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Commercial vs. Fine Art Photographs

Sometimes I am asked what the difference is between a commercial photograph and a fine art photograph. I will attempt to give you my opinion in a clear and concise manner.

A commercial photograph is about the subject, and a fine art photograph is about the meaning. I’m making a bold statement, so an explanation is in order.

We are inundated with images every day. Most are geared to seducing us into parting with our hard earned money. These commercial images are usually a clear representation of the item for sale. Technically correct and beautiful, they can be very effective indeed. They are in no way designed to make us think beyond the image presented. Their purpose is to have the public recognize and desire the product. Think about Pottery Barn catalogs, or billboards of beautiful jewelry.

Fine art photography is not concerned with selling a product (other than the image itself). The concern is with evoking an emotion, reaction, or memory, while at the same time, adhering to standards of technical excellence. Some of the best fine art photographs allow the viewer to project their own opinions onto the image. Fine art images can be of places, people, animals or things. The subject is not as important as meaning behind it.

Here are two very different images. The first, taken in the manner of a commercial photograph, is an accurate representation of a marble and a bottle. I created this image to be nothing more than a visual treat. You probably look at it and think “I like those colors” or “that’s a pretty picture”. That’s fine. That’s what the image is intended to do.

© 2009 Gina Genis

© 2009 Gina Genis

The next photo is part of a fine art series I am shooting this summer. It is a tunnel. When you look at it, you may ask yourself “where does it go?” or “what kinds of things have transpired in here?” You might think about hope in the light beyond the tunnel, or you may even be scared standing alone inside the darkness. The photo poses questions and elicits a reaction from each viewer.

From the series "June Gloom-Southern California Piers and Beaches © 2009 Gina Genis

From the series "June Gloom-Southern California Piers and Beaches © 2009 Gina Genis

About Gina Genis

Hi Friends, I'm a photographer and artist who lives in Washington DC. I have two blogs. The Gina Genis Blog is about art and photography. My new blog, DC Discoveries is dedicated to showing you everything from fashion to art, food to entertainment in all sections of the District. I hope you will take the journey with me. I exhibit my work in museums and galleries across the U.S. I'm included in the permanent collections of the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, the Otto G. Richter Library Special Collections Division of the University of Miami, Hard Rock Casino, Orange County Transit District, IBM, and the Sarah and Adam Markman Collection among others. My series "Window Peeping" was included in OsCene 2010 at the Laguna Art Museum, Truman State University, Fellows of Contemporary Art, Biola University, and solo shows at Gallery 825 and Cypress College. The "June Gloom" series was exhibited in a solo show at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The "Kala" series has been exhibited at MPLS Photo Center, Cypress College, and Gallery 825. "Economy Portraits" was created as an Artist In Residence project at the Huntington Beach Art Center, and was awarded "Best Art Show of 2011" by the OC Weekly. I curated Wide Angle View, an exhibit of 16 international, award-winning photo and multi-media journalists at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art to much critical acclaim. Recent reviews of my work have appeared in the Huffington Post, Art Scene, OC Weekly, Orange County Register, New University, Riviera Magazine, Coast Magazine, Huntington Beach Independent, and appeared on CNN, NBC, ABC, and more. I lead the Gina Genis Photo Workshops where I show beginning and intermediate photographers how to jump to the next level with their work. I also teach online photography courses through The Compelling Image.

2 responses »

  1. Nice distinction about subject verses meaning.

  2. Great, simple explanation of a distinction that I’ve noticed many people having difficulty with lately. I’ve often tried explaining it as the difference between an image mainly intended to sell something versus one whose main purpose is just to sell itself, but that explanation misses or disregards the meaning and emotion of the image entirely, so I much prefer your way of explaining the difference.


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