In the video in the previous post, as Elton John walks around his apartment where his collection is displayed, notice the typical sizes of the prints.
Granted, that's partly due to conventions in the periods he mainly collects from. And he does say at one point that he likes tiny prints, but note that at that point he's talking about a contact print of a photograph he already owned a larger print of—the contact probably from some sort of folding camera, 6cm by a little longer.
This isn't the place for the full monty on this, but I've always held that photography and art have a big brother/little sister type of relationship, where pesky little sister always wants to hang around with big brother's gang of friends and he doesn't want her to. Not only is photography always trying to catch up to art, but art is always trying to ditch photography. Photography becomes better at representation, so art moves to abstraction; photography couldn't do color easily (formerly; that has changed, obviously) so art concentrates on color; photography is relentlessly specific, so art becomes conceptual and idea-based; photography can't go big, so art becomes huge. Everything that photography is good at, art devalues or de-emphasizes.
There would have to be a whole essay supporting this idea, and I don't get time to write long essays.
Photography always tries to keep up, too, and that's how the mania for big prints got started. A Mitch Hedberg joke comes to mind: "If you stand in the meat section at the grocery store long enough, you start to get mad at turkeys. There's turkey ham, turkey bologna, turkey pastrami...someone needs to tell the turkey, man, just be yourself. We like you the way you are." I've always felt photography, like Mitch Hedberg's turkey, should just be itself. It shouldn't try to mimic art. (Art should relax about photography, too, but art isn't my field.) It should just be what it is and do what's it's good at and not try to be something else.
One (admittedly quirky) way I used to comment on that was that at the Corcoran School when I was a student there, the way to the Photography Department was down a long, large corridor where student art from the painting and sculpture programs was displayed. I was limber and agile when I was young (I grew up with an Olympic-sized trampoline in my back yard, set over a pit in the ground, thanks to my father), and I could leap high and far. So coming out of the Photo Department late at night with friends, admittedly a little punchy and sometimes a little drunk, I'd leap over the sculptures in the hallway. My explanation was that that I was exercising my art-critical principles. If I could leap over it, it wasn't art. "Art has to be big," I'd explain.
Fortunately, I never slipped and damaged anyone's sculpture.
I guess the current way of saying the same thing would be "if it's too big to put in a box, it's not photography." Except, since I'm not a callow, exuberant art student any more and I never became a critic, I'm no longer willing to try to tell anyone else what to do. Photographers can make huge prints if they want to; their photography belongs to them, not to me.
All I will claim is that little prints are fine too. I like modestly sized prints. I think I'll be happy till I die never making any print that wouldn't fit on Elton John's walls. Photography should just be itself.
P.S. We went for a walk on Thanksgicing day and what should we see but—turkeys. Pecking contentedly in the dirt, unaware of the perfidy afoot on the day with their domesticated relations!
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Featured Comments from:
O: "I'm currently working at a museum of photography, and the storage space situation here illustrates the evolution of print size in the last decades: Aquisitions to the art collection from contemporary artists have mostly been on hold, since there's nowhere to put them. The museum moved to its current premises in the mid-'90s, and the assumption back then was still that the collection is stored in boxes on shelves. There's only a tiny room for big permanently framed stuff or laminates, which is of course what photographic art has been since late '90s.
"We also have a darkroom with all the bells and whistles that's used as storage closet, but that's an another story...."
Kevin Purcell: "Grayson Perry's advice to artists: 'you'll never have a good art career unless your work fits into the elevator of a New York apartment block.'
"This is a more pithy version of Amy Cappellazzo's quote (she works at Christies) in Sarah Thornton's Seven Days in the Art World: 'Anything larger than the standard dimension of a Park Avenue elevator generally cuts out a certain sector of the market.'
"Grayson Perry also asked Martin Parr how you distinguished an art photo from an ordinary one and Parr told him you could tell it was art if it was 'bigger than two metres and priced higher than five figures.'
"So there's an upper bound and a lower bound on the size of a art photograph 😀
"Image from Grayson Perry's Playing to the Gallery, the book from his Reith Lectures."
mark I: "Really loved the fact that Michael Kenna printed 8x8 inches for his whole (ongoing) career. Apparently he sold a few 16x20's and promptly bought them all back, he disliked them that much. Actually I really liked that he's used the same film Hasselblads for practically his whole life. Wish I could have been that much of a stick in the mud, would have saved myself a fortune."
Thomas Rink: "I believe there is a domain to which photography is better suited than any other visual art: The 'body of work' which elaborates a certain theme. Since it's intended to be shown as a whole, prints tend to be smaller. Or the work is intended to be published as a book right from the start (as far as I know, this was the case for John Gossage's The Pond)."
Geoff Wittig: "photographs fnction very differently at different sizes, and technical/perceptual factors have a huge impact on their æsthetic effect. For example, about 20 years ago I saw an exhibition of wildlife and landscape photographs by Jim Brandenburg (the 'white wolf' guy). The images were gorgeous, especially his exquisite photo of an oryx on a sand dune at last light. But they were mostly printed very large, 24x 36" or more, and for many of them the grainy 35mm slide film source was just too intrusive, becoming the first thing you noticed. Ctein had a great article in Photo Techniques magazine about 8–10 years back that analyzed the interaction between film/digital capture and print size, explaining precisely why the smooth tonality of an 8x10" contact print looked so good, and how you could exploit the low noise and smooth tonality of good digital capture to get the same kind of effect.
"Scale I think imposes another dimension on photographic images. Some don't scale up or down well without a major hit to their æsthetic effect. For instance, Pete Turner's vividly graphic color photos really hit you even at small sizes, but they also work printed big. Conversely, Edward Burtynsky's gorgeous industrial landscapes lose much of their effect printed small.
"Most of my own photographic output involves panoramic landscapes. I want them to be immersive, to feel like you can walk right into them. I mostly print pretty large, generally around 24x60" or so, and at this size they really work. At 6x15" they're not nearly as good. Much of the careful technique (heavy tripod, good glass, plenty of megapixels, meticulous exposure and processing) is basically wasted at smaller sizes. On the other hand, I also have some simple 'zen' photographs that are very nice at modest sizes, and printing larger really doesn't gain them anything. The same dichotomy exists in landscape painting, and the issues are basically identical. Most 'plein air' (painted on-site) landscapes are modestly sized, around 8x10" to perhaps 16x20" at most, because outdoor light changes too fast to paint anything bigger. Their æsthetic impact comes from deft, efficient paint handling, a visual shorthand emulating the natural light effect. Larger studio landscape paintings are fundamentally a different art form. With the luxury of time and canvas real-estate, you can use all kinds of techniques from layering and glazing to scumbling to reach a very high level of finish. I look at large and small photographic prints the same way."