Sunday, October 17, 2010

Is Bigger Better?

I've noticed in the past few years that prints have been getting much larger. Some are framed, while others are mounted on aluminum or face-mounted to plexi-glass. This is true for color as well as B/W prints.

What has happened to the intimacy between the viewer and the image? Most contemporary photography is printed large 30" x 40" and 40" x 60."

The only exception I can think of is the work of contemporary landscape photographer, Michael
Kenna. By today's standards, Kenna's prints are relatively small; approximately 7.5" x 7.5" gelatin silver prints matted 16" x 20" printed in editions of 45 ... postage stamps in comparison to the works of Andreas Gursky, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Edward Burtynski.

Kenna was interviewed for "THE PHOTO REVIEW" by Dean Brierly in 1997 for an article titled: "In the Darkroom with Michael Kenna." When asked if he ever prints larger, Kenna's response was, "No. I prefer the intimacy of the smaller print. I experimented with 16" x 20" prints in the late 80s but later destroyed most of them. Some collectors really like them but they just didn't feel right for me. Apart from the more obvious technical and optical considerations, what is more important for me is the relationship that a viewer has with the print. The eye comfortably views and focuses an angle of about 30 degrees. This translates into a viewer comfortably standing about 10 inches away from a 4" x 5" print and 3.5 feet away from a 16" x 20" print. Small prints have a greater feeling of intimacy - one looks into the print. Large prints are more awesome - they are something a viewer looks out at. I believe in fitting the print size to one's particular vision and prefer the more intimate engagement of the smaller image."

It was not so long ago that a 16" x 20" print was considered fairly large. 20" x 24" prints were considered very large. I can recall an instance about 15 years ago, when a client purchased a 40" x 40" print. At the time, due to technological limitations, I had a commercial lab make an 8" x 10" copy negative of a 20" x 20" print so as to enable them to make the large 40" print on roll paper. The original negative could have been enlarged at the lab, but there was so much print manipulation (dodging and burning), that I thought it best to copy a finished print rather than have a stranger try to interpret my negative.

Today is entirely another story ... either capture the image digitally, or capture an image on film, scan the negative and print on a large format ink jet or light jet printer that ranges in size from 17" to 104" in width. What a world!

Bottom line ... In my opinion, the desire to print large-scale is driven by the fact photographers now have a technology that has expanded his or her creative vision in ways unthinkable 10 years ago. Some imagery just looks better at 30" x 40" than it does at 16" x 20." We have essentially moved away from the so called "intimate" relationship we had with an image to one of an in-your-face life-like visual experience. It's sort of like going from pager technology to IPhone 4 technology over night!

When Dean Brierly asked Michael Kenna if the pendulum is swinging back towards smaller prints, Kenna says, "I honestly don't follow the photography world enough to know what is going on. But as you say, it is predictable that if big prints have become popular, there will be a pendulum swing away from them. As there are always dedicated followers of fashion, we also know the grass is always greener on the other side." Keep in mind this interview was in 1997 ... almost at the very beginning of photography's digital revolution.

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