Fine art photography is dead. Long live fine art photography!

An article in the New York Times today takes a look at how Flickr is changing fine art photography:

Consider photography. As art-school photographers continue to shoot on film, embrace chiaroscuro and resist prettiness, a competing style of picture has been steadily refined online: the Flickr photograph.

The article describes how (often extensive) post-processing has become a necessary ingredient to Flickr popularity by profiling some of the top Flickr photographers, and how this differs from traditional fine art photography. A quick perusal of Flickr’s Explore validates this – as I write this, this photo by *lemonade* happens to occupy the number one spot. I happen to think it’s brilliant, but it’s demonstrative of the kind of heavy post processing typical of successful Flickr photos – an anathema to many in the art world.

I’ve sometimes been critical of Explore; it tends to favor photos of cliché subjects photos of flowers, sunsets, and cats (case in point, my most recent photo to hit explore was this one of tulips which I posted yesterday). Though the criticism that I try to express isn’t so much that I find something wrong with that, but that it tends to overlook some of the more original and creative stuff on Flickr, at leat in my humble opinion.

Despite this bias (or perhaps, because of it), it does demonstrate just how much of a schism there is between art photography and photography enthusiasts. People respond most enthusiastically to color, to surrealism, to things that are cute and pretty – stuff that the art world mostly shuns. Thomas Hawk, mentioned in the NYT article, puts it more bluntly in his blog than I dare to:

One of the stories that I conveyed to Virginia Heffernan, the reporter at the Times who wrote this article, was a story of a Cartier-Bresson photograph which a critique group of Flickr shouted down as inferior photography without knowing it was an actual Cartier-Bresson. While one take away from that story might be that the general Flickr community simply has poor taste in art, another take away might be to question the previously unquestionable. Was Cartier-Bresson actually that good? And would his work stand up today as it has in the past?

(The incident in question can still be found here. The comment thread is enlightening; draw what conclusions you will.)

For the record, I think Cartier-Bresson is damn good. But he’s not my favorite.

As Thomas Hawk also notes, irrespective of how good famous fine art photographers were, they were selected by a tiny, isolated, out of touch and incestuous group of gatekeepers – who basically dictated what was good and what had value. What we’re seeing now is the democratization of art, at least in the realm of photography.

That much I certainly agree with, and I can’t see it as anything other than a good thing.


4 Responses to “Fine art photography is dead. Long live fine art photography!”

  1. Nice write up Eric. Explore on Flickr is ok. I don’t think that this is really where the best of the fine art on Flickr is showing up though. But fine art definitely is showing up on Flickr and I think that some of the more recent attention the mainstream media has been giving Flickr is interesting.

    As Flickr continues to build mass and the mainstream media begins to take a greater interest, I think you’ll begin to see many of the Flickr fine art photographers begin to have opportunities beyond the online virtual gallery that is flickr into real life physical galleries and other fine art avenues.

    It will be interesting to see exactly how the fine art elites handle this movement.

  2. Thanks Thomas. I do agree with you about where the art photography is – I think some of the groups do a much better job of filtering and finding the real jewels than Explore does.

    My point with explore is just that it is fairly representative of what the Flickr community responds to, yet very little of it resembles what you’d expect to see in an art gallery.

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