Go to almost any major art museum and you'll probably notice that big photographic prints seem to be in vogue – prints that are 4’ by 5’ or 8’x15’ – big big. And yet what’s sometimes strange (okay – annoying) about this is the number of photographers who seem to be threatened by any photograph larger than about 16”x20”.
Whenever the subject of big prints comes up, a guild-type photographer can always be counted upon to respond with a sarcastic “well, if you can’t make it good, then make it big”.
I recently came across this quote from an interview with John Szarkowski that seemed to sum up my own gut feeling on this:
In a bad photograph, a lot of the time, the frame isn’t altogether understood —
there are big areas of unexplained chemicals. It’s especially difficult as the
picture gets bigger. If it’s small, a little piece of black can look like a dark
place, right? But as it gets bigger, eventually it just turns into a black
shape. And you look at the surface of the picture and it reminds you of the
chemical factories on Lake Erie, creating pollution problems by making synthetic
materials out of soybeans and petroleum derivatives. And you don’t want that.
The basic material of photographs is not intrinsically beautiful. It’s not like
ivory or tapestry or bronze or oil on canvas. You’re not supposed to look at the
thing, you’re supposed to look through it. It’s a window. And everything behind
it has got to be organized as a space full of stuff, even if it’s only air.
Just making an image bigger doesn’t somehow improve the photograph - in fact it may do just the opposite and expose the flaws in the image. Not only does every photograph not work better as a big print, but some photographs certainly look worse when printed large. I’ve always been of the view that it’s not that easy to make a photograph that works well as a very large print (and in some ways you can actually get away with a lot less attention to detail in a small print).
Over its history, photography has frequently been imprisoned by the limitations of the current technology. Sometimes individual photographers have found a way to push those boundaries and expand the possibilities. Sometimes technology has made a leap that has just simply removed the barriers. Making large prints in the past was often a major technological challenge (Kodak employed teams of its best technicians to produce it’s Grand Central Station Coloramas). But, along with a number of things, the advent of wide format printers has made it much easier to make big prints.
Other visual arts never seem to have quite the same hang-up about big – from murals and frescoes to Monet’s giant water lily ponds to Michelangelo's David. Certainly small and exquisite contact prints can sometimes be quite beautiful, but we don’t need to be confined by limits that now exists only in photographers minds. The technology is there to make big prints. And while we don’t have to make our prints big for the sake of it - just because we can - we equally don’t have to stick to small prints because “that’s the way it’s always been done”. There’s nothing quite like seeing a giant Gursky print taking up the whole wall in front of you and suddenly feeling like you are somewhere down Alice's rabbit hole.
(Gursky photo by Jennifer ?? - can't find who she is on her blog...)