Since when is bigger better?


General Photography

Last month, I went to a photography show at the Netherlands Architecture Institute with dozens of contemporary photographers’ works shown (unfortunately, weirdly omitting many North American photographer who should have been in there, but that’s another issue). With a few exceptions, the prints were all huge (and by huge I mean literally huge), and I noticed how we’ve almost come to expect something like this from shows now. However, I also noticed that many of the photos did not work very well because they were too large (just for the record, Hester Keijser and Norman Beierle, who were with me, agreed; btw, Hester is the fabulous Mrs Deane).

You can find the same trend in galleries that show contemporary photography. Just for the record, because someone will inevitably misunderstand what I just wrote and take offense, I don’t mean to say that all large prints don’t work. There are many photos that require large prints. But there are many others that do not, and there are some that simply don’t work if their prints are too big.

And there is an unrelated repercussion to this issue, namely that big prints cost a lot of money, which leads to the somewhat unsatisfying result that someone like me simply cannot afford to buy pretty much a single photo by any of my favourite photographers. I don’t find this very satisfactory (I probably don’t have to explain why), and I can imagine that many other people have the same problem.

You could argue that art work always tended to be very expensive etc., but given that photography is not only easily reproducible but also reproducible in different sizes, that argument is not all that convincing, is it? You could also argue that photographers deserve to make a lot of money, since most fine-art photographers don’t exactly live the kind of posh lifestyle that most people think they do. Or you could argue that photography has become a commodity, which people invest in. Or you could bring up many other arguments, which, I’m sure, all make a lot of sense (especially if taken isolated).

But still… Why are photos now almost expected to be printed in such large sizes, thus automatically becoming unaffordable for most people? In principle, it’s a win-win situation for both photographers and gallery owners, since selling a single print fetches a lot of money. But then imagine you had a limited edition of 100, and imagine it was all smaller sizes, and imagine each would sell for $150, say, and imagine they all would sell. (Lest you think I’m out of my mind, this is how German photo seller Lumas works, and quite successfully so) Would that be so bad?

So, I guess there are really two issues to this topic. The first one is “How have we arrived at a situation where contemporary photography has become synonymous with huge prints?”, and the second one is “Given the interest in contemporary photography is rising quite steeply, wouldn’t it be quite desirable to make acquiring photos more affordable for people who aren’t collectors and/or super-rich?”

As always, I could be completely mistaken with my assumption and everything else I’ve just written. The only thing that I’m not mistaken about is my dissatisfaction about only seeing my own measly photos on the walls of my apartment.