What Is Art Photography?

Perspectives, Genre, and Education

 Dead Pan Flasts © Bob Killen

Dead Pan Flats © Bob Killen

This fall we will begin a new art photography education program, a genre that is the fastest growing art medium the world over. Many photographers, new and seasoned, are attracted to the fine art field, but few understand this genre, or know what work and education is necessary to succeed at what we now call Art Photography.

Art photography is not a straightforward proposition. It requires us to unscramble overlaying genres in any given image or more importantly in a thematic body of work. Different art practices mean different looks, and then we have to consider how we frame the ‘look’ by language and institutions. As with all other forms of art, the chief characteristics that defines art photography are the intentions of the maker, its similarities to other forms of art and the presentation context.

A Historical Perspective

In the 1830’s, not long after the first wet plates, pioneering fine art photographers attempted to create photographs that looked like painterly art and placed them into art contexts. To gain acceptance as an art form, these early artists relied on the traditional genres of painting, including portraiture, the nude, landscape, and still life, believing that these pictorial conventions would allow audiences to recognize a particular image as ‘art.’ Entranced by the miracle of silver halide technology, which brought their gray scale prints to life, these early camera artists also found themselves faced with many of the same questions about beauty and truth that challenged painters. They also discovered, that try as they might, that their approach to artistic subject matter and idealism did not compete well with paintings and the results were not enough to validate photography as an art form. It was too mechanical, too easy, to real, said the art critics of the era. Nevertheless, they did not turn away from the pursuit of photography as art and throughout the twentieth century, a small but dedicated group of photographers continued to create fine art photographs while some enlightened curators and critics wrote persuasive, positive essays on the subject. Alfred Stieglitz led these efforts in the USA (see The Trinity: An Era Past) and this strand of modernist practice became known, in time, as fine art photography or as we simply call it today, art photography.

 Photogram © László Moholy-Nagy

Photogram © László Moholy-Nagy

Compared to the other arts, photography remains relatively new. After all, there are no Polaroid’s tacked to the cave walls of our ancestors as there are charcoal stick figures of the first upright peoples slaying wild beasts. Art photography, as it is with all art forms, has and continues to evolve with new and old conventions that govern its output and acceptance. Early in the twentieth century, some art photographers focused on photography as medium, and saw it as an opportunity for creative experimentation. A study of the surrealists such as Man Ray or Hans Bellmer demonstrates clearly how they mixed photography with painting, printmaking and sculpture, creating complex single and composite images that challenged and confronted the conventional art forms of their time. Other influential artists such as László Moholy-Nagy went in an opposite direction and rejected photography as art, choosing to revel in the medium’s documentary objectivity, rather than any artistic values.

A Contemporary Perspective

Contemporary artists often distinguish themselves by differentiating Art Photography from Photography as Art. By the 1970’s theoretical artists began to embrace photography not as art per se, for they created images that are dull and ugly, a type of work that is anti-aesthetic, but popular within the collector community wherein form is secondary to idea-as-art.

Putting aside the more esoteric arguments of art purposes, we can easily identify the subject matter of a contemporary art photograph; it may be a lost in time gas station, a seascape, or a digital postproduction image that dislocates a familiar scene. It is also quite easy to capture a single subject, often in stunning ways, and outside of the art world, the average viewer will take the work at face value and assume that the depicted subject is the most important feature. However, to read photographs literally closes the door with a loud bang to the rich world of visual ideas. Moreover, to capture images in a literal sense while valid, also robs the photographer of the opportunity to create thematic images that will open up their work to deeper interpretations. After all, as artists, our goal is to serve a greater purpose than simply pointing to familiar people, places, and things.

Today, the classic genres of yesterday are giving way to crossbred forms of recognizable genres, which in turn cuts across the grain of an image’s original purpose, or perhaps we could say that it repurposes the image’s meaning. This blend of traditional art, loosely classified as modernist, has a sensual surface, but digital tools allow the artist to extend the emotional range of an image to places that reflect self-discovery and artistic experimentation.

The Art Photography Genre

 Rose Selavy © Man Ray

Rose Selavy © Man Ray

David Bate’s excellent book Photography: The Key Concepts tells us that photography is a matter of genres, which are the ciphers we use to identify and classify different forms of literature, painting, television, film, and web layouts. Genres are content buckets and each genre allows artists to produce work that audiences can readily decipher. In our art photography classes, we recognize that genres have contextual rules for the purpose of teaching and evaluation. However, as we surf the web or flip TV channels, we as an audience can readily recognize the familiar clichés of soap operas, Cop shows, reality concepts, and anti-hero dramas without any academic guidance.

As art photographers, we can transform glamorous as well as banal subjects alike into a new constructs via the capture and post production tools of the medium.

Thus, Art Photography belongs to the individual photographer, who delivers a unique personal vision that connects with an audience.

Many photographers work proudly within the modernist tradition, placing an emphasis on the formal and expressive properties of their images, allowing beauty to resonate and work diligently to deliver technical excellence in their prints. Others cut themselves free of the modernist mold and find photography as the perfect medium for illustrating critiques of race, gender, sexuality, consumerism, and various other cultural constructs. This postmodern photographic work tends to create an aggressive relationship as the artwork challenges the world’s commercial and traditional values. Today’s art photography values are largely a mixture of modernist and post-modernist concepts knitted together with digital tools and technology that can transform or extend the viewer’s emotional range.

However, the most important element for success in today’s art world is not the artistic camp from which it originates. It is about themes or thematic bodies of work.


Themes or thematics drives today’s Art Photography and artists produce bodies of work and subsequent related bodies of work that are visual studies of idea, place, time, or face, often prepackaged as portfolio exhibits. Single images can find a home in a variety of venues, but the market side of fine art prizes tightly edited themes that have an inherent intellectual-brand identity.

Creators of great or not so great one off images can always find payment for their work, but the art photographer who produces a body of work that is a thematic, visual study, is the one who will open the hearts, minds, and wallets of today’s collectors, curators, publishers, and gallery operators.

Art Photography Education

 Tim, b. 1982 © Katy Grannan

Tim, b. 1982 © Katy Grannan

Becoming an art photographer and developing as an artist requires education, practice and perseverance. Art education at four year academic institutions stress camera skills, postproduction techniques (Adobe digital tools), and medium history among other courses, and thematic work may occur in the senior year but more likely in a postgraduate master’s program. The Art Photography Program with the California Center for Digital Arts (The Center) stresses thematics and the courseware emulates that of most MFA programs with a photography concentration.

The major difference between “The Center’ and other post graduate programs beyond the degree certification is that artists complete a body of work that is review ready with business in a box tools. Students leave prepared to enter the art photography market with an executable marketing plan.


Our goal is to help new art photographers articulate their own relationship to photography as art. Over the course, they will hit walls and then the defining moment arrives when they begin to identify themselves as art photographers or artists using photography. I always chose to clarify my own positions, and do not impose my personal taste or ideology. Yes, I am a believer in art photography – but it is not a matter of blind faith. If art photography has value in our culture beyond its market price, what might that value be? Do we believe that there is “work” to be done by photographs within an art context? Is such work expressive, critical or something else? And how do photographs go about doing such work

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