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The border between Fine Art Photography and Commercial Photography

Updated: Dec 6, 2022

The word, ‘photography’ is a combination of two Greek words, ‘photo’ and ‘graph’, which means ‘light’ and ‘to paint’ respectively. Thus, if you interpret ‘photography’ into a sentence, it would be ‘A painting painted with light’. This week’s special feature will investigate the history of this ‘art of light’ and then the border between Fine Art Photography and Commercial Photography.

The very first type of the camera was invented by Nicéphore Niépce, in 1827, under the name of ‘heliograph’. After getting popularity through Louis Daguerre’s improvement, the daguerreotype, it has eventually evolved into the form we see nowadays. Shortly after being introduced, the camera and the photograph had gone through under a lot of prejudices due to their own technical characteristics, such as ‘It is not an art since the author does not work on its process.’ or ‘It is an eye of truth itself.’ However, thanks to numerous scholars including Susan Sontag and Roland Gérard Barthes, photography has become one of the undeniable art genres of these days.

Now we have concisely looked through the history of the camera and photography. However, this process leaves us with one question – what makes the difference between Fine Art Photography and not-so-fine-art photography? Therefore, in this article, we are going to search for the answer to that question with the structural approach.

Firstly, Woelk, B. F. has explained the intention of Commercial Photography and its procedure of it in her thesis, 《Commercial Photography Firms: Their History, Functions, and Records》. According to Woelk, Commercial Photography is planned under the concrete, capitalistic intention of selling the product(s). Therefore, it is highly sensitive to social and cultural trends, and the targets that would purchase the product(s) while having a command of visual language in the most effective way possible. Meanwhile, Fine Art Photography tends to express the author’s artistic view more freely, unlike Commercial Photography having to complete its congenital task.

For instance, Willie Doherty created two pieces of art under the title of 〈Incident〉 and 〈Border Incident〉 in the early 1990s. At a glance, these two pictures, capturing the burnt car on the edge of the road, almost seem meaningless. But putting the layers of the fact that the author was born nearby the border of Northern Ireland and Ireland, and he has continuously worked on the theme of Ireland’s history, these two pictures turn into Fine Art photographs that hold the meaningful contemplation of the history.

In conclusion, Commercial Photography and Fine Art Photography have identical points in the way of conceiving the theme via visual media, a camera and photography. However, the important criteria that make the difference lie in various points including the social and economic contexts and its artistic oeuvres.

Of course, we also need to remember that the line between Fine Art Photography and Commercial Photography is getting vaguer since transboundary and fusion among the art genre is happening more and more actively. Like the title of the exhibition, ‘Objects of Desire: Photography and the Language of Advertising’, currently ongoing at LACMA(Los Angeles County Museum of Art), photography is eventually an art form that subjects an extremely small part of the world regardless of its subordinates.

List of References

  1. Lloyd-smith, H. (2022, September 3). Objects of Desire: The Seductive Exchange between Fine Art and Advertising Photography. Wallpaper.

  2. Loughnane, F. (2011). Image of Reality / Image Not Reality: What Is Photography? Irish Museum of Modern Art.

  3. Woelk, B. F. (1995). Commercial Photography Firms: Their History, Functions, and Records. The University of British Columbia.


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