Technology and smartphones in our digital age have developed the ability and appetite to take and share photographs on a monumental scale. We no longer have to compete with a 10 minute exposure time as Louis Daguerre, (the founding father of photography), once did in 1839, but instead can instantaneously capture every moment of our lives. In my case this has resulted in a huge 1363 images from just a year's worth of photos on my smartphone, and, at a steady pace, I will probably scroll at a rate of roughly 28 photos per minute on my Instagram news feed. I would not, however, label myself a fine artist, nor every Instagram post as fine art photographs.
I had a conversation with photographer Craig Waddell about his practice as a fine artist, and to clarify the (not so fine) line between fine art photography and day to day representational photography.
Perhaps it is easier to start with what fine art photography is not; a technology driven art form. Using the analogy of paintbrushes to a painter, Craig Waddell explains how his camera is merely a tool which enables him to realise his ideas, and not a machine in which the artworks are produced for him at the click of a button. He then continues explaining how knowledge and an ability to choose what type of equipment one may need in a certain circumstance is more important than the specific model of camera. For Waddell, his tool of choice is usually a medium format analogue camera, but appreciates that when on a commercial shoot, the quick turnaround perhaps requires a nimbler digital camera. A key factor in fine art photography, it would appear, is not the technology which is used, but the artists' expertise, familiarity, and adaptability in selecting and using these tools.
When I question why he prefers to use a static analogue camera, he talks of the beautiful colours it enables him to capture. As I browse through the online portfolio of his latest project, 'Masc,' I am persuaded by his choice of camera, as the subjects are depicted through hazy, subdued tones, yet remain altogether very present and real. This leads to the question of aesthetics – clearly Craig Waddell's portraits in the series are beautiful to look at, but when I ask whether fine art photography always has to look nice, he replies that visually pleasing photographs provide an easier way to 'get people inside,' and for the audience to engage with the material.
But what exactly do fine art photographers like Craig Waddell attempt to communicate? The intention and ability to raise interesting discussions through a single image is powerful, and not something one of the 1363 images on my camera roll achieves or aims to achieve. Craig’s ‘Masc’ project was intended as a series of ‘dignified, genuine portraits,’ which subvert the often stereotyped contemporary image of queer identity and masculine gender. The conceptual intentions of Craig's 'Masc' work are powerfully communicated, but it is this combination of fluent communication with a compelling concept that is perhaps what draws the biggest line between fine artists such as Craig and smartphone photographers like you or I.
When speaking further with the artist about the genre of fine art photography in comparison with painting and printing, I sense a frustration at this comparison, which is reminiscent of a style of fine art training whereby photography is used as a preliminary tool for painting. Craig then reminds me that as with any other medium, the fine art photography which most effectively communicates concepts and ideas, is a staple in almost every major collection.
Lauren Campbell, October 2017