Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Small Print

I don't know if two shows constitutes a trend, but if recent exhibitions at Blue Sky Gallery are any indication, photography's recent infatuation with mural-sized prints may be shifting. Both shows featured very small photographs, and both were a delight. 

Hidden Mother is showing now through the end of August. Walk right past the front room's large vacuous prints made by someone or other. The photos you want to see are in the back. They sample a collection curated by Laura Larson around the Victorian idea of hidden motherhood. Simple idea: The kids pose while the mothers attempt to vanish. As usual nothing is as mysterious as a fact clearly described.

artist unknown, c. 1860-80tintype, 3 1/2" x 2 3/4"

If the concept sounds familiar, it may be because it's been circulating for a few years. Mack published a book called The Hidden Mother in 2013 by Linda Fregni Nagler, sparking a round of internet adulation last Winter. There's a Flickr group. And various other sites. In fact I think there are many people collecting and sharing this sort of photography. But this is the first time I'd seen them on a wall in original physical form, and what impressed me was the size, or rather the lack of it. 

The bulk of Larson's show is composed of tintypes with a smattering of vintage silver gelatin prints and cartes-de-visite. All are one-of-a-kind originals, and all are remarkably tiny. Perhaps the largest is 6 inches tall?  You have to get close to see them, just like you have to get close to see a real baby. I've seen plenty of babies over the years, but I'm always astonished at how small a newborn infant is —almost too small to be human! You need to lean in. And it's from a foot away that the details take over. The glistening nose and the milk stains and vomit. It's an interactive experience.

Maybe some of this show's impact came from a simple change in routine. I've seen so many large prints in recent years that I've become unconsciously inured. At this point they seem normal. When a show of tiny photos comes along the spell is broken. Oh wait, there's another way?

Yes there is. In fact this is Blue Sky's second consecutive undersized exhibition. Last month it was animal photos by the Finnish master Pentti Sammallahti. If the scale of Larson's prints can be explained mostly by circumstance —Unless your name was Carleton Watkins, vintage Victorian prints were diminutive by nature— Sammallahti's prints were small by choice. They were his photos, printed in his darkroom from his negatives. He could've made them any size he wanted. So the choice to print most of them at bread slice scale was quite deliberate.

This one, for example, was barely over 5" high. I had to get within inches to make it out, and I don't think I've seen a more spectacular print this year. It glowed like a small diamond.

Swayambhunath, Nepal, 1994, Pentti Sammallahti, 5 1/4" x 3 7/8"

One diamond would be fine, but a room full of them was a real fucking powerhouse. Every tiny print rocked. It was probably the best exhibition Blue Sky has had in five years. Sammallahti is on another planet and I hope he stays there.

OK, I admit some of my praise involves the subject matter. If he'd shown another series at the same scale, say watermelons or still lifes, I might be less enamored. But Sammallahti is a scavenger. He has the hunger for serendipitous situations that distinguishes true seers. Is he a street photographer? I'm not sure. If so, he's one who avoids crowds and cities and posters and the typical street tropes. No, he's not really a street shooter. But a visual savant? Yeah, I think so. And he plays small ball.

I'm not dismissing large prints out of hand. I think they can work in certain circumstances. Prints on steroids have their place, but not as automatic default. For me they create distance. When I stand several feet away to see the image, my tendency is toward passivity. An entire room of such prints is like a bank of TVs in a sports bar. I can stand in the center and take in an entire exhibition with a lazy sweep of the head. But with small prints every photo requires an intimate visit. You've got to move side to side, then refocus. You must engage, and you notice that photographs can pack an amazing amount of information into just fifteen or twenty square inches!

Sometimes it pays to read the small print.


Stan B. said...

A coupla years ago to see the Henry Wessel exhibit at SF MOMA, one had to first go past a wall sized Mitch Epstein, American Power photo. It literally knocked your socks off with it's sheer beauty, bold color and HUMONGOUS SIZE. Who thought up that presentation; how could Wessel's smallish B&W's possibly hold up to that!?

Very well indeed. The more intimate viewing experience (and his exquisite prints) provided the perfect balance.

Anonymous said...

I only encountered Judy Fiskin's work for the first time at LACMA last winter. I had a bit of a similar reaction to noting how much interest 2.5" square photos could hold. It's not a novelty that the size is small, the size invites you to look closely and the photo has to hold up to the scrutiny.

F. Martín Morante said...

I am thinking of Harry Callahan and a period in his ouvre in which he got heavy on 4 x 5 and contact print from it, for some of the reasons stated here (but some 50-60 years ago).

Personal choice, trend or lack of resources (or not), small but still legible size prints are beautiful invitations to someone's work.

Cheers and tanks for sharing.

CJ said...

The HUGE prints are nice, but they would never fit in my small house; or any of the small houses of friends and family. Winogrand's imagery at The Met is "small" - I believe 11x14" ish. Beautiful silver gelatins.
Interesting, I had to stand closer to his posthumous prints (contact sheets marked by Gary) versus the curators selects. Although the prints were the same size.

Blake Andrews said...

Harvey Arche:

"I've never entirely bought in to the huge print thing. Yeah, it worked great for Avedon's 'The American West', but for SP I've always been uncomfortable with it. And those Crewdson things, leaving the SP question aside, the scale has to do with the sheer theatricality of his vision, as opposed to an unstaged event.

SP shooters mostly use fairly wide angle lenses for a very good reason, in that it demands they be in close to the action. Their images should be printed with exactly the same intent - that the viewer should be pulled in to an immediate engagement with the image.

You can't achieve that with a print that requires you to stand across the room to get a good view of it. SP should be printed on an intimate scale. period.

Of course this flies in the face of the gallery model, and the museum mass-attendance-show model, which brings in the bucks. If you're in the business, you can't afford to have view-time wasted by a clot of one or two people hogging the image when it's printed 8x10."