In Part 7 of this series we briefly considered fine-art photography products. It is time to examine this area of photography in more depth.
Let's be honest right up front: This is a very tough area to make a full-time living from. Let us examine why this is the case, as it will shed light on how one can be successful. Below are some of the key reasons why fine art photography is a tough gig:
- The market for fine art prints is smaller than we would like.
- The market does not value fine art photography as highly as, say, oil paintings, reducing the return per sale.
- A huge number of photographers dabble in this area, clouding the issue. for buyers and calling the whole area into question at times.
- Everyone with a camera thinks they can do it.
- The advertising of some camera and software companies has led people. to believe that great photography is easy, and therefore not worth paying a lot for.
- There are fewer galleries that will show photography than other forms of art.
- Some of the galleries that do handle photography don't know how to sell it.
- There is a lot of bad or just boring fine art photography out there.
- Confusion exists about the definitions (and markets) for fine-art photography and contemporary art photography.
We might as well tackle that last bullet point first, because I suspect some of you are scratching your heads in confusion. It’s sad but true: There are two types of photography with the word art in their description.
Since at least the ‘60s, many artists have used photography as their medium of expression or as part of it. Photography is well accepted in the contemporary art world and works from well-known contemporary photographic artists such as Nan Golden attract high prices at galleries and on the auction scene. This is contemporary art photography, and also now includes historical works by significant figures from the past.
The problem is that contemporary art photography has largely moved on from the 'traditional' photography-as-art areas of landscape, still life and nudes. With a few exceptions, these areas are generally not 'edgy' enough for the contemporary art world.
Fine art photography, however, persists in focusing on these largely out-of-fashion subjects, plus some abstraction. Fine-art photography has its own, strong and vocal following, but one that is very different from that for contemporary art photography. Galleries that show photography tend to be in one field or the other, there are different journals for each field, and the collectors and buyers of each type tend to be very different.
Photographers who want to make a go of photography as art need to be very clear about which direction they want to go.
People successfully working in contemporary art photography are contemporary artists first and foremost, and photographers second. Their thinking is clearly a contemporary art one, with all the art theory and art speak that many photographers balk at. Beauty is certainly out of fashion in contemporary art, as is any suggestion of the spiritual. Very large work dominates.
Fine art photographers, however, are clearly photographers first, often with a heavy emphasis on the craft or process. This is the realm of the 'fine print', including the time-consuming alternative printing processes such as platinum or gum bichromate. It is a world in which relatively small prints can still work.
These are all generalizations of course. We can all think of photographic artists who work primarily in one of these areas while using thinking, subject matter or processes of the other. But I do think it is very important to understand the difference that exists in the thinking of the practitioners and also in the collectors/buyers.
Of course, all areas of photographic expression and use are valid. They are just different and will appeal to or repel different groups of people. As a photographer or artist you need to be true to yourself. There is no point trying to be something that is just not you. The work will be insincere and forced, and potential buyers will sense it.
So the very first step on an art photography path is to expose yourself to a huge amount of photography of all sorts and determine exactly where your attraction and inspiration lies. What strategy you take next will depend significantly on which camp you decide to join. A good lead here is the type of work of others that excites you and you can't get out of your mind.
As you examine different types of photography, I recommend viewing both reproductions and original works. That means hitting the galleries as well as the journals and websites. I say this because reproductions (such as in books, websites and journals) make it very hard to appreciate the differences between many alternative printing processes and post-printing treatments. The originals look so much better, and this is true whether the original is a digital or analog print. (To me an original is the way the photographer/artist intended the work to be seen; a reproduction is anything else.)
Because of the way galleries show work, the gallery side is likely to take some time because of the usual monthly show schedule. Make sure you hit both commercial galleries and institutional galleries. Treat it as an active research project.
Do your homework, take notes and don't be scared to ask the gallery staff to explain work to you. I generally use this approach to commercial gallery staff: “Excuse me but I am having trouble getting my head around this work. I wonder if you could walk me through it.” This usually provokes at least an interesting conversation and often one that helps expand my boundaries of understanding.
Hit the journals and books too. A good place to start is the library of a university with a strong photography program. You don't need a library card to browse the shelves, sit and read and flick through journals.
In Part 10 of this series, we’ll look at how to approach fine art photography as a business and in Part 11 we’ll look at how to approach contemporary art photography.