What constitutes a Fine Art Photograph
Introduction by Alain Briot
Essay by Ralph Nordstrom

Other essays in this series

Introduction by Alain Briot
What a fine art photograph consists of --what it is exactly-- is a question I am asked from time to time. The answer is both simple and complex. On the one hand, a fine art photograph is a photograph created for artistic reasons. On the other hand, once that is said, it becomes necessary to explain that, just like any other medium, photography is a medium that can be used for many different purposes. What makes a photograph art is eventually the intent of the photographer rather than the actual image.

I will expand on my personal views of what makes a photograph a fine art image in an upcoming podcast episode. This episode may be available by the time you read this, so make sure to visit my podcast page by clicking here now.

Here Ralph Nordstrom provides us with his views on what a fine art photograph is. While doing so Ralph also ventures into the implications that mixing art and photography entails by addressing the thorny issue of manipuled photographs. I have written about this subject previously in an essay titled "Just say Yes" available on several web sites. Just google Just say yes and you will find it. Ralph's position, while influenced by mine, is also his own in many respect. Let us discover what this position is exactly by reading his essay.

Essay by Ralph Nordstrom
1 - Introduction
At shows I’m frequently asked the following questions:  “Do you use filters?”  “Do you enhance these photographs?”  “Are these colors real?”

The answer is simply, “Of course.”  But I often want to respond, “If these were paintings would you be asking me whether the colors are real?  Or would there be an assumption that as a painter I interpreted the scene before me and selected the colors that contributed to my artistic vision?”  This leads to the question, “As an artist, is a photographer any less free to express her feeling by whatever means the medium allows than a painter, sculptor, poet, novelist or composer?”  So, “Of course” is the simple answer but there is so much more behind it.

A follow up comment I often make is something to the effect that there are many, many hours that go into each photograph to get it to express my artistic vision.  Sometimes there are as many as 30 or 40 hours often spread out over a period of months or even years.  If we snapped a picture and took it down to Costco for a print would it be fair to call it fine art?  Or, if it took a photographer any less time to created a fine art print that it did a painter to create a painting, would it be fair to call that fine art?

2 - It all starts with the light
There is no doubt that a great landscape photograph begins with great light.  That is why I’m up at 5:00 in the morning or even 4:00 or 3:00.  In fact, I’ve been known to get up at 2:00 to photograph dawn in just the right location.  To me the best light of all is the light before the sun rises, especially if there’s a moon still lingering in the western sky (which only occurs on about three or four days each lunar month).  Many fine art photographers prefer sunset and dusk and to be sure I will not miss a great sunset either or any sunset for that matter.  Ansel Adams the legend made a great comment regarding great light: “Sometimes I do get to places just when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter.”  )  Galen Rowell, the fantastic artist photographer/mountaineer put it this way: “I almost never set out to photograph a landscape, nor do I think of my camera as a means of recording a mountain or an animal unless I absolutely need a ‘record shot.’  My first thought is always of light.”

3 - Artistic Vision
But great light is the beginning, the foundation of a great landscape photographer.  To further quote Ansel Adams,

“In my mind’s eye, I visualize how a particular… sight and feeling will appear on a print.  If it excites me, there is a good chance it will make a good photograph.  It is an intuitive sense, an ability that comes from a lot of practice.” 

Photographers, as with all other artists, communicate feelings.  Every artist has something to say.  Every artist reveals something about himself through his art.  Art is the very personal expression of an artist and to achieve that expression artists need a certain degree of freedom.  We all know it as “artistic freedom.”

But for some reason, photographers seem to be held to a higher standard of ‘reality’ than other artists.  Photographers are expected to express their photographic vision without manipulating the final photograph.  Perhaps this expectation is born in part from the fact that photographers can totally fabricate a scene.  The digital world gives graphic artists the ability to create images that never existed in real life and this is a legitimate concern. 

One recent example is the cover of the March 14, 2007 issue of Newsweek magazine that featured a fabricated photograph of Martha Stewart.  They created an image that superimposed Martha’s laughing fact on top of a slim body emerging through gold colored drapes.  The National Press Photographers Association found this cover “… a total breach of ethics and completely misleading to the public.” 

There is an image on WebShots that is a bit closer to the point, another totally fabricated image.  This one is called “Grand Teton and Wildflowers, Wyoming.”  This photograph is not possible.  First of all, I have photographed at this same location in the Tetons.  It’s the famous Ox Bow bend in the river and I can vouch for the fact that there are no wildflowers growing anywhere around there, especially in such profusion.  Second, the ‘wildflowers’ presented here are anything but wildflowers.  Rather, they are a photograph from a lush domestic garden superimposed on the otherwise beautiful photograph of Mt. Moran and the river.  Certainly this is not fine art.

With examples such as these is it any wonder that people question whether a photograph is ‘real’ or not.  And it muddies the issue as to the amount of freedom an artist can take with an image.

Galen Rowell discussed the ethical issues of landscape with regards to altering an image.  Now mind you Galen shot film.  He was killed before the digital tsunami hit and he, as many other film photographers, claimed to not enhance his prints.  (We’ll come back to this later.)  But the point here is that Galen Rowell didn’t even feel it was legitimate to move a log or add a rock to a scene.  He was in fact very careful if he needed to move some blades of grass out of the way to get a clear shot at the composition he wanted.  He would never just rip them out but rather carefully bend them out of the way and then restore them when he was done shooting.

My mentor, Alain Briot (you can see his beautiful landscape photographs at http://beautiful-landscape.com) has a quote he likes to use (and I paraphrase), “My photographs are not realistic but they are believable.”  As with other great photographers he reserves for himself the freedom to express his feelings, his vision without being confined to a ‘realistic’ depiction of the scene in front of him.  But I think you will agree if you take some time to look at his website that his vision is believable.

4 - What is real?
The notion of a ‘realistic’ depiction of a scene brings up a very interesting point.  Is it possible for a camera to capture a ‘realistic’ depiction of the scene?  The answer is not even a simple, “No,” but an emphatic, “No way!”  With training as a scientist I have this humorous image of scientists trying to capture a realistic rendering of a scene.  They would be out there with very sensitive measuring equipment to basically map the light intensity and wavelength (color) of everything in their field of view.  The white clouds would be high intensity and a blending of all the colors in the visible spectrum.  The blue sky would be less intense and primarily just the blue colors of the spectrum although the other colors would also be blended in, just to a lesser extent.  The trees, mountains, earth, stream, they would all be measured in this way.  They would come up with a bunch of numbers for every dot of light.  And that would be realistic, that would be the reality before us.  But what wouldn’t be what we see.

We see through our eyes which are the most incredible instrument for viewing the world, better than any ever invented by man.  One could argue that our eyes give us the only undistorted view of the world.  And that probably holds true on an individual basis.  But we know that some peoples’ eyes work differently than others.  Some unfortunate people are totally blind, some are partially blind and some see clearly.  Personally, I have a blur in my left eye that forces me to rely on my right eye to see.  Other people are color blind and don’t perceive the bright hues that the rest of us see.  But for each one among us our own eyes are the ‘gold standard of reality’ through which we view the world.

But our eyes are connected to our brains and as the visual signal reaches our brains it is interpreted by all the experiences we’ve ever had.  Here’s a wonderful example.  When we look at the green leaves of a tree at sunset, we perceive the leaves as being green.  When my daughter was three years old she saw the green leaves for what they in reality were.  “Look daddy, the leaves are red.”  Here’s another experiment you may try on yourself.  On a clear day the light in shadows is blue because it comes from the blue sky, not the sun.  We never see the blue because we ‘know’ what we’re looking at isn’t really blue.  Our sum total of experiences causes us to perceive, to interpret what we see as though it was not blue.  But in reality it is.  Try it.  You can train yourself to see past your perceptions and actually see the blues in the shadows.  It’s actually quite beautiful.

5 - Cameras distort ‘reality’
This is a long way to get around to saying that we all distort the scene in front of us and the same holds true for cameras.  It doesn’t matter if the camera is loaded with film or if it is a digital camera.  It is going to distort any image taken with it.  If you stand next to a photographer as he takes a photograph and then compare a totally unaltered print of the photograph to what you saw it will never be the same.  The camera responds to the scene in front of us differently that our eyes do, especially when we throw in the fact that everything that passes through our eyes is altered, yes, let’s even say ‘manipulated’ by our perceptions.

How does the camera distort?  Well, there are two main components of a camera – the lens and the medium that captures the image be it film or sensor.  Lenses can distort in many ways.  They may not focus sharply.  They may introduce their own color cast.  The fringes of the image may be darker than the center.  Where there is sharp contrast between say a dark tree branch and the bright sky behind, the edges of the branch many be brightly colored in magenta, cyan, red or yellow.  A lens may introduce one or all of these distortions.  Serious photographers spend thousands of dollars on a single lens that minimizes these distortions but they are still there, just to a lesser degree.

The medium that captures the image (film or CMOS sensor) also distorts.  Film is manufactured to respond to a specific color of light, usually daylight.  If you use that same film to shoot an available light shot inside at night, the image will have a very strong yellow or orange cast.  But that’s not what we perceive.  If you’re shooting an outdoor scene that has extremely dark shadows and extremely bright highlights film and sensor will both have trouble rendering one or the other.  Either the shadows will be totally black and lacking in detail or the highlights will be totally white, also lacking in detail.  This is known as clipping, something that our eyes don’t do.

6 - “These photographs are not altered”
Many film photographers make the statement that their photographs are not altered.  This strikes me as just a little disingenuous.  By the way, I don’t think Ansel Adams ever made that claim.  He pre-visualized what the final print would look like before he tripped the shutter.  But nevertheless, many film photographers claim they don’t alter their prints.  However, these photographers virtually all us a film that saturates the colors and adds a great deal of contrast to the scene.  If they shot a transparency (which most of the landscape photographers do) and you were able to hold up the transparency and compare it to the original scene they would be nowhere near the same.

Add to that that film photographers use a host of filters ranging from polarizing, neutral density, graduated neutral density, warming, cooling, star, graduated color filters and on and on.  So added to the distortions produced by the lens and the film, they further alter the image through these filters. 

And is that such a bad thing?  I don’t think it is at all.  They have a beautiful, often fantastic vision of the world and with consummate skill are able to execute that vision.  The creed of the film photographer is to capture the best image on the sheet of film and the good ones are masters of this.  And their images are breathtaking.

They probably still do some alteration in the darkroom when the film is in the enlarger and the print is being made.  Every color print must be adjusted to achieve the correct color balance and exposure.  This isn’t considered an alteration.  But there is also burning and dodging, a classic darkroom technique where portions of the image are darkened or lightened respectively.  Often this is required to strengthen the composition and turn a snapshot into art.  Sometimes they may burn an image through a color filter to tweak the color in one localized place on the print.  These are all accepted darkroom techniques.

Digital photographers don’t go to such lengths to get a stunning image in the field.  Granted, they need a perfect exposure just like a film photographer does (although digital photographers have more latitude in correcting an exposure that is slightly off).  They will use polarizer filters and even neutral density and graduated neutral density filters.  But they don’t use colored filters such as warming or cooling filters.  And they can’t change the sensor to one that will saturate the colors in the scene.  Many of the things the film photographers do with film and filter selection at the time the image is snapped, the digital photographers after the fact in post processing in their digital darkrooms.  The simple fact is, if the film photographers don’t capture their artistic vision in the film they’ll probably never realize it.

7 - The important thing is the art
Let’s not get distracted by the debate between film and digital photographers.  The important thing is the art and the power with which the artist expresses her artistic vision.  The debate is almost humorous because it’s so pointless.  You don’t hear photographers arguing with painters about which medium is more real.  You don’t hear oil painters arguing with water color painters.

I’m reminded of the backlash some writers had against word processors.  “I can’t use a word processor.  My creative juices dry up if I’m not typing on a typewriter,” was a common criticism.  I can just imagine when typewriters were introduced some writers of the day made the same complaint.  “I can’t write on a typewriter.  My creative juices dry up if I don’t write with a quill pen!” 

In the end the medium is not the point; it’s about the art.  When I see a great photograph produced by a great photographer, I’m not interested in whether the photographer used film or CMOS, altered the image or didn’t.  I’m interested in the fact that the photograph speaks to me with a loud, clear voice.  I emphasize me because anyone’s response to art is very personal and something that speaks strongly to me may leave others totally unmoved.

8 - Digital cameras have revolutionized photography
No one will argue with the fact that digital cameras have revolutionized photography.  Many film photographers have switched to digital.  And many that still shoot film scan their images into a computer so they can be further enhanced in the digital darkroom.

I personally have first hand experience working in the film darkroom and I’m amazed at the additional controls one has in the digital darkroom, controls that were at best extremely difficult with film if not impossible.

Let’s compare the digital process of creating an image (called the digital workflow) to film.  Starting with the camera, we mentioned above that film is created for a specific light, usually daylight.  If you want to shoot indoors with a film adjusted for tungsten light, you need to change the film.  Digital cameras can adjust automatically to changes in light, daylight, tungsten, fluorescent, open shade, direct sunlight, it doesn’t matter.  Digital sensors adapt.  Along the same lines, films are manufactured with a certain sensitivity to light (ISO).  If you need a film with higher sensitivity you need to change the film.  Digital cameras simply require changing a setting on the camera.

All films have a characteristic dynamic range (the difference between the darkest and brightest parts of the scene) that they can capture.  Anything outside that dynamic range will be clipped.  The films must used by landscape photographers have a rather narrow dynamic range.  Digital sensors also have a dynamic range that in high end cameras is greater than that of most films.

One advantage that film has over digital is in the quality of the image.  But this is not true for 35mm format cameras any more.  High end digital cameras have full frame sensors that capture 21 M pixels which comes close to exceeding the resolution capacity of 35mm film if it hasn’t already been exceeded.  And there are medium format (2 ¼ inch film) camera that now accept digital backs with sensors the same size.  These digital backs produce large images of extraordinary resolution.  The large format film cameras that shoot 4X5, 5X7 and especially 8X10 film don’t have serious competition in the digital world yet.  But 35mm film cameras didn’t have serious competition from digital just five years ago.  However there remains no doubt that the quality of an image produced from an 8X10 sheet of film far surpasses anything that can be done by a digital camera today.

9 - My personal code of photographic ‘ethics’
First of all, let me start by saying that I fully embrace the digital world of photography and the creativity it makes possible.  I eagerly embrace any tool or technique, digital or otherwise, that can contribute to achieving my artistic vision.  I will enhance images so that they are hopefully expressive works of art that speak to people.  I will never fabricate images by adding elements such as ‘wildflowers,’ clouds or other features that were not in the original scene.  I do, however, reserve the right to remove minor elements from an image such as misplaced blades of grass or twigs that do not contribute to or, worse yet, detract from the composition.  My goal is to produce beautiful works of art for a world that is in such desperate need of beauty.

Essay Copyright © Ralph Nordstrom 2007
Introduction Copyright © Alain Briot 2007
All rights reserved worldwide