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Some Thoughts on Large Photographs

By David Vestal Back to

Painters probably began it after World War II. It was tactical. If just one of your canvases filled a whole wall, and three more took up the whole gallery, no room would be left for others. I suppose the saying, “If you can’t make it good, make it big,” dates from then.

Photographers took up big printing somewhat later. Most of them waited until after photography became capital-A, or salable, Art, which happened at the Witkin Gallery in New York in 1969, when a show of moderately large prints by Ansel Adams (16×20 inches? 32×40?) sold out at $150 per print. Unprecedented! Mind you, photography had always been small-a art, the real thing, ever since 1839, when Daguerre and Talbot and Hippolyte Bayard and a few others separately announced that each of them had invented photography (which was true). Now we move to a later time.

Atget’s contact prints

Eugéne Atget photographed Paris for about 30 years before he died in 1927. As far as I know, he never made an enlargement. He made contact prints from 18×24-cm glass negatives (about 7×91/2 inches), and almost always did minor cropping by trimming off edges. In a book of his work that reproduces 212 pictures and gives their print measurements (Eugéne Atget: Unknown Paris, by David Harris; The New Press, New York, 2003), I found only one entirely uncropped photo that measured the full 18×24 cm. The smallest photo in the book measured 16.9×22 cm, about 6.7×8.7 inches. Evidently he did no enlarging, and his constant cropping was seldom extreme. Yet some of his work could stand extreme enlargement. I never knew its measurements, but Berenice Abbott, who preserved much of Atget’s work for many years, made at least one f loor-to-ceiling print of an Atget photograph of a big tree, and it survived that huge enlargement handily.

Berenice Abbott herself worked largely with 8×10 and 11×14 cameras in her documentary coverage of New York City from the 1930s through the 1950s, though she did not neglect the little 6×6-cm square-format Rolleiflex. Her prints for the WPA (the federal Works Progress Administration of the depression years) were mostly 8×10 contact prints. But she also made a floor-to-ceiling print of her severely cropped photograph of New York’s Exchange Place. In a contact print it’s about 2 inches wide by 10 inches high. I saw it in 1949 in her studio on Commerce Street in New York, and it worked very well at 10 or 12 times the size of the negative. Her later photographs illustrating principles of science were also printed big, and that was appropriate. It is possible and legitimate to make good large prints of photos that can stand it. Some even gain by it. See the work of Ansel Adams for many good examples.

Jan Sudek, the crusty old one- armed photo king of Prague, stopped making enlargements long ago. He wrote about it, saying something like, “See that dust-covered thing over in the corner of the room? That’s my enlarger.” He was glad to be done with it. Edward Weston had no enlarger. When he wanted to make 8×10s from his Graflex negatives, which were 4×5 inches or smaller, he copied them with his 8×10 camera to make new negatives. He didn’t do much of that, but some excellent 8×10 prints came from it. He felt no need to print bigger. E. W.’s ego was already comfortably large and didn’t need inflation by print size. His son, Brett, rightly went in for larger prints, which suited his quite different photographic vision.

Irving Penn’s ashtrays

What follows is personal opinion and is not PHOTO Technique’s fault, so don’t sue the magazine. Anyway, it’s publicity, so it must be good for, and therefore welcomed by, Irving Penn and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Some years ago I didn’t go to see Irving Penn’s exhibition of very large platinum prints of the contents of ash trays. I was, and remain, pretty sure it was an exercise in applied vanity. Although Penn is a very good large-format commercial and fashion photographer, he does seem to go in for empty displays of his staff ’s truly exceptional technique, his own ability to think big and cover large expenses, and his deep wish to seem with-it and far-out. Penn came from the advertising business, and his showmanship is well developed. I’m sure that many visitors to that show were deeply impressed, not least by Penn’s choice of messy gray-on-gray trash for his subject. His message, it seems to me, was “What a genius I am! In my hands, even the lowly ash tray becomes high art.” You bet. I’m pretty sure those prints were truly impressive, and that those pictures, however well executed, didn’t deserve them. I saw reproductions of some of them, and that was plenty for me. All that labor and expense! And to make sure, he placed his great ashtray show in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has a weakness for shows that it calls blockbusters.

Few of today’s giant-print artists, I fear, are nearly as good as Penn. The way many of their pictures look in reproduction shows that the photos are really much smaller than their print size tries to make them.

My experience is that a good big print is much harder to make than a good small one. I gave away my 16×20 trays in 1972 because by then I’d learned that prints bigger than 11×14 do nothing for my stuff. Sometimes a good small print works better than an equally well-made big one. And some blow-ups destroy pictures by overinflating them. Not many of our best photographs really need enormous prints.

About the Author

David Vestal
David Vestal is a photographer and teacher whose publications include The Art of Black & White Enlarging (1984) and The Craft of Photography. His photographs are exhibited internationally and are found in numerous private and public collections including New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. The wit and wisdom of his commentaries have long earned him a strong following among readers.