Does Size Matter?
I know, "does size matter" has become something of a cliché but I am talking about photographic print size, of course, as this is a photo blog. For present day photographers print size is a real issue, particularly when their work is to be presented for exhibition and shown. I am sure you have your own opinions about this topic. I urge you to weigh in via Facebook or email.
(My single largest print, made for a project to increase art on campus at Northeastern University where I taught, in 2009. It was 30 x 40 feet and made from a scan I made of an 8 x 10 color transparency of one of my Wheat photographs. The camera format was 8 x 10 inches.)
Here are mine.
Let me weigh in with some perspective. Originally 19th century photographs were made as contacts. The size of the negative as a glass or metal plate dictated the size of the print made from it. Then early enlarging came along but the quality was quite poor. By the time my generation came in the early 70's enlarging was the universal practice. Photographic prints made in the late 20th century in the art market for museums and galleries for the most part stayed quite small. There were exceptions but to obtain high quality the original really needed to be from large format film, ideally 8 x 10. In more recent years this has effectively changed. First of all, technology plays a big part here. Shoot with any good DSLR and prints can be brought up to 3 or 4 feet with not much degradation. This isn't hard. Most will take their file on a flash drive to a lab and have it printed. Then take that rolled up big inkjet print to a framer, have it mounted on foam core, frame it and bingo you've got a big print to hang on your wall or to exhibit. Easy, not too expensive (under $500 or so) and, if the file was of good quality and well prepared, the print will be reasonable.
The second big part is the increasingly level playing field photography is on with other art forms. Go to any big museum and compare the amount of photographs with other disciplines like paintings and prints. And, particularly if there is contemporary photography on display, how big the prints are. Back in November I was at Paris Photo and big prints there were almost commonplace.
That perhaps gives us a global view but what about here, locally, and in terms of your own work?
-working with a smaller file or a smaller negative? Don't take the print bigger than the file will allow. As a general guide watch out if your pixels per inch are drifting below about 180 in Photoshop. Big grain or lots of noise, lack of sharpness and a look that is amateur and unrefined? We've all seen them: family goes on vacation, (mostly)dad takes group shot of them all on the beach, takes the file to CVS and has a poster size print made from his iPhone or 6 megapixel point and shoot camera. Fine for their purposes, not so good for museums and galleries.
-size your print to the market you aspire towards. Making a large print for a show on an open gallery wall? Sure. But lugging around a portfolio of oversize prints is heavy and difficult and maybe counter productive. Trucking 5 x 4 foot framed prints to show galleries will not endear you to them and will break your back, to say nothing about the expenses and logistics (notice I did write "trucking") of making large works.
-galleries can love and hate big works. Really good big prints represent their artists well, make a huge impact, make for a big ticket sale, and spread the word about their artist well when sold. But big prints make them show less quantity because they take up valuable real estate, force their clients that are collectors to buy something they have to hang as opposed to keeping it in a portfolio box, are a complete pain and expensive to ship (custom shipping crates, anyone?), insure, and care for, to say nothing about the difficulty for the gallery to hang large works.
So let me tell you about my practice as a possible guide for yours. If you know my work at all you know I have always made big pieces. Part of that was because I was working in 8 x 10 for many many years and there was very little loss with enlargement. But also part of it was because I wanted to push at things, to allow my work to be seen as large scale at a time when most work was not.
That has changed some. I am still making big pieces, such as here, shown in my studio:
But for different reasons and certainly not as a standard method of practice. One reason is that I have clients or prospective clients who prefer that. Another is that I will print large for a specific space in a specific show. And another is that some work is shot to be assembled later into large pieces as in the enlarged contact sheet you see here.
In conclusion, my thinking is changing, which hopefully means it is progressing, to this: I make many portfolios these days and yes, continue to work in series. Some of those are fixed in stone as a presentation in 13 x 19 inches or 17 x 22 inches or 24 x 30 inches. These are completed as boxed sets, sequenced and offered for sale or for exhibition as the full body of work. Period. But others serve as models for different approaches, which would be available in other sizes and perhaps even as multiples, meaning several images printed together in large frames. Photography has changed. Let me be clear. I am doing this as I need to be flexible as an artist if I am showing professionally, but I also am interested in presenting my work in new ways. This allows my to highlight and feature things about the work that challenge the viewer and me too. As I said, most imagery can be made large if needed and assume that. So, often, I will present work in a smaller size as a convenient way to look at it then, when requested by a client or a gallery or a museum, I can make the work as large as needed, within reason.
Hopefully, this has helped you some as you struggle with the cost, practicality, logistics and difficulty of making large prints.
As it is snowing again in New England as I post this if you live here you might have time to read a little deeper into the topic. I have written about this issue before from several different angles: