By John Camp
There have been a number of brief inconclusive discussions on TOP about the matter of size as regards photographs. I contend that it’s an important consideration for those making photographic art for other people. But, very often, these discussions fall into the well of, "I like 'em small. Real photos are small. Those people who make big photographs are a bunch of elitists."
I’ve long thought that photographic size was constrained by the practical matters of printing—that is, you’ve got a negative so large, and after x amount of enlargement, it begins to lose its crispness. Or, if the negative is large enough to print big, then you require a huge side-mounted enlarger, big trays, expensive, hard-to-get paper, etc.
With the rise of digital photography and Big Printers, some of those considerations have become less relevant. That brings us to the question, "Is there a good size for art photographs? The kind that will be hung on walls?"
Art, like a light bulb, should be made for the space it is intended to illuminate. If your photograph is going to be glued to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, it had better be large. If it’s going at eye level, next to your toilet, it can be quite small. If it's hanging on a living room wall, then it can be smaller than the Sistine Chapel version, but it should be larger than the bathroom print.
But what size is that?
Sampling from Gardner's
I thought we might throw some light on the question if we looked at paintings, because paintings 1) are flat objects that hang on walls, to be looked at, like photos, and 2) unlike photos, the painters were more or less free to make the paintings any size and shape that they wished, whatever was most likely to sell to the most likely clients. Because they had this freedom, I offer as a sun-don’t-shine conjecture that these painters empirically established the best sizes for flat, wall-hung art objects.
Using a standard art text, Gardner's Art through the Ages, I looked at 72 illustrated paintings—72, because that’s how many were chosen for the book from the 18th century on. I did not count engravings or frescos or multi-media objects, because they have constraints of their own.
All the paintings are considered masterpieces by somebody (not necessarily me). I chose this method because I was trying to eliminate personal bias that I might bring to the subject, although there was no way I could eliminate somebody else’s bias, or biases within the data.*
The 72 works were by 65 different painters. Of the 72, 47 were horizontal, 21 were vertical, and four were square…a strong indication that horizontal is preferred, probably because most rooms are horizontal.
The paintings varied in overall size from 123 square inches to 52,992 square inches (Gericault’s "Raft of the Medusa.") Within that range, sizes were all over the place, but less than 10% were under about 700 square inches. A rectangle 24x30 would be 720 square inches.
In 20th century photography, a 16x20-inch print, a rectangle of 320 square inches, was considered large. Of the 72 paintings in Gardner’s, only two were smaller than that—the other 70 were all larger.
What size was best? That depended on their intended use, which I determined by squinting at them. All of the largest ones, like Picasso’s "Guernica" or "The Raft of the Medusa," were obviously intended for institutions, with large walls, rather than to be hung in somebody’s split-level.
Of the others, the most popular sizes tended to fall into weak groups around 400 (16x25) square inches, 700 (24x30) sq. in., 1,000 (25x40) sq. in., 1,500 (32x48) sq. in., 2000 (40x50) sq. in., 3800 (~50x75) sq. in., 5,000 (~60x80) sq. in. and 8,500 sq. in. sizes.
Paintings between 400 and 8881 square inches included 59 of the 72 paintings. Of the thirteen others, three were smaller than 400, ten were larger than 8881.
But that’s still a huge range, from 400 square inches to 8881. Narrowing it down from there is statistically suspect, but I’ll do it anyway: the average size of these paintings, after tossing the outliers, was around 3,000 sq. in.—a 60 x 50-inch painting. The median size (of all 72) was around 2,800 square inches, which would be the equivalent of about a 60x47-inch painting.
The mode—the most often painted size—is very weak, but was around 1,000 square inches, which would be a 25x40-inch painting.
Because of the history of the "golden rectangle," I went into this thinking that a lot of the paintings' aspect ratio would be about 1:1.61 or 1.62. I was wrong. Only one fell right on it, and four others, close. About one third fell within the aspect ratios of the Micro 4/3 and full-frame sensors, that is, between 1:1.33 and 1:1.5.
Thirty-three, or about half, were more square than photography’s Micro 4/3, the squarest of the aspect ratios used by the rabble, as opposed to the squires who use MF cameras.
Forty-four out of the 72 had aspect ratios that fell between 1:1.2 and 1:1.5.
So what does it all mean?
If the fact that painters had a more or less free choice of shape and size in the their paintings, and were aware of the aesthetic and financial consequences of their decisions, it would seem that a good size for wall-hung flat objects (speaking generally) would be larger than 400 square inches—more or less 18x22.
But to really get into the heart of common sizes, you have to go larger than 1,000 square inches—25x40. Of the paintings I looked at, only 13 of the 72 were smaller than that. Only seven of the 72 were smaller than about 700 square inches (~20x35.)
To me, this makes a lot of sense. A 1,000 square-inch painting can be seen in detail from a comfortable distance. That is, you don’t have to have your nose right up against it. It can be seen easily over a couch or a table or a chiffonier. Smaller works are fine, but the space for them has to be carefully chosen.
As for aspect ratio, I’m not sure it matters much, until you get extreme, but a large majority of painters are more square than full frame's 1:1.5, and almost half are more square than Micro 4/3’s 1:1.33.
Bottom line: You’re printing too small and probably too oblong. Stop doing that.
*I once took a course in statistical sampling, and after that, was almost ready to give up on the whole idea. Biases are lurking everywhere. For example, Van Gogh may have used small canvases because a) he was poor, or b) because he painted outdoors or c) because he painted quickly. Others may have painted large because they had commissions to decorate large spaces, like churches or museums, or because they worked slowly in studios; the authors of the book may have had personal biases; the "people who decide" what is a masterpiece may be biased toward larger works, with more bombastic effects. So everything here has to be taken with a grain of salt—you don’t have to tell me that by writing a text on statistics or sampling in your comments.
One thing that might be taken with less salt is the fact that, given substantial freedom to choose—a freedom that photographers didn't have—almost nobody painted as small as photographers print.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Sean: "The print that Alec Soth made of Charles in Vasa, Minnesota in 2002 is 50x40 inches. It sold for $37,000 in 2008.
'My single goal as a photographer is to make great books. Everything else is fine, but this is what I really want to do with my life.'
"The same picture of Charles in Sleeping By The Mississippi is about 9.5 x 7 3/4 inches. I've only ever seen Soth's printed work in book form. Going off the the above quote it's the best place to see it, which is comforting as I'll never earn enough dough to own an original Soth.
"Soth might have a single goal, but he's killed two birds with one stone by creating book art and wall art at the same time, you can't do that with paintings. I've seen some really great paintings in the flesh. Saw my First Rothko a couple of years ago and it really moved me. Having only ever seen his work in books and mass produced prints. Stood there in silence I realised that I was seeing his work for the first time."
Featured Comment by Charlie: "I like small photos and large paintings."
Featured Comment by Christian: "Bottom line: You’re printing too small and probably too oblong. Stop doing that. This made me guffaw. At work. Thank you, as that has improved my afternoon and I am happily sitting here grinning. I enjoy a bit of cheek in essays."
Featured Comment by Paul C.: "Your bottom line killed me."
Featured Comment by Stan B.: "The photo gallery walls of the '80s were unrecognizable from those of the preceding decade. Photographs weren't regularly 'large' on museum walls until the '80s—probably as a response to the use of large format color and how those artists were projecting their vision. For better, or worse, that aesthetic has stuck. I love being blown away by a large print as much as the next guy, but I would personally prefer more of a mix—not only for reasons of 'size aesthetics' but also to allow more access to those who simply can't afford the megaprint route."
Featured Comment by Andrew Kirk: "The best size is about 750–1,000 pixels on the longer side...perfect for viewing around the world on-line."
Featured Comment by Marcelo Guarini: "In January 1982 I visited Tucson for the first time. Walking around the U of A. Just by chance I ended up in the Center for Creative Photography's old building, where an exhibition of Dean Brown was taking place. There were about 50 4x6" prints mounted on 16x20" mat boards, most of them dye transfers and a few tricolor carbon prints. They were so beautiful and jewel like, that at that precise moment I decided to pursue photography seriously. Every time I visit Tucson, I make an appointment to go to the Center to see those small prints.
"I tend to dislike the current fashion of very large prints. The larger the better, somehow like a macho challenge. I find them inelegant and showy. Dean Brown died of injuries on July 1973. While photographing Table Mountain in New Hampshire, in very bad weather conditions, he lost his footing along a slippery rock and fell sixty feet to a swollen stream. I recommend to anyone visiting Tucson to go to the Center of Creative Photography and ask to see his unusual landscape small prints."
Mike replies: Dean Brown was an early influence on me, too. I've never seen any of his original prints, though.
There are several photographers with the same name online, although I can't find any pictures online of the Dean Brown we're talking about. I have a feeling they wouldn't translate very well.
Wasn't he related to another well-known photographer? One of the many things about photography I used to know but have forgotten...sigh....