Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What is it with BIG?

Today I was a participant in trying to put a group show of photographs in order to hang in a local gallery. It was fun if kind of a zoo to watch nine people moving framed prints back and forth with no guiding hand. I’m not at all sure that the hanging order was converging by the time I left.

{The following secondary rant is a digression from the main rant. I’ll notify you when it’s over.} I am dubious, for several reasons, about judging for an art show based on jpegs viewed on a computer screen. Only one of these reasons is germane to today’s rant. The jpeg gives you no idea of the physical size of the piece. I’m sure that the judge for this show was told that there were [some number] of running feet of gallery space. The mental arithmetic that followed was something like “Well, at an average print size of [insert guess here] that means I can select [some smaller number] of photographs.” The trouble with that mental arithmetic is that in these days of wide-carriage inkjet printers the average size is, well, bigger than that. In the absence of the real prints I think it would be only fair to provide the judge with a spreadsheet that chalked up the available space each time a print was selected. Today we had about 20% more prints that wall space. The entire show is crowded and the very few smaller prints wound up hung over and under -- overwhelmed by the bigger works. {end of secondary rant about judging from jpegs – now back to our scheduled rant.}

Somebody said to James Burke (Dizzy) Gillespie: “MAN, why do you play that (some frenetic bebop standard) so FAST!” Dizzy’s legendary answer: “Because I CAN!” An important but unspoken corollary is “… and nobody else can.” I understand that he later recanted and observed that, in his youth, he played everything way too fast.

The corollary doesn’t apply to today’s world of wide-carriage inkjet printers that are, however, still new enough that “Because I can!” is a common if unspoken reason for making a huge print.

Brooks Jensen (editor of Lenswork) posits a test having to do with print size (paraphrased). Stand at a distance from a print and admire it. Move closer and admire it again. Keep on doing this until you stop seeing something new. If your nose isn’t very close to the glass, the print is likely too big.

In a spirit of full disclosure, I don’t do big prints because big doesn’t suit my work or what I do with it. I am not opposed to “big” on principle.

My friend Bryan does big. He does so because big suits the work he is doing – complex, often collaged, layered work that he prints 40” or so high by [very long]. His big prints pass the Jensen test. When my nose is 8” from the print I’m still seeing new things.

For contrast, there was a beautiful still life in the show I was muddling about with today. A roughly hemispherical glass cup sits on a bare tabletop against an indistinct background. Looking carefully at the liquid in the cup you can see the upside-down reflection of the buildings across the street from the window behind the photographer. The size of the print, perhaps 16”x30”, diminishes its impact on me. Printed much smaller it would be a tiny jewel and I would love to have a copy to hang.

I am especially unmoved by street photographs printed big. There are two color, street photographs in the show – printed perhaps 30”x40”. They would pass the Jensen test printed much smaller and I would find seeing 5 or 6 prints in the same wall space much more satisfactory. Besides, in the gallery where the show will hang there isn’t a wall to put them on that will allow them to be seen from sufficient distance to appreciate them.

MAN, why did you print that so BIG? Before you fire up your Epson 9600, think of an answer.