What is an artwork?

On ArtPhotoLimited, all the photographs available online are artworks selected by our team.

Several definitions exist for an artwork in the field of photography, each with a different prism. On ArtPhotoLimited, we consider that all these definitions are mutually reinforcing and we only select the photographs which fulfill all these definitions :

  • Legal definition of an artwork
  • The artwork defined according to the originality of the photograph
  • The artwork defined according to the quality of the print

The definition of an artwork

In the French legal system, there is a very precise legal definition regarding photography. As strange as it may seem, this definition is an extract from the tax code, probably because the taxation applied to artworks is specific.

More precisely, it is the article 98A of Annex III of the Tax Code :

« Are considered as artworks the photographs taken by the artist, printed by him/herself or under his/her control, signed and numbered in maximum thirty copies, including all sizes and mountings »

What you need to know

  • The number of prints should not exceed 30 copies, in any size. The idea is to find the right balance between, on one hand, the concept of a unique piece of work which prevails in other art forms, such as painting or sculpture, and on the other hand, the legitimacy of the photographer to print his/her own photograph in several copies. In the field of art, scarcity is an important concept, and thus most photographers artists limit the number of copies for each photograph to 5, 10 or 15, i.e. a much lower number than the limit authorized by the law ;
  • The artist must control the printing process. It is essential for 2 reasons :
    • Most of the photographs are shot today using digital cameras. This allows photographers to visualize them before printing, and possibly to rework on them. For this purpose, they use a color profile (often called ICC profile). Hence it is essential that the profile they use is the same than the one used by the lab which will print the photographs ;
    • Between the photograph and the print, there is an essential step : printing. For the artworks, the printing must be made by a lab specialized in fine art prints. It is essential that the photographer chooses the printing technique and the paper that will suit his/her photograph.
    • Each print must be signed.

    And on ArtPhotoLimited?

    • We ask the photographers to limit the number of prints to 30, in any size. In keeping with this limit, each photographer is free to determine the exact number of prints for the series.
    • We ask the photographers to select, photograph by photograph, the printing technique and the paper that should be used. This allows us to guarantee that the photograph will be printed by our laboratory in the best conditions. Located in Paris and founded in 1950, Picto is the reference lab for the printing of artworks.
    • We ask the photographers for a signature which is affixed on the back of the photographic prints.

    What is an original piece of work?

    Since its invention in the 1830's, photography has been approaching different themes : portrait, landscapes, documentary, reportage…

    Hence it would be useless to define the originality of a photograph through specific themes such as portrait or landscape. In fact, on what grounds a documentary or news photograph could not be considered as an artwork?

    In this regard, it is interesting to observe that such questions were never raised for painting or sculpture, as if the simple fact of using an « artistic » medium (the painting for instance) could automatically give to the production the status of artwork.

    Henceforth, which criteria should be used to define if a photograph is an artwork or not? Rather than using aesthetical criteria, the originality of the photograph seems to be the most relevant criteria for us, even though it is not always easy to define this concept.

    The originality of a photograph resides in the fact that the photograph holds « the imprint of the author's personality » or at least « a personal touch » of the photographer (see the brilliant article released in Artpress issue 42 entitled «Photographic originality, mismatch between art and law »).

    Hence, as Emile Zola formulates it, « the definition of an artwork should not be else than this one : an artwork is a piece of creation seen through a character ».

    For a photographer, there are many ways to bring to light his/her « author personality » in a photograph. Here are a few examples far from being exhaustive :

    • In a portrait, it can be the setting, mainly the pose, the light, the choice of the angle...
    • In a concert or sport picture, the aesthetic choices of the photographer are also essential, as much regarding the angle as for the capture of a specific moment ;
    • In a street picture, for the photographer, it can be about capturing an atmosphere, a specific moment, a personality... Such a picture can be defined as a humanist artwork ;
    • The strength of a documentary picture can be to clearly sum up an issue, a situation, a fact, as perceived by the photographer artist. Such a picture can be defined as a committed artwork.

    The quality of the printing

    Although being often shot digitally (even if some photographers continue to shoot in films), a photograph needs a mounting to exist as an artwork.

    The printing techniques dedicated to artworks are very specific and thus some labs are specialized in the printing of artworks.

    Regarding fine art prints, several printing techniques are possible : the silver printing and the pigment printing :

    • The silver printing is the descendant in direct line of the traditional photographic print. It allows to combine the historical tradition with the modern and fast digital technologies.
    • The pigment printing is a printing technique that uses inkjet. With the recent printing technologies, this printing technique offers today a better result than lambda printing.

    Once produced, the print must be inserted on a mounting allowing to hang it on the wall. There are 3 types of mountings for artworks :

    • The frame, with a mat, for the small and middle formats ;
    • The aluminium mounting for the middle and large formats. The aluminium plates stiffen the print and ensure a better conservation through time ;
    • The aluminium mounting and the floater frame. In addition to the mounting, the print is inserted in a frame leaving space between the frame and the photograph.