Fine Art ...And A Family-Size Pizza

Photography is a wide-ranging field that engenders passion in its practitioners, and like all great forms of expression creates opinions formed through experience and reflection. In its early days one of the great debates was: Is Photography Art? This was the subject of many essays and heated discussions among players and spectators. Today, issues such as film vs. digital, format choices, the validity of computer-generated images, photography as exploitation or revealer, and even the merits of inkjet vs. silver prints cause similar debate. We are opening this department up to readers, manufacturers, and retailers--in short, everyone who lives and breathes photography and who has an opinion about anything affecting imaging today.

Here's how to get involved: write us an e-mail at or send us a letter with a proposed topic and a synopsis of your idea. Once approved, we'll ask you to send us about 500-1000 words on the subject chosen. The idea here is not to push any product or wave any flag, but to create discussion about photo and imaging topics of the day. We reserve the right to edit whatever you send in, although we will never edit intention or opinion but only for length and, hopefully, for clarity. We reserve the right to publish your work on our website as well, so you can join the archives and be a resource for opinion for years to come.

So, get thinking and writing and share your Point of View.
--George Schaub

The very basis of fine art is laid bare in something George Bernard Shaw is reputed to have said to Henry Ford: "Ah, Mr. Ford, there is the difference between us. You think only of art, and I think only of money."

Whether the story is true or not, it well illustrates the fundamental concern of any artist in any medium. Shaw was arguably the greatest playwright of his generation; Ford was unquestionably one of the greatest industrialists. The price of a theater ticket--indeed, the price of a theater--was nothing to Ford, and to him, art was the highest ideal. But unless Shaw sold his plays, he didn't eat.

Tankards, from the 1990s "Pewter" series; 4x5" platinum-toned POP print. My single most expensive image (which I have never got around to reprinting) was from the same series. ("Still Life" galleries.)
All Photos © 2007, Roger W. Hicks, All Rights Reserved

What is "fine art photography," after all? Reduced to its basics, it is stuff that people want to have on their walls (or at least, in their collections) for its own sake, as a picture. In this sense, it is very different from a wedding album. It is usually different from a portrait, too. Many of us have pictures of our loved ones on the wall, but are honest enough to admit that if you don't know the person involved, the pictures don't amount to much. Of course there are exceptions. Some portraits transcend personality, and become universal: a picture of every little girl, every tango dancer, every old fisherman.

But this shades all too easily into genre photography. Old Spanish fishermen mending nets were a staple of the 1950s; Arabs in traditional headgear were a staple of the '70s; Tibetan monks seem to have been a constant since the first cameras reached Tibet. A lot of landscape is genre photography, too: places we'd like to go, places that fulfill a fantasy for us, maybe just places we've been. There's a difference between "easy on the eye" and "fine art."

Shop interior. This is a Polaroid sepia, which adds a whole new dimension to fine art photography, as every image is necessarily unique (and very small, at 4x5"). ("Sepia" gallery.)

Or is there? If people will buy pictures of kittens in boots, or record shots of the New York skyline under the setting sun, to say nothing of a girl in a short tennis dress scratching a well-rounded and panty-less buttock, doesn't that make them fine art too? If not, what does? And, contrariwise, why would anyone pay to have a Sebastiao Salgado picture on their wall, or a Brassaï, or a Cartier-Bresson? These are slices of life, reportage, photojournalism: how can they be fine art?

This brings us to the central contradiction of fine art, which is best summed up in an old saying: "Talent does what it can; genius does what it must."