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.