Does Size Matter?


General Photography

(Almost an entire week without posts here and then this? But it’s not what you think. Keep on reading.)

Over the past years, we’ve witnessed the evolution of photography as a “serious” art form (whatever that might mean and entail in detail). Almost simultaneously, there has been a steady trend towards ever larger photographic prints. It is almost like that you are almost not being taken seriously if your photos are small.

The first interesting bit to notice here is that “small” is not really all that small. If you look at sizes of vintage prints, these are pretty much mere thumbnails in the Stuffky area, which is now upon us. Last week, I saw some original prints done by Edward Weston, which were barely larger than a postcard. And this in a museum that, right on another floor, from 21 October 2005 – 8 January 2006 devotes a whole section of the building to Jeff Wall, whose huge photos are mounted in lightboxes, just like the ones you see at bus stops in Europe1.

Second, I am not sure what to make of the fact that a lot of the gigantism is originating in Germany. I think it would be quite interesting to investigate why this could be the case, but that would lead me beyond what I want to talk about, and talking about it just briefly would - probably inevitably - barely leave the terrain of stereotypes.

Third, when I talked to a gallery owner a little while back about my own photography, he expressed interest in some of my work, but he asked whether I had larger sizes available. Apparently, 8x10 isn’t quite large enough any longer. I’ve noticed something similar in other areas of art, where people who work on, for example, small pieces are confronted with a certain amount of disdain whereas large works are almost automatically considered to be “worth” more. This is a curious development, because there is no strict correlation between size and effort - a point that is more or less trivial in photography.

But I do not necessarily want to have too much “business” in this discussion for a variety of reasons, the main of which is that I am not all that interested in “business”. What I am mostly interested in is photography.

It is interesting to note that while some photos need to be printed bigish (where I do not want to debate how big), others can be printed almost any size without a real difference in their overall effect. Coming back to Jeff Wall’s photos, when I saw the large version of After “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the Preface - a photo that I had seen before, reprinted in magazines - I did not think that the large size added much - if anything - to the photo at all. Some people will probably disagree. Having said this, of course, there are some photos that need to be printed big, such as Wang Qingsong’s - but even there, a little bit smaller would have been fine, too.

There is a different relationship between viewer and photo when different print sizes are involved (now, I admit that for some photos you need very large prints - just to get that out of the way2). But the impact of photos of vastly different sizes is quite different. For example, I am a big fan of photography books. When you look at a photo book with 8x10 photos in it (or comparable sizes, a bit smaller maybe), you have to take in each photo. Likewise, when you got to a museum and look at photos of that size.

On the other hand, if you go to a museum and then see poster-size photos, each photo is almost a slap into the face. Your immediate response is quite different, and I would be happy to argue that what I called the “slap” here is not necessarily always good. Small photos might overwhelm you by their qualities, whereas large photos tend to overwhelm you (at least at first) beause of their sheer sizes.

And this is where, I think, the crucial point of photo sizes can be found. In the end, it comes down to determining what effect a photo is supposed to have. I have heard people complain about Stuffky photos being to gimmicky - meaning, I suppose, that the sizes really do not translate into any kind of special value once you’re over what I called the “slap” - and I think there might be a certain truth in this.

Thus, it seems to me that size does indeed matter - even if one ignores the correlation between print sizes and market prices - but bigger is not necessarily better. Given that so many people now work towards big - by all means - I think it might be time to step back a little bit and think about what that size is really supposed to achieve.

Or maybe - full circle for all those people who thought that I wasn’t going to talk about photography - in the photo world, dominated by aging males, photo size really only translates into something else?

1 Even though this will probably upset lots of people: I found the show quite underwhelming. Apart from some stunning highlights (such as the Hokusai and Ellison (re-)interpretations) I was mostly left cold by the photos. If you’re in Lodon and have time for only one show, make it Between Past and Future, an utterly amazing show of contemporary Chinese photography; right next door (literally), there’s also the Diane Arbus show, which you should not visit instead of the Chinese one, and I’m saying this as a fan of Diane Arbus’ work.

2 I don’t know whether I’m the only one irritated by the following trend, which is becoming more and more common: When talking about something, people always focus on the most outlandish and - typically - irrelevant examples to make their points. For example, when discussing the death penalty, if you’re against it people will ask you whether you wouldn’t want the person who killed your mother to be dead (just for the record: no, I wouldn’t because the death penalty would still be wrong). I find this trend very annoying. People just seem to be oblivious of the simple fact that, often, there are exceptions to a general principle - but when you discuss the principle, the exceptions are quite irrelevant for the discussion.