A complaint I hear a lot about contemporary photography is that the sizes of photographs are inflated. I think a discussion about print sizes certainly can be - maybe should be - had, but it might disappoint all those bemoaning large sizes. I thought I’d write down some of my thinking about this; hopefully, someone will disagree and publish her/his thoughts.
It seems that there are basically two factors that go into the size(s) of a photograph: Artistic considerations and business considerations. It’s very important to keep these two separate, for reasons which hopefully will become obvious in the following.
What is a the right size for a photograph? That’s not such a bad question. In fact, it’s a significantly more complicated question than in might seem. If you take a photograph, it usually (or maybe “often” would be a more cautious word to use) turns out that there is an optimal size, a size at which the photograph works best (for reasons of simplicity, let’s assume there is only one size; having two print edition sizes doesn’t really change the gist of the argument). A photograph can look terrible if it’s printed too big or too small. And there is no general rule for this, it depends on the photographic body of work in question.
Of course, the photographer can take more things into consideration when determining print size. The fact that today basically any size can be produced is important: If you can’t print larger than, say, 20 by 20 inches, then you’re out of luck if you think it really needs to be 30 by 30 inches. If, however, your work really needs to be 3 by 4 feet - because you might have a ton of detail - you’re all set if someone can print that for you, and with modern technologies, large sizes are very feasible (So the fact that these days many photographs are larger than they used to be is because photographers are finally able to print larger sizes).
You might decide you don’t want your photographs to be larger than 10 by 10 inches, because you want to force people to get close to them, to study them. Or you might decide you want huge prints, so that people can walk back and forth and either see the image as a whole or only details. These are all considerations that go into how a photographer determines a print size; and the complaints that these days, photographs are too large completely gloss over large parts of this. Some work needs very large prints, because it would not work at smaller sizes.
Needless to say, there is a second factor, and that’s business. Simply speaking print sizes correlate with price. The larger a photo, the more expensive it will be - and that’s independent of whether a photographer is well known or not. Printing large photos costs more money than printing smaller photos, and the photographer needs to get the money back in (needless to say, there might be other technical factors that determine price). That, of course, makes things difficult for new talent (I’m trying to avoid the term “emerging photographer” here): If your prints are huge, and you need to sell them for a lot of money, based on size alone, it will be harder to find a gallerist.
Enters the market. Large prints sell for more, so have a guess what a gallerist might say about print sizes. OK, this might sound slightly simplistic, because a new talent, with no exhibition record and no photograph in anyone’s collection, is a very different sell than an established photographer, whose work is already in many collections. That said, if the market is doing well (or very well), it will be easier to sell more expensive prints, and - across the board - print sizes will be larger.
So when people talk about how print sizes finally seem to be coming down, I think they’re talking about a reflection of the second, the business, part. In a tough market, it’s harder to sell expensive, large prints than in a market where everything sells, regardless of merit and/or price.
Of course, I’m not a businessman, and I’ve heard conflicting information about how well photography is selling right now. I’ve heard people tell me about struggling galleries, and I’ve heard people say that collectors that used to by expensive paintings have started to buy photography (because, relatively speaking, it’s cheap).
But what I’d really like to focus on is that when talking about print sizes, what we should be talking about is whether the print size actually works for a photograph. I’m frankly a bit tired of seeing complaints about how photos are “too large” - such mass generalizations are not very helpful, and for many photographs, large sizes are perfectly fine. I’m not going to complain about Andreas Gursky’s print sizes because they’re perfect. But I do think that Thomas Ruff’s jpeg prints are in fact too large (c.f. my review of his book). If you think that Gursky’s photos are too large, then I’d love to hear the reason - but it has got to be something more than “they’re too large”.
We really need to avoid treating the artistic choice of print size just like any other fad.
Needless to say, some prints are so big that you can’t hang them on your wall - unless you have a really big house. If Andreas Gursky called me today and told me he’d give me one of this photographs as a gift, I’d be in real trouble (maybe if I got rid of the lamp I could hang it on the ceiling - I’d have to cut open the house I live in to get it inside, though). But - and this is important - it still doesn’t mean that the prints are too big. After all, photographers are artists and not home decorators (OK, some photographers are both, and no, as tempting as it might be, I’m not going to give you any names). If some photograph only fits on the walls of a museum then, well, so be it. I don’t see why that would imply anything about the photograph’s quality.