Home Magazine Delving Into Fine Art Photography

To talk about photography at a time when everyone owns a smartphone with a more than a decent camera could seem reductive, but to those interested in the medium, this hardly comes as a surprise. Photography has always had to explain itself, all the way through its short yet exciting history, and out of all its genres, fine art photography bears the biggest chunk of that fight.

After it was invented in 1839, photographs took on the role of finally depicting the world in impeccable reality, something that painting and sculpture had been doing before that for centuries but always as the middleman, while the camera offered a window into the world, clear as day and not “lying” one bit. If you love to work on your passion for the camera don't miss our article dedicated to the Top 3 photography ideas: how to make great still life photosPeople used it to record themselves and the scenery around them, opening up a large range of possibilities, especially in the commercial sense. Newspaper articles were illustrated with pictures and products for sale could be reproduced faithfully and in all their glory.

But where does the subject of our article come up in this story? What’s fine art photography?

The first answer to that question comes with Pictorialism, something of an antithesis to what is mentioned above. Considered the first major style of photographic art, it was introduced and often exhibited by two giants of its history, Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz, in-between the years 1885 and 1915. It proposed “soft-focus” photography made with care in the darkroom - meaning the photos were manipulated and “embellished” in order to achieve a certain aesthetic and visual effect. Take Man Ray’s “rayographs” too, for instance: they were made without a camera entirely, by placing various objects directly onto the photosensitized paper and exposing them to light. In a way, Man Ray created works of art rather than photographs per se, and these are still celebrated for their uniqueness. 

We always want to bring you inside the most relevant topics of the Fine Art, read our article What Do We Mean by Fine Art?


Alfred Stieglitz, The Steerage, 1907. Photogravure, 6.19 x 7.75 in. Minneapolis Institute of Art


In a very vague nutshell, fine art photography, like fine art itself, is work whose purpose is to express an idea, a vision, an emotion or a message of its photographer/artist and is often admired for its beauty. It can be said that fine art photography stands opposite photojournalism, aiming to create inalterable documentation - although as a matter of fact some fine art prints made by photojournalist throughout history are now considered works of fine art photography as well. Indeed, the fine art photography field can, and often does, overlap with others, as some iconic shots simply transcend their original line and become beautiful works of art too. Same can be said for commercial photography - fashion and advertising, to be more precise - whose goal is to sell a product; but if we look at the work of Guy Bourdin, for instance, we can place it into the fine art photography category without thinking twice.

Fine art photography can also be political - testifying to this is the photographic oeuvre of Ansel Adams, whose breathtaking black and white images of the American national parks were created to raise awareness of the need of their conservation. On the other hand, staged photography (photos of artificially created scenery) such as the one by Cindy Sherman or Jeff Wall, mostly bears no particular message and is offered purely as artworks to be experienced by viewers, while hanging on the wall of a museum or someone’s house.

In the later 20th century, fine art photography saw perhaps its biggest boom in the rise of Portraiture. Coming from virtually all genres and taken by the likes of Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus, Cecil Beaton, Mario Testino and Annie Leibovitz, to name a few, it shed new light on the way a person could be interpreted through the photographic lens, and seen in entirely new ways. Naturally, contemporary fine art photography also brought the popularity of fine art nudes, notably those of Helmut Newton or Robert Mapplethorpe. The latter’s representations of the human body are of a very strong visual impact and carry the values of the Hellenistic sculpture in an unforgettable way.


Cecil Beaton - Travels in the Middle East 1942: Head and shoulders portrait of an Arab Legionnaire, 1939-1945. Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection


The status of fine art photography today is further confirmed by the increasing supply-and-demand of it on the art market. The photographers’ special focus on the composition, lighting, and colors was being emphasized even further with the development of the printing techniques and the advent of digital photography and post-production softwares, culminating in fine art prints that typically come in highly sought-after limited editions and photobooks. One of Andreas Gursky’s six prints of the Rhein II still holds the record of the most expensive photograph ever sold in auction - priced at $4.3 million in 2011.

Here you can find the list of the most expensive photographs ever as well!

Stay Tuned to Kooness magazine for more exciting news from the art world.