Scale and the Photographic Print
by, 09-13-2009 at 12:06 AM (2554 Views)
We photographers use all manner of format sizes, and the scale at which we print our photographs is also highly variable. These days, the mural sizes seem to be ever more common, with some photographers apparently compelled to display their work on the largest scale possible. At the same time, some of us print at relatively small sizes and even avoid enlargement altogether, by contact printing.
So what underlies the photographer's decision of how small or large to print a photograph? And how does print size affect the way a photograph is viewed? I typed a few stray thoughts on these issues and welcome any comments and discussion.
~~~ Look at Me! ~~~
The need to compete against omnipresent commercial background noise has caused some photographers to seek truly enormous scales in their prints. With large flat-panel displays and enormous billboards filling the cityscape, and with HD televisions piping an almost cinematic experience into many homes, it might now be a good deal harder to arrest the attention of the casual viewer with small prints than it was a few years ago. The availability of affordable wide-carriage printers in the home has also raised expectations of professional prints. It is unfortunate that size is taken by some to be a synonym for impact!
Of course, not all large prints are created in order to compete for attention- there may be many other reasons underlying the photographer's decision regarding print size. In some cases, the grand scale of a print forces an entirely new look at the subject. A photographic series which recently gained some press coverage was Martin Schoeller's 'Big Heads.'
Schoeller's take on Barack Obama
I have not sees Schoeller's work exhibited, but I understand that it features tight-cropped familiar heads reproduced many times larger than life size. Most viewers would, I assume, feel obligated to stand far back from these prints in order to see them with appropriate perspective. This would seem to be at odds with the macro-like depictions of these subjects: I note that the nose/ear ratio suggest that Schoeller's camera is typically quite close to his subjects. So, the photographer was working at close range, yet the viewer is obligated (by the size of the prints) to stand far back. An interesting effect, perhaps!
~~~ Scale and 'Intimacy' ~~~
Even though the current trend seems to be toward larger and larger prints, some photographers assert that smaller prints have a certain 'intimacy' that affects how their photographs will be viewed. One might say that...
(1) smaller prints will encourage a viewer to come closer to the print or even hold it in their hands;
(2) smaller prints necessitate individual viewing (or at least small group viewing). Murals are things that many people can view at once so they tend to give rise to collective viewing and response, whereas a small print may only allow one person to have a good look at a time.
A familiar case in point, of course, is da Vinci's Mona Lisa, which frequently stuns visitors... with its small size. The painting, which measures roughly 2x3 ft and is dwarfed by far larger pieces nearby, is almost always surrounded by a throng of visitors, all clamoring for a good view. I was lucky to see it at all, from great distance, over the heads of the crowd. Mass viewing is clearly not what Leonardo intended!
Notwithstanding the actual size of a print, there are other issues affecting 'intimacy' including the mode of presentation, e.g.:
(3) the type of matting/framing and whether the print is under glass;
(4) whether the space that the photograph inhabits is a big drafty gallery... or a more intimate setting.
Perhaps the biggest factor affecting the 'intimacy' of a print is the composition itself. A less capable photographer may deliver non-intimate, clinical views of some of even the most intimate subjects such as figure nudes. No matter what size such work is printed, it will still be viewed as non-intimate and insensitive, if the photogrpaher did not compose the photograph with sensitivity. In contrast, other more skilled photographers seem able to coax all kinds of powerful emotion from a rock or a vegetable! So that is the wild card in all of this... how the photographer composes the work, and how much of their own emotion is invested in the composition... and the print.
~~~ 1:1 ~~~
The reproduction ratio of the print... relative to the actual size of the subject... is an oft-forgotten issue. But it is an issue that I have been thinking about for some time and it motivates a current project underway. At this point in my thinking, it seems to me that the only print size which has any fundamentally logical basis is 1:1... i.e. life size. All other sizes necessarily mean that the subject will be represented on a different scale. I am not saying that is bad or good or anything, I am just saying that the rescaling does necessarily affect our perception of the subject. The implications of this are, I think, pretty important. Mountains, trees... they are represented far smaller in print than their real dimension!
How can any landscape print be effective, then?!
I think that in order to rationalize the truly diminutive scale at which subjects such as mountains are typically represented in prints, the viewer has to be able to imagine looking through the frame as a window, as if the real subject exists at its full majestic scale some good distance beyond that frame. Also, the viewer has to recognize scale cues in the composition (clouds, cars, people) that establish the scale in the mind of the viewer. Without these kinds of processes going on in the mind of the viewer, the tetons simply wouldn't feel so grand!
At the other extreme, macro subjects like flowers, insects etc. are are often depicted on a greatly magnified scale. I never put any thought into it at all until I started LF, then I realized just how common it is to rescale things in print.
Now, the 1:1 print, that is something that has a very unique power, I think. It doesn't really require any scale cues, it just is.... at the exact same size the subject is: nothing more and nothing less.