What I consider to be artistic photography has changed over the years - both my perception of what I enjoy viewing as art photographs and what I am motivated to create myself.
There are of course hundreds of other examples I could include, and you may not find any of the image examples in this article to be artistic. Learning to appreciate a broad variety of visual styles is actually what my Visual Literacy Project Interviews are all about. I'm sure I'll have to come back and expand on this article as I myself learn and grow.
There are decidedly different categories to what is considered artistic photography. What is defined as superb in one category may cause someone who practices in another category to scratch their head in consternation or to wrinkle their nose in disgust. My simple definition for artistic photography is - visuals that stimulate your imagination, make you feel something, or make you stop and think. Does one of these styles do that for you?
Fine Art Photography
These are the folks who have dedicated enough time to the craft that they make good photos consistently. They know how to plan a shoot, have the right people and props, light it correctly or be in position at the right time of day for the best light. They can elevate an ordinary subject by composition, plus are capable of editing their photos with some skill. People who don’t work with a camera every day will be impressed by this work. This is decorative art that creates a mood and fills a wall with something pleasant to look at.
I would venture to say that the majority of people who pick up a camera practice in this style. They may be perfectly happy making these kind of images for a lifetime and never venture into other styles. Accomplished folks in this category are mostly social media heroes, and sometimes sell their photos. You'll see this style in home decor galleries and dominating social media feeds.
Painting with a broad brush for a second - photographers in this category tend to spend an awful lot of time talking about gear and lenses and nitpicking about the mechanical aspects of making a photo. A mechanically good photo is lit well, exposed properly, important details are in focus and sharp, colors are accurate, and the subject or purpose of the photo is evident. Whether or not those factors have any impact on truly artistic imagery is a matter of personal opinion. In my experience; focusing on making a mechanically perfect photo can take attention away from executing it artistically. On the other hand, in the digital composition example we see next; each asset in the final composition was created well mechanically which allows for more liberties when blending them all together.
Digital Compositions/ Photobashing
This work is meant to elevate a well executed photo to an image that makes a statement or ignites the imaginatoion. The best photographer in this category starts with an end goal in mind. They may capture several frames in the same spot or several elements with the same lighting in order to combine them into a single image later. They may find digital assets from other sources and layer them into the composition with digital editing.
I would include in this category any overlay styles such as overpainting and printmaking. The end result looks nothing like a single photograph. The original photo was only a jumping off point to build the final vision around.
You’ll find a ton of this style on photo competition sites. It’s fun to make and awesome to look at in my opinion. The commercial potential of this style has taken off in recent years with brands looking for something more compelling in their campaigns than just straight photography.
Art World Exhibition Photography:
This category is totally different than the other two but may include some well done digital compositions. As much as I hate the term, I’ve always practiced in the “fine art photography” category myself. Whenever I'm feeling stuck or uninspired I like to work with something that is a departure from my normal. That led me to take a course last year with a gal who has curated and judged numerous professional gallery shows. The course was with Laura Valenti if you’re curious to check it out. Her examples and method were completely different from anything I had ever practiced. This was the true “art world” perspective. Everything I had done previously was not acceptable in this context.
These photographers are thinking of the camera only as a tool. They liberally apply filters and processing effects both during capture and in post. Bizarre compositions, blurs, odd angles, and breaking the rules of a mechanically correct photo are almost expected to play in this sandbox. Turning in a series of beautiful, well executed photos that would delight the “fine art photography” set will get you looks of brow furrowing confusion from the true art world club.
I’ve come to think of this style as evoking a reaction or driving a narrative. It’s not always pretty to look at and may even cause discomfort. In most cases these artists are building projects around an idea and their work needs to be viewed in a set because a single image on its own may leave you wondering why it was created.
What is considered artistic changes based on the community you want to participate in. Decide what style captures your imagination and is worth exploring and you’ll find a community around it. There’s not one better than another; just different. Once you’re participating in that community you’ll quickly learn the tools, terminology and ways of seeing that lead to the results you’re after.