Fine art photography refers to photographs that are created to fulfill the creative vision of the artist. Fine art photography stands in contrast to photojournalism and commercial photography. Photojournalism provides visual support for stories, mainly in the print media. Commercial photography's main focus is to sell a product or service.
Successful attempts to make fine art photography can be traced to Victorian era practitioners such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and Oscar Gustave Rejlander and others. In the U.S. F. Holland Day, Alfred Steiglitz and Edward Steichen were instrumental in making photography a fine art, and Steiglitz was especially notable in introducing it into museum collections.
Until the late 1970s several genres predominated, such as; nudes, portraits, natural landscapes (exemplified by Ansel Adams). Breakthrough 'star' artists in the 1970s and 80s, such as Sally Mann and Robert Mapplethorpe, still relied heavily on such genres, although seeing them with fresh eyes. Others investigated a snapshot aesthetic approach.
Until the mid 1950s it was widely considered vulgar and pretentious to frame a photograph for a gallery exhibition. Prints were usually simply pasted onto blockboard or plywood, or given a white border in the darkroom and then pinned at the corners onto display boards. Prints were thus shown without any glass reflections obscuring them. Steichen's famous The Family of Man exhibition was unframed, the pictures pasted to panels. Even as late as 1966 Bill Brandt's MoMA show was unframed, with simple prints pasted to thin plywood. (Source: Gerry Badger, Collecting Photography, p.111). Since about 2000 there has been a noticeable move toward once again showing contemporary gallery prints on boards and without glass.
Throughout the twentieth century, there was a noticeable increase in the size of prints. Small delicate prints in thin frames are now a rarity, and hi-gloss wall-sized prints are common. There is now a tendency to dispense with a frame and glass and instead to print large pictures onto blocked canvas.
Fine art photography is created primarily as an expression of the artist’s vision, but as a byproduct it has also been important in advancing certain causes. The work of Ansel Adams' in Yosemite and Yellowstone provides an example. Adams is one of the most widely recognized fine art photographers of the 20th century, and was an avid promoter of conservation. While his primary focus was on photography as art, some of his work raised public awareness of the beauty of the Sierra Nevada mountains and helped to build political support for their protection.
Such photography has also had effects in the area of censorship law and free expression, due to its concern with the nude body.
As printing technologies have improved since around 1980, a photographer's art prints reproduced in a finely-printed limited-edition book have now become an area of strong interest to collectors. This is because books usually have high production values, a short print run, and their limited market means they are almost never reprinted. The collector's market in photography books by individual photographers is developing rapidly.
According to Art Market Trends 2004 (PDF link) 7,000 photographs were sold in auction rooms in 2004, and photographs averaged a 7.6 percent annual price rise from 1994 and 2004. Around 80 percent were sold in the USA. Of course, auction sales only record a fraction of total private sales. There is now a thriving collectors' market for which the most sought-after art photographers will produce high quality archival prints in strictly limited editions. Attempts by online art retailers to sell fine photography to the general public alongside prints of paintings have had mixed results, with strong sales coming only from the traditional "big names" of photography such as Ansel Adams.