Fine Art Photographers
November 2009

by Ron Steinman

It is the middle of September. I am at a garden party in an exurb of Philadelphia. The party sponsor is Stephen Perloff, who runs The Photo Review ( In publication since 1976, The Photo Review is a "critical journal of photography" focused on the men and women who work in and live through their photography, mostly in the Mid-Atlantic region. Most of those at the party are photographers, but not the kind we at The Digital Journalist write about or for whom we provide a platform.

With more than 70 photographers in attendance, there are also a few curators, significant others and people like myself. Summer is on the wane. The day is cool, cloudy and sometimes wet. Despite the occasional rain, people wander outside the big house where the party is taking place when it is momentarily dry. Others remain indoors where there is food and drink aplenty. Most are fine arts photographers, women and men who think of taking pictures in a manner far different than the methods used by photojournalists who work and live for the instant, that second in time that will set them apart from their brethren.

Importantly, though, these fine art photographers also have a mission and a sense of purpose based on craft, ingenuity and often a desire to experiment. Their work and the techniques they use to achieve their goals are often different from photojournalists'. I saw photos reproduced in traditional silver prints, chromogenic prints, large-scale inkjet prints, electron microscopy, gum bichromate-cyanotype prints. Their passion for what they do is every bit as strong as that of photojournalists. They, too, look for images they can freeze in time, but they do it differently. What they shoot is not necessarily of the moment. They spend time, sometimes hours, often days, searching for an image, unlike the immediacy that a photojournalist lives by when he or she is on the front lines, a battleground, a car crash, a fire or what is seemingly benign, a news conference or a sit-down interview.

What did I see that was different from the usual work of photojournalists? There were landscapes and cityscapes. Some specialized in portraits, others in nudes, a few in fantasy and in a few cases I saw photos that I found hard to explain, let alone understand. In some instances, I also viewed the work of documentary photographers, in one case a set of photos from India, and in another, superior, highly detailed shots from the air of strip mining. Not everything I saw was to my taste, but that is what defines art. It is impossible to satisfy everyone with the work that artists produce, just as it is impossible to satisfy everyone with what photojournalists produce.

Their problems surviving in this era of downsizing and reduced pay are the same everyone in the visual arts faces today. More than a few teach at the university and art school level. There are those who sell prints and pictures to hang on walls, or, as Stephen Perloff told me, "or they would like to." Many exhibit their work in galleries and museums. Perloff said, "A good number have published books. They do commercial work." One photographer told me he photographed what he called "high-end weddings to make ends meet." A few said they have jobs that have nothing to do with their real work, the art that they pursue. Stephen Perloff was honest when he said, "For most of the public, art comes after food. Many people report art sales and commercial assignments have been down, or way down."

I wondered what drives these people to do the work they do. Stephen Perloff told me, "You're just driven. Genetics? An art virus? Who knows?" But there they were that day at the gathering as the afternoon wore on, showing their work, discussing their work, absorbed in their work.

Many still use film to achieve the effects they want. That is more costly than using digital. Yet, despite the economy and a world increasingly dominated by digital and the Internet, some who teach told me their classes are fuller than ever. In explaining why, it is worth repeating what Stephen Perloff said earlier: "You are just driven. Genetics? An art virus? Who knows?" If true, more power to the desire to create, often against all odds.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an
award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's
bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and
freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions.
Read Ron Steinman's Notebooks on SCRIBD.

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