understanding of the artists, the movements, the sacrifices that the dancers make.

I received a book last Christmas: Mark Seliger’s In My Stairwell. It’s the same sort of thing. He photographed hundreds of people (famous and not) in the stairwell of his studio. As a collection, it’s way more powerful than any single image.