A while back, a reader named Scott Price asked if I would answer some specific questions about framing pictures.
"When I went to a custom framer to choose a frame to complement the photo," Scott wrote, "I discovered that I'm a complete spazz when it comes to making these decisions—so many framing options, matting colours, widths, etc. I got completely lost in the process. If it weren't for an exceptionally patient and knowledgeable framer, I might still be trying to make up my mind."
Before we get into Scott's questions, though, I'd like to highlight that line, "if it weren't for an exceptionally patient and knowledgeable framer." In the 1950s and '60s, give or take, standard methods of archival framing hadn't been entirely developed. With the "Photo Boom" of the 1970s, experts quickly developed a set of "best practices" for framing photographs—but many storefront frame shops hadn't gotten up to speed. Now, however, many framers do know all about archival framing for most common photographic media. So a good first step is to find a good local framer and patronize them.
That's what I do. Above is a snapshot I just took of my local frame shop, Gallery 1, which is located handily a mere seven-tenths of a mile from my house.
If money is a big issue, most decent-sized cities have specialty framers that cater to artists, galleries, and museums. They'll often sell framing at a fairly big discount, sometimes leaving some of the assembly work to you. They might have a minimum order size, though, and you're unlikely to get the same level of personal attention a full-service framer will give you. But the trade-off might be worth it. To find these places, ask around—ask photographers who exhibit, or at local art schools, or galleries or small museums (larger museums will have their own installation personnel and do all their framing in-house).
And if money is a huge issue, consider buying a readymade frame from a place like Target. The quality won't be as good, and of course it won't be customized to your artwork...but one way I get around this when the artwork or the occasion just doesn't demand a custom frame is to buy the readymade first and then print the picture to fit it! It's a good trick and something I've done many times.
But on to Scott's questions.
Q: How wide should the matting be, relative to the size of the image?
A: Depends. Standard, typical museum framing generally uses very wide matting. Partly this is to set off the image and avoid visual distraction; partly it's fashion, in that it looks luxurious and unstinting, and it makes small photographs look more imposing; and partly it's due to the fact that museums tend to have stocks of standard-sized frames that are often a good deal larger than the artwork they will temporarily contain, and floating a small photograph in a very large matt will tend to mask the fact that the frame isn't proportioned specifically for each picture.
There's a technical element to mat width, because the width of the mat separates the photograph from the frame. If the frame is not archivally inert—for instance, if it's wood—some physical separation is a good idea.
But there's also expense to consider: the broader the mat, the larger the frame has to be, and larger frames cost more. For home display, larger mats (and, hence, frames) "cost" you in terms of wall space, too. So you don't want to habitually make your mats extremely wide.
I personally tend to like proportion—I think space and shape relationships are almost an art form in themselves (ask any architect). My preference is for mats that aren't too big or too small, but "just right." In the Peter Turnley that Michelle is holding above, we settled on two inches all around. It's a bit scant, but I didn't want the frame to be too big, and I didn't want to take the dark brown-black wood frame visually too far away from the picture.
A further issue is "bottom weighting." A picture has visual weight—the eye/brain "expects" the rectangle of the picture to have some weight, so if you make the mat exactly equal on all four sides, it often looks like the bottom margin is slightly too thin or narrow—as if the picture were visually "pressing down" on it. For this reason, framers often "bottom weight" a mat, which simply means making the mat border slightly thicker or wider on the bottom. There are two ways you can bottom-weight a mat—you can do it just ever so slightly, so the mat looks equidistant from the picture all around, or you can exaggerate the bottom weighting, which some people like the look of. In the Turnley, we didn't bottom weight the mat, but we gave more of a float on the bottom margin in order to accommodate Peter's signature, so the effect was the same.
(A "float," by the way, is when there's some blank paper between the edge of the picture and the edge of the mat.)
Q: Where should I sign my print? Lower-right corner of the image? Just below the image on an expose white edge around the print? On the back of the photo?
A: With all of this stuff there are no rules, and many photographers do like to sign their prints on the back, which is usually done in pencil to avoid any possibility of bleed-through or show-through. An old-fashioned custom was for the photographer to put a printed label on the back of the print, too, and sign that, and some photographers carry that over to today. But be cautious about the archival properties of labels and the glue you use to affix them to the print, and make sure the label can't be seen through the paper to the front of the print! That doesn't happen often, but I have seen it.
That said, most signed prints are signed on the front, in ink, in the lower right-hand corner, usually but not always right next to the edge of the picture.
Note where Peter signed his print—the customary, accepted, and by far the most common location. This mat is floated, meaning there's a gap left between the edge of the picture and the edge of the mat.
Most photographers sign the actual photo, on the margin or border of the photo paper that was left when printing. An exception is when the photograph is dry-mounted to a piece of mount board that will form part of the mat assembly. In dry mounting, a sheet of dry, heat-activated adhesive is tacked to the back of the print, then both are trimmed together on a rotary trimmer, and finally the dry mount tissue is tacked to a piece of acid-free mat board and the sandwich is pressed in a drymount press, which applies both heat and pressure to adhere the print to the board. The bond is semi-permanent; it can (sometimes) be removed by a trained paper conservator, but, most likely, not by you. In the case of a dry mounted print, there's often no blank paper-white border, and in that the case the signature would go on the board. But the signature almost never goes on the overmat (the sheet with the window cut in it that is hinged to the backing). One obvious reason is that the overmat can be separated from the print, and you wouldn't want the signature to go with it.
Note that drymounting is not considered completely archival, even if the adhesive is acid-free; standard practice is to leave the print alone as much as possible, so that it can be completely removed from the framing assembly as easily as possible. However, dry-mounted prints look better, and many photographers still prefer to do it for that reason.
Q: How thick should the frame be, in relation to the matting and image sizes? Does a thin frame work with wide matting?
A: Entirely a value judgment. Not only does a thin frame with a wide mat work, but it's almost the default standard, since Nielsen metal frames are widely used to frame photographs.
At one point, the lowest-common-denominator "standard" framing for photographs was a silver Nielsen #11 metal molding, which is quite narrow. Metal frames are still often used for photographs because they look good and they're archivally inert.
The profile, with measurements, of Nielsen #11 metal molding from the Nielsen-Bainbridge website, showing the colors available. Silver used to be standard but now Nielsen metal frames are offered in many different profiles and many different colors. I'm partial to German Silver and Contrast Grey for black and white photographs.
I'd say, make the judgment purely visually. In the case of Peter's picture, I liked the somewhat heavy, very dark frame with that particular image, but any number of different treatments would have worked.
[To be continued...]
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There was a book about framing and presenting photographs and other artwork that I liked, but I can't remember the name of it.
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Featured Comments from:
Stan B.: "If you're gonna float your picture the customary 1/4 inch, make sure you (or your printer) leave 1/2-inch white margins (minimum) on the print around your image so that the mat will have enough room to properly overlap. Otherwise, you'll curtail your options."