Camera Position 55 : Does Size Matter?

Montepulciano, Toscana, 1998; Photograph by Jeff Curto

Montepulciano, Toscana, 1998 – Photograph by Jeff Curto

Yes, it’s the age old question… does size matter? Does the size of the prints we make change how we view the images? Have you ever made a large print of your work? Here’s an image that I recently had The Print Lab print to a very large size for me.

In the podcast, I also talk about a new exhibition I have at the University of LaVerne in LaVerne, CA, and about a new series of History of Photography Podcasts, and about a new episode of the Focus Ring podcast

Other links for this show:

14 thoughts on “Camera Position 55 : Does Size Matter?”

  1. The size that works best is what drives our personnal impacts. That is, if I, as an artist feels that the image would look best smaller, then it will be that. If larger and stirs my senses, then it will be that. This sounds nebulous, but think of the master painters. Monet painted his work based on how the painting felt and how it stirred his senses. Photographers, in turn are a “within the lines” thinking group and feel that they are constrained to the sizes that Kodak or Epson dictates (ever made a 12.5x 15.75 before?). We are the only medium that have size constraints to our work.

    Really, what is more confounding is that we charge less for our work as the images get smaller. Why should an 8×10 cost less than a 16×20? The thought process is the same, the skill in creating the smaller image is the same. It all comes down to the price of the paper, and that, is the major thinking problem that plagues our medium.

    Does size matter? Here is quote from a colleague freind of mine: “Suppose you like Monet paintings and you want to collect anything that becomes available. Then one painting comes available for auction. The last question you will ever think of is, ‘What size is it?'”.

    In short, size does not matter, artistically. Now for decorating, that’s a different question.

  2. “Does size matter?” Of course it does, otherwise why would we be talking about it? Why is it that you have kept your prints to a certain size? Understanding that on the basis of technical limitations is reasonable; it could be a contributing factor. The degree to which you WANT your images to be large is probably a much bigger factor. Whether that is a more conscious or subconscious decision is moot and I’ll leave that for your psychoanalyst (and Freud, since you brought him up). : )

    As you discuss in the History of Photography course, there were technical limitations on size, printing, creating multiple copies, etc. throughout the history of the medium. Some pioneering photographers have sought to push the boundaries of those predefined limitations and create huge cameras, negatives and prints. Was the change from glass plate negatives to silver-gelatin negatives of significance to the medium and its influence, meaning, and impact? Of course! You make the relationship between the technical considerations and the impact those boundaries play in the development of the medium very clear.

    Also consider size relative to paintings. While it’s true you’ll be terribly interested to purchase a Monet or Matisse simply because of its creator, it’s also true that their “monumental” works are seen as being of particular importance: Monet’s gigantic water lilies and Matisse’s huge Dance of Life series are good examples. Generally, when an artist makes something of much greater size than their more usual works, it is for a reason. In painting, for instance, it takes a great deal more planning, skill, labor, materials, and coordination to execute something on a monumental scale. This is generally true in all arts based on some form of materiality.

    In part the size issue developed in art due to the demands and pressures of the galleries through the course of the 20th century. Clearly a Pollock on the scale of 18” x 24″ is of an entirely different nature compared to one of his massive canvases 8′ or more in length.

    I believe gallery owners and artist’s agents would suggest, prod, and push artists to create on a grand scale in order to make an impact visually, artistically, historically, and financially. Some artists responded by working on a larger scale, while others continued to do whatever it was that would make them happy regardless of increased marketing potential.

    When you step into a gallery with 6′ high (or greater) images (whether painting, photograph, drawing, print, or sculpture), there is a definite and distinct psychological impact such images convey. [From my viewpoint, being an architect, the issue of human scale is clearly an obvious issue of importance.]

    A viewer cannot help but to see and attempt to understand very large works in relation to the size of their own body. This is particularly obvious in figurative work such as full length portraits or sculptures. The smaller scale dancers of Matisse have an entirely different impact than do standing figures of Rodin. You can also consider the impact of the sculpture of Lincoln inside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington or the four presidents depicted on Mount Rushmore.

    Well, you say, “Yes, but that’s a mountain or made of stone or bronze or . . . .” Well, how is that different than the impact of a Salvador Dali image blown up to 30′ tall as a banner advertising an exhibit at the Art Institute or Metropolitan Museum? Size and scale matter very much in the way we understand artwork. This is particularly true when viewed in person within a comprehensible architectural, urban, or landscape setting.

    Photography does work a little bit differently, but only a little. When you go into an Omnimax theater, you allow your mind to erase the sense that you’re in a building with a dome and speakers and seats. You can imagine yourself flying or diving or space-walking without too much trouble because there is no FRAME evident. The frame is a key issue when understanding all forms of art. We suspend our disbelief when we view Renaissance or Neo-Classical paintings that rely on the representation of three-dimension perspective. A similar mechanism operates in other arts, each with its own parameters, history, and conventions.

    I could go on (and perhaps should in some other context).

    The digital age, of course, raises many more questions. To what extent is our understanding of Montepulciano, Toscana, 1998 altered because of the context created by your descriptions of it? You’ve described your experience of the impact of the image when enlarged. Each of us hearing and reading about this particular print has something pictured in their imagination, no matter how vague.

    How many people will see this large print? Does that matter? If this image were used for a gigantic, monumental banner on the side of a building (to celebrate an Italian festival in a Chicago neighborhood or in Montepulciano itself perhaps) does the image take on a different meaning depending upon its size? How much does a photographer control the meaning of their work? Does viewing an image on a backlit screen make a difference? Does the size of the screen matter? Is it the same image on a HDTV screen basically the same when viewed on an iPhone display? How does the scale have an impact on the viewer?

    I’ll leave this open ended, but remain insistent that size does matter, I’m just not entirely sure how.

    ~ Andrew Raimist

  3. Thanks for your comment Michael… and you’ve made some interesting points.

    There are some other issues at play here, too…

    One is that Monet had to decide on the size before he put brush to canvas. We don’t; we can make (within reason) pretty much any size we want and we can do it at any time that we want. You’re right about the issues of paper size; it’s been interesting to watch the matting, framing and storage supply companies deal with a photographic public who has moved over to these “oddball” sizes that we have inherited from the print/press world. Light Impressions recently started selling 13×19 portfolio boxes…

    The pricing issue is tough, too… I agree that the thought process is the same between small and large, but the consumer seems to think otherwise, and have frequently had the question “can you make me a 5×7 for less?” from folks. I suppose it has to do with the “supersize” mentality that we have in the culture and the fact that a big car costs more than a small car despite the fact that they both “get you there.”

    The really interesting thing to me is that at the moment, at least, “big is in” and we photographers have to figure out whether we buy into that or go our own way. It’s a tough question, really.

  4. Andrew…

    Spoken like an architect! Nicely done!

    Obviously, in the world of the built environment, scale matters, and it matters a lot. I think you raise some really valid points about how much it matters in the “image environment,” too. It is why I routinely take students to be in front of the “real thing” instead of looking at it in reproduction. Scale, tone and “presence” all matter a great deal more than we imagine them mattering. Once you’ve seen a really extraordinary Daguerreotype image up close, or a Jeff Wall photograph in its natural habitat instead of on a computer screen, everything changes.

    Chicago’s (relatively) new Millennium Park provides an interesting way of looking at at least some of the ideas of scale “in the wild” in that there is a pair of huge projected digital images (videos, but…) of faces that act as fountains:

    Watching people interact with them and watching them accept the idea of faces that are 2 stories tall is interesting. It’s also interesting to think about how this is a piece of visual art that would have been impossible just a few years ago. As you state, technology changes everything.

    Nice ideas… thanks.

  5. You know I wasn’t thinking specifically of that piece of urban sculpture, but it is a good example. Here’s my own photograph of a girl curious about it’s operation and function earlier this year:

    Personally, I find the idea of large, urban scale images intriguing. We certainly see plenty of it employed for advertising purposes, so why not for art too? The aspect of that fountain that I find particularly disturbing/intriguing/surreal/disorienting is the speed with which the faces move. A monumental static image isn’t terribly “upsetting” to our perception in today’s culture. Even a changing electronic image of this sort isn’t that unusual. However, I find the the very slow speed at which the faces move and blink to be very strange indeed.

    When you combine the glass blocks, LED lighting, slow progression of images, facial expressions & movements, with the periodic flowing of water from the nozzle, some terribly basic, fundamental frameworks for understanding photograph (or videography) is ruptured. The combination of an illusionistic photographic image, cropped tightly on a human face brings us into close proximity to the identity of psychic connection with that person (however filtered and distorted), with the periodic eruption of water emanating from the position of the mouth of the person in the image is quite jarring (for me anyway).

    I find it difficult to simultaneously look at and comprehend the image, while then understanding the piece as a three-dimensional sculpture of glass blocks with water. It breaks some fundamental conventions was have in viewing and understanding photography.

    Jeff, can you think of examples in history where photographs were combined with three-dimensional sculptural work including movement, change and progression over time? Usually, we understand visual arts as generally either illustionistic (representational) or abstract (non-objective). In this case, I find the boundaries between such categories and disciplines blurred and to some extent destroyed.

    ~ Andrew Raimist

  6. I think “big is in” because, as photographers, we really never thought of going big. The painters did, but photographers, for the most part have historically not (note that I didn’t say “photographic artists”? My mission is that we are artists with photography as the medium). Commercially, that is why, to this day, clients will typically say “I’d like a large one, like, an 8×10”. Even then, most photographers think of a 16×20 as “Huge”.

    So, let’s through commercialism and client preferences aside. What do we have left? Photographers with a sense of low self-esteem for their work. Photographers cannot imagine larger images because they feel that they are being overbearing (even Ansel once told me over dinner that he felt his 16×20’s were his comfort zone).

    I sometimes suspect that George Eastman is the reason for all this miniaturzation. Once the snapshot was born, the need for large images took a step backwards for 100 or so years. Even now, Kodak still calls wall sized images Posters, how derrogative. The technology has been there, the will of the artist has not. Until now.

    With the ability to print our own, we can virtually do whatever we want in creating the sizes of our imagery, and do it economically. These are exciting times and all these megapixels are falling in line with all of this. The problem is, are the makers still afraid?

  7. Usually I just get the 4×6 prints. However, I have always liked the 5×7 size and am going to give that a try next order. With standard being 4×6, this is not the stretch it used to be. This would of course be for personal use. Have not had any public display, so don’t know what works best, their all good. I think also that as I increase the print size, it will be a learning tool as to how I make the pics in the first place, (focus, color/or not, DOF, contrast, etc).
    The bigger, the more revealing.

  8. Andrew;

    Thanks for your thoughts and comments. I finally just now got around to listening to the last Brooks Jensen podcast that you’ve referenced. As always, Brooks was amusing and, at the same time, thought-provoking.

    Of course, the answer to the “why so big” question has always been answered in different ways by different people. We still have people who use large format equipment (like me!) not just because of the perspective control and the “feel” of using the machine, but also because that big negative gives a level of detail that we can’t get elsewhere. I can go all the way back to Carleton Watkins and his “mammoth plate” cameras that made 20×24-inch negatives in the 1850s and 1860s… why? Because he was shooting BIG stuff and wanted BIG prints and at the time, the only way to get big prints was to use a BIG camera.

    In an earlier comment, you asked:
    “Jeff, can you think of examples in history where photographs were combined with three-dimensional sculptural work including movement, change and progression over time? Usually, we understand visual arts as generally either illustionistic (representational) or abstract (non-objective). In this case, I find the boundaries between such categories and disciplines blurred and to some extent destroyed.”

    I don’t know if I can think of an example. I think when people started thinking about photo-realistic images over time, they started thinking about (and inventing) motion pictures. There’s Muybridge, of course, and while his work had some significance in its own right, in the end, it leads to the idea of movies and story.

    In the end, I think it’s all about trying to get a handle on how to best convey the message we want to convey. A big house sends a different message from a cottage, even if they both have viable stories to tell.

  9. Michael;

    Is late-night blogging like “drunk-dialing” but without the hormone factor?


    Honestly, I’m glad you’ve made the comment you made… maybe it’s that we’re not comfortable with making big images… or, conversely, maybe we’re afraid that if we make small images in today’s era of “big is better” we risk being taken less seriously.

    As Tom Doyle notes up above, many photographers aren’t even used to the idea of going beyond the 4×6-inch print that they are used to seeing. They don’t even think of what it might mean to have, say, an 8×10-inch image.

    I’m just interested in what happens when we get out of those “comfort zones” that Adams told you about. He might not have liked going much beyond 16×20, but he did… and he probably did it for money as much as for anything else.


  10. I’ll be honest, we rarely have any pictures in our house larger than 20×24 (framed and matted). Other than filling the walls of the McMansions of today, I really don’t see much point in the super big prints. For me, a large print needs a purpose. Are we making a photographic mural? Are we creating some art for a large entryway? Beyond that, if you are selling to homes the 16×20 print is plenty big IMO.

    So my personal philosophy about size and the picture is that it depends on where the picture will be displayed and the picture itself. Some pictures just can’t stand being blown up that large. Certain imperfections in the negative or the framing of the picture limit it’s potential size. Others can be blown up quite large. If you are going to a gallery, the large pictures can be a sight to behold, but try to imagine that same picture in another setting. (I’ve been going through old episodes now that I just found your podcast). It will definitely be hard to sell a large photograph like that to the average guy with average walls. That’s for sure.

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