Fine art photography refers to high-quality photographic prints that convey a thought or emotion of a photographer. Such prints are usually reproduced in limited editions to be sold to dealers, collectors or curators, rather than mass reproduced in advertising or magazines. Prints will sometimes be exhibited in an art gallery.
This was the era in which photography was invented. The Camera Obscura (dark room) had been invented years before, but it was not until the nineteenth century that people found the right chemicals to make permanent prints. Most of the first photography was experimental while people were still trying to find the right process for developing.
Successful attempts to make artistic photography, rather than purely documentary photography, can be traced to Victorian era practitioners such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and Oscar Gustave Rejlander among others.
Pictorialism was a popular movement in the early years of the twentieth century that strove to make the photography as much like a painting as possible. It produced little that is now deemed of lasting value in the art world.
At this time, art photography became accepted by the English-speaking art world and the gallery system. In the United States of America, a small handful of curators spent their lives struggling to put it there—Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, John Szarkowski, and Hugh Edwards.
Since the 1970s, many galleries have accepted that the best of documentary photography and photojournalism is worthy of being shown alongside art photography. From around 1975 many new galleries opened to show only photography. These too were generally happy to show both fine-art and documentary pictures.
Some photographers, such as Dorothea Lange, turn their documentary photography into fine art. Lange's photographs of the suffering Japanese families in America during World War II are captivating as art as well as documentary. With some other photographers it's hard to tell whether their pictures are meant to be art or not, like with some of Diane Arbus' work.
Until the late 1970s genre styles such as nudes, portraits, and natural landscapes predominated. Breakthrough artists in the 1970s and 80s, such as Sally Mann and Robert Mapplethorpe, still leaned heavily on such genres, although seeing them with fresh eyes. Others experimented with a snapshot aesthetic approach.
Throughout the century, there was a noticeable increase in the size of prints. Small delicate prints in thin frames are now a rarity, and hi-gloss wall-sized prints are common. There is now a tendency to dispense with a frame and glass altogether and instead to mount a print onto stiff board.
Color photography is now a popular medium, and its validation was strongly aided by curator John Szarkowski. Historians generally point to the Szarkowski-curated William Eggleston show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976 as the "breakthrough of color." In England, the early work of Gilbert & George is cited as validating color in art photography.
American organizations, such as the Aperture Foundation and the Museum of Modern Art, have done much to keep photography at the forefront of the fine arts.
There is now a trend toward a careful staging and lighting of the picture, rather than hoping to "discover" it ready-made. Photographers such as Cindy Sherman and Gregory Crewdson, among others, are noted for the quality of their Tableaux Vivant staged pictures.
Medium-format and large-format cameras have been preferred by art photographers over 35mm, however, with the rapid improvements in the high-end of digital photography, this is now changing. Digital photography offers a faster, cheaper way to create pictures, whereas with film photography it takes a lot of time and money to get a perfect print. However, there are some effects you can only achieve with film photography, such as scratching the negatives to create a certain mood.
With the advent of digital photography and Photoshop, montage art photography has once again become popular—it is notably seen in the work of John Goto, who has inspired many imitators. Purely computer-generated digital art (fractals, etc) is usually clearly distinguished from fine-art photography.
There has been no great attempt to popularize fine art photography, beyond the limited market for book reproductions. It is generally considered that one has to have an 'educated eye' to really appreciate fine art photography. Since art photography isn't offered in most schools, the chance of developing a popular mass market remains limited. Numerous online "web magazines" have appeared since 1995, offering a new form of outlet for viewing fine art photography, but sales figures still remain poor. Attempts by online art retailers to sell photography alongside prints of paintings have had mixed results, with strong sales coming only from the traditional "big names" of photography such as Ansel Adams.
According to Art Market Trends, 7,000 photographs were sold in auction rooms, and photographs averaged a 7.6 percent annual price rise from 1994 and 2004. Of course, auction sales only record a fraction of total private sales.
As printing technologies have improved since around 1980, a photographer's art prints reproduced in a finely-printed limited-edition book have now become an area of strong interest to collectors. This is because books usually have high production values, a short print run, and their limited market means they are almost never reprinted. The collector's market in such books is developing rapidly.
Many photographers still live poorly. These photographers, like Mary Ellen Mark, do mostly fine art photography, but also take pictures for advertisements in order to make the money to buy the expensive equipment needed. It is usually advised that unless you have a deep passion for art photography, one may have difficulty financially in making it a career.
The prestige of the label 'art photography' has led many to try to apply the label to a host of inferior products, such as calendars and inexpensive posters.
All links retrieved April 10, 2017.
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