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Author Topic: Print Small!  (Read 28405 times)

amolitor

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Print Small!
« on: June 07, 2015, 12:30:42 pm »

I've written an little essay which concludes with "prints should be small" roughly. It's over on my blog, but I thought I'd chuck it in here to see what happens.

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The primary philosophical thrust against "pictorialism" was this notion that photographs should look like photographs, and not like paintings. What a photograph should look like was left as an exercise to the reader.

Edward Weston wrote on this subject, on the properties of the photograph as opposed to the painting:

          ... the physical quality of things can be rendered with utmost exactness:
          stone is hard, bark is rough, flesh is alive, or they can be made harder, rougher,
          or more alive if desired. In a word, let us have photographic beauty!



His thesis is, as I understand it, that the whole point of the camera is an exactness, a geometric truth, a fullness of detail. This is a theme that, in truth, was belabored by many a pictorialist.

Lots of people have spent a lot of words on how eyes work, and how that is relevant to photographs and photography. Ming Thein has a recent piece, for instance, with the usual rot about rods and cones and how peripheral vision is low-res.

All pointless drivel. Vision is a construct of the brain. You'd think that the eye would be relevant at least as the source of raw material for the visual cortex, right? No. Your brain will cheerfully paint in made-up detail and information. Studying the eye is not pointless, but it invariably misses the point.

What is true is that when you're looking at the real world, what you're actually seeing is a very very small area where your attention happens to be focused. This is usually, but not always, in the center of the field of vision. When you look at a landscape you see the peak of the mountain now, and a moment later you see the curve of the river, and still later the color of the wooded slope. You don't see them all at once and, in fact, if the mountain were to vanish while you were looking at the river you would not notice. It's possible your visual cortex would edit your memory to give you the illusion that you'd noticed (see cronostasis illusion) but you would not notice. You don't see it.

Most of what you "see" when you're looking at the world is invented material, painted in rather roughly by your visual cortex, based on memories of what was there a moment ago when your attention was there rather than here. Emerson, interestingly, was fully aware of this and advocated emulating it with the use of selective focus, to isolate the single important thing in the frame in much the same way your brain isolates whatever it is that your attention is focused on. He had the science wrong, but the idea was solid.

But he missed what is arguably the point of photography (or at any rate, a point of photography).

What photography does is two things:

First, it folds up a bunch of the world into a much smaller portion of the visual field. Now you can and do see the mountain, the river, and the wooded slope all at once. This, I think, is what Weston is talking about. You can actually see the textures, the details, all the little facets of the scene, all at once. You're not relying on your visual cortex to "paint in" a bunch of stuff, you're not relying on your unreliable memory to "fill in" the stuff around the edges that you're not actually seeing at this instant. It's all right there.

Second, it encapsulates the folded up part of the world into a single object, a photograph, that you can look at and appreciate as a single thing. No longer do you have a mountain, and a river, and a wooded slope, all separate objects, all at different distances, in different places, with different light. You have a single object which you can apprehend all at once.

This adds up to presenting a slice of the world in a way that allows us, in a sense, a far more direct experience of it. Of course we're removed from the world, because it's a picture and not the thing itself. Simultaneously, though, we're closer to the world because so much has been compressed into a single visual unit, digestibly proportioned. We see the mountain, the wooded slope, the river, all at once.

A small painting is also capable of being seen all at once in the same way, but not being a packaged up slice of reality, it is not at all the same thing.

This, I think, argues for small print sizes. In order to fully realize the power of the photograph, we should print small. We should not attempt to create prints dimensioned to appear as a window, so that from the expected viewing distance the things in the print appear proportioned as they did in reality. Instead we should print small, to pull that view in tighter, to allow the seeing of the scene, the subject, whatever it is, to proceed in this different way.

If you're not going to do that, might as well paint!
« Last Edit: June 07, 2015, 12:36:12 pm by amolitor »
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ripgriffith

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Re: Print Small!
« Reply #1 on: June 07, 2015, 02:09:20 pm »


The primary philosophical thrust against "pictorialism" was this notion that photographs should look like photographs, and not like paintings. What a photograph should look like was left as an exercise to the reader.

Edward Weston wrote on this subject, on the properties of the photograph as opposed to the painting:

          ... the physical quality of things can be rendered with utmost exactness:
          stone is hard, bark is rough, flesh is alive, or they can be made harder, rougher,
          or more alive if desired. In a word, let us have photographic beauty!



His thesis is, as I understand it, that the whole point of the camera is an exactness, a geometric truth, a fullness of detail. This is a theme that, in truth, was belabored by many a pictorialist.
I think you misunderstand what Weston said.  He did not say the physical quality of things ARE rendered with utmost exactness, he said they CAN BE, and then gave some examples, and then went on to say "they can [also] be made harder, rougher, more alive if desired".  Not exactly a definition of exactness.
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Isaac

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Re: Print Small!
« Reply #2 on: June 08, 2015, 01:56:51 pm »

What is true is that when you're looking at the real world, what you're actually seeing is a very very small area where your attention happens to be focused.

1) When you're looking at a photograph: you're still looking at the real world, you're likely still looking at a very very small area (of the photograph) where your attention happens to be focused.


What photography does is two things: First, it folds up a bunch of the world into a much smaller portion of the visual field. … This, I think, argues for small print sizes.

2) Your conclusion "small print sizes" seems to be assumed in your premise "a much smaller portion of the visual field".


What photography does is two things: First, it folds up a bunch of the world into a much smaller portion of the visual field.

3) Photography can stretch a spot into a much larger portion of the visual field, but your argument ignores that inconvenient fact.



Edward Weston wrote on this subject, on the properties of the photograph as opposed to the painting:

          ... the physical quality of things can be rendered with utmost exactness:
          stone is hard, bark is rough, flesh is alive, or they can be made harder, rougher,
          or more alive if desired. In a word, let us have photographic beauty!



His thesis is, as I understand it, that the whole point of the camera is an exactness, a geometric truth, a fullness of detail.

4) In a letter to Ansel Adams dated January 28, 1933, the photographer Edward Weston said, “photography as a creative expression — or what you will — must be ‘seeing’ plus: seeing alone would mean factual recording — the illustrator of catalogues does that. The ‘plus’ is the basis of all arguments on ‘what is art.' ”
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elliot_n

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Re: Print Small!
« Reply #3 on: June 08, 2015, 02:18:12 pm »

Now you can and do see the mountain, the river, and the wooded slope all at once.

Except you can't. The eye scans the printed landscape in the same way that it scans the actual landscape, darting around, building up a picture.
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amolitor

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Re: Print Small!
« Reply #4 on: June 08, 2015, 02:18:55 pm »

1) When you're looking at a photograph: you're still looking at the real world, you're likely still looking at a very very small area (of the photograph) where your attention happens to be focused.

2) Your conclusion "small print sizes" seems to be assumed in your premise "a much smaller portion of the visual field".

These appear to simply be restatements of my argument. The fact that a conclusion follows from assumptions is not the same as petitio principii, rather, it is the basis of deductive reasoning.

3) Photography can stretch a spot into a much larger portion of the visual field, but your argument ignores that inconvenient fact.

It can, but it is an easy corollary that I think perhaps it ought not. Or at any rate that if you do photography this way, then the photography you are doing is up to something else entirely. Forgive me for not writing a 500 page book working out every conceivably consequence.

4) In a letter to Ansel Adams dated January 28, 1933, the photographer Edward Weston said, “photography as a creative expression — or what you will — must be ‘seeing’ plus: seeing alone would mean factual recording — the illustrator of catalogues does that. The ‘plus’ is the basis of all arguments on ‘what is art.' ”

So what?

As for quibbling about what Weston and I might, respectively, mean, I don't think it's worth pursuing. You can nitpick a word or a point here, but Weston was, ultimately, a "modernist photographer" (n.b. this isn't the same as modernism), this is not really subject to debate, and that's where I am starting from.
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amolitor

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Re: Print Small!
« Reply #5 on: June 08, 2015, 02:21:32 pm »

Except you can't. The eye scans the printed landscape in the same way that it scans the actual landscape, darting around, building up a picture.

It's as if you haven't read what I wrote. You do not look at a small print of a landscape in the same way you look at a landscape. I honestly don't know how to reply except to "no, you are incorrect". Depending on the size of the print and so on, there is some eye motion, depending on various factors your focus may well be on one bit of the print or another, sure. But it's not at all the same thing.
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Slobodan Blagojevic

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Re: Print Small!
« Reply #6 on: June 08, 2015, 02:32:27 pm »

... You do not look at a small print of a landscape in the same way you look at a landscape...

Correct, but only for a small print. A small landscape print emphasizes shape and form, not detail (e.g., Michael Kenna, who makes 8"x8" prints from Hasselblad negatives - oh, blasphemy ;)). We look at the large print the same way we look at a landscape though.

amolitor

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Re: Print Small!
« Reply #7 on: June 08, 2015, 02:38:09 pm »

Yup! With the usual caveats about "well it's not the size, it's the viewing angle" of course, but I think we're all on the same page there.

Now, of course, you can throw modernist photography and anti-pictorialism out the window, and print or shoot however you like. Ansel Adams certainly did. Loads of people do.

Weston, as far as I know, mainly printed around 8x10, and to my eye he did a lot more of "photos that look like photos and not paintings" than Adams ever did. He'd probably have punched me all this naval gazing nonsense, too.
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Otto Phocus

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Re: Print Small!
« Reply #8 on: June 08, 2015, 02:38:52 pm »

we should print small. We should not attempt to create prints dimensioned to appear as a window, so that from the expected viewing distance the things in the print appear proportioned as they did in reality. Instead we should print small, to pull that view in tighter, to allow the seeing of the scene, the subject, whatever it is, to proceed in this different way.

If you're not going to do that, might as well paint!

It is always entertaining being told what we "should" or "should not do" concerning our art.   ;)
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amolitor

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Re: Print Small!
« Reply #9 on: June 08, 2015, 02:49:27 pm »

Nicely done, deleting the qualifier to make it appear that I am issuing a stern mandate. Tsk.

Quote
This, I think, argues for small print sizes. In order to fully realize the power of the photograph, ...
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Alan Klein

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Re: Print Small!
« Reply #10 on: June 08, 2015, 02:57:17 pm »

Most photos look better to me when printed larger.  Trying to explain why they shouldn't is just silly.

amolitor

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Re: Print Small!
« Reply #11 on: June 08, 2015, 03:06:00 pm »

Most photos look better to me when printed larger.  Trying to explain why they shouldn't is just silly.

Thank goodness I wasn't talking about "looking better" or "looking worse", even a little bit, then.

Everyone likes Big Red Photographs, right?
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Isaac

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Re: Print Small!
« Reply #12 on: June 08, 2015, 03:10:52 pm »

It's as if you haven't read what I wrote. … I honestly don't know how to reply except to "no, you are incorrect".

You might reply with consideration. You might reply after considering that your words did not convey your understanding. You might reply after considering that there could be something wrong with your understanding.


You do not look at a small print of a landscape in the same way you look at a landscape.

True - a small photograph is a 2 dimensional representation of a 3 dimensional scene - we mis-read shadows in photographs but not in the landscape.

But your claim is more specific -- "You have a single object which you can apprehend all at once."


Depending on the size of the print and so on, there is some eye motion, depending on various factors your focus may well be on one bit of the print or another, sure. But it's not at all the same thing.

What evidence can you provide to support your specific claim? (Eye tracking study?)
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Slobodan Blagojevic

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Re: Print Small!
« Reply #13 on: June 08, 2015, 03:14:08 pm »

... Weston, as far as I know, mainly printed around 8x10, and to my eye he did a lot more of "photos that look like photos and not paintings" than Adams ever did...

You can then imagine my utter and bitter disappointment the first time I saw Adams' prints live, in a London exhibition. Waiting in line, paying a lot of Pounds to get in, only to see... postage-stamp sized prints!?!?!? That would be 4x5 and 8x10 contact copies. mind you. Give me a break! What's the point of shooting large format cameras if you are not printing floor-to-ceiling size? The first time I ever saw larger AA prints was in Kodak's museum in Rochester, as well as posters in the Yosemite gallery.

Forget about "creaminess" and detail in those contact copies, when I need a loupe to see it. ;)

On the other hand, I do not mind Michael Kenna's 8"x8" (that would be inches, not feet).

Alan Klein

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Re: Print Small!
« Reply #14 on: June 08, 2015, 03:25:28 pm »

Thank goodness I wasn't talking about "looking better" or "looking worse", even a little bit, then.

Everyone likes Big Red Photographs, right?


If it looks better, most probably it will look more accurate as well.

AreBee

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Re: Print Small!
« Reply #15 on: June 08, 2015, 03:59:09 pm »

Andrew,

Your essay is undermined by the fact that the brain will "paint in made-up detail and information" outside of the photograph frame, independent of photograph size.


Slobodan,

Quote
What's the point of shooting large format cameras if you are not printing floor-to-ceiling size?

Enjoyment.

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DeanChriss

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Re: Print Small!
« Reply #16 on: June 08, 2015, 04:13:38 pm »

All else being equal I think printing large or small should depend on what one wants to accomplish with the print.
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elliot_n

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Re: Print Small!
« Reply #17 on: June 08, 2015, 04:16:42 pm »

It's as if you haven't read what I wrote. You do not look at a small print of a landscape in the same way you look at a landscape. I honestly don't know how to reply except to "no, you are incorrect". Depending on the size of the print and so on, there is some eye motion, depending on various factors your focus may well be on one bit of the print or another, sure. But it's not at all the same thing.


I read what you wrote carefully. I am disagreeing with you.

Unless you're talking about prints the size of a postage stamp, you have misunderstood how the eyes (and mind) read a photograph. Even with a small photograph, say an 8"x10", the eyes don't take it in all in one go. The eyes dart around, building up a picture. Eye-tracking systems can prove this, but are not necessary as you only have to look at a small picture to be aware of what's going on.

Beside me I have a book whose cover is a detail of Caravaggio's 'The Sacrifice of Isaac'. It's a tight crop of Abraham's hand, the knife, and Isaac's head, printed about 6"x6". If you look at the knife, you don't see Isaac's face - and vice versa.

There are plenty of good arguments for small prints, but the claim that a small print allows you to take in everything 'all at once' does not reflect the way people actually look at photographs.
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amolitor

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Re: Print Small!
« Reply #18 on: June 08, 2015, 04:23:28 pm »

So if I present you with a 4x5 print, an 8x10, and a 16x20 print, all viewed from, let's say, the same viewing distance of 5 feet, is your assertion that you will apprehend them in essentially the same way?

That there will be no fundamental difference in the way you grasp these things visually?

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AreBee

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Re: Print Small!
« Reply #19 on: June 08, 2015, 04:28:30 pm »

elliot_n,

Quote
The Sacrifice of Isaac...the knife, and Isaac's head...

The mind boggles.
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