Over the last few months I've been busy looking around at photographic websites and participating in conversations on social media. I started to notice the term 'conceptual photography' popping up more and more. At first I just dismissed it, 'fine art and conceptual... bah...their one of the same!'... but was I wrong in that assumption?
The benefit of seeing work from other artists and which 'camp' they perhaps park their imagery, actually helped train my eye. Trained in the sense that I can see why each artist cite their work as being either fine art or conceptual. Then I asked myself "when does something photographic in nature become defined and accepted as fine art? Conversely when does an image only get classed as conceptual? Could both terms mean the same thing? After all you have to conceptualise your work to begin with!".
My fear was that I had set out to become a fine art photographer but my work may only ever be considered conceptual. Not that there is anything wrong with that. But for me there's nothing worse than entering an industry and falling flat on my face at the first hurdle. Simply because I didn't understand established styles of work. Am I advertising to the world that I was one thing, but my work was telling a different story? Was this potential disconnect telling my peers that I didn't know what I was doing, that I didn't understand our craft?
I decided that I would post this question in one of the social media groups that has a large base of fine art and conceptual photographers. And this was what I asked:
"I've got a question scampering around my head that has been bugging me for days... So I thought I'd share it here to see what you guys thought. Conceptual photography vs. fine art photography. Are they one of the same or would you say there is a distinction between them? Perhaps it's nothing more than personal interpretation of their meaning? To me, conceptual has a feeling of being more broad/open around it's subject matter. Where as fine art photography is perhaps something a little more classic/timeless with a twist. Needless to say I've got voices in my head arguing over it! doh!"
The responses I got to some degree backed up some of my own feelings. It was interesting to see the differing opinions and takes on the subject which I've listed below:
"...some people expect black and white landscapes or nudes when they hear the phrase Fine Art. Not that I agree with this, it's just my experience"
"I personally think most fine art is conceptual...but not all conceptual is fine art. I think fine art is called FINE art for a reason. I think the maker needs to be VERY good at what they are doing, know how to execute what they are doing, have the technical abilities, the lighting knowledge, the color harmony knowledge, the composition knowledge, etc...to actually pull off something that can be considered FINE art. just my 2 cents worth....."
"'Conceptual' to me implies the photograph was made around a concept or idea - usually with the photographer in control of the elements included and their arrangement. A concept photo might be art (say Cindy Sherman), illustration (a movie poster or fashion illustration), decor or whatever. Art to me is a more inclusive term and could include landscape, street photography, or any number of other genre as well as conceptual."
"...I don't think you will get a clear answer here. Its like what came first the chicken or the egg? I think both concepts come from within. It's all art."
"...When you prepare your photographic work for a gallery exhibit and you think about how fine art communicates with its viewers, I think there is a difference. I'm not sure how to talk about it but I think it's in the hands of the photographer to consider that step or leap and see what comes of it."
"...When I think of conceptual I think of surreal. Fine art to me means anything that was created not for commercial use but for entertainment or enjoyment."
"...Humans with their preoccupation to categorise and label stuff… what does it mater what it is classed as? For me when I look at an image the assessment is not what style it is, it's simply if I like it or I don't like it."
"...For me fine art photography would be a sub genre of conceptual portrait photography just like commercial photography and even editorial fashion photography"
I've come to realise that as photographic artists, we shouldn't worry too much about being judged on our personal definition of what fine art photography is. Whether something is considered fine art or conceptual, it's apparent they are quite interchangeable and interpreted differently depending on the image and on the person. I'm comfortable to continue to call myself a fine art photographer and know that the work I produce will always be conceptual at it's core. What's your take on fine art vs. conceptual photography? Share them in the comments below!