Size Matters

Size Matters

Reasons for Enlarging— Many writes say that size has nothing to do with art and that it is possible for a small picture to show as fine artistic quality—that is composition of line and mass and esthetic feeling—as can be found in a large one. This is perfectly true, but the fact remains that pictorial effect depends to a great extent on the size of the picture, and that the larger the print the more likely it is to produce the desired effect on the spectator. This is probably due to the circumstance that the photographer or painter who wishes to produce a psychic impression, that is, to arouse in the spectator some mood or emotion—which is the highest function of art—is necessarily concerned very largely with producing an illusion of reality, the psychic effect being more likely to result if the observer can be deceived into thinking that he is looking at the actual objects instead of their pictorial representation. Since natural objects are usually large compared to the observer, it follows that a picture of a tree or a house is not likely to produce an illusion of reality when it is on a small scale, for the observer is obliged, in looking at the real tree or house, to move his eyes in order to observe the entire object, whereas this does not occur with the small picture. If the picture be 18″ x 22″ or 20″ x 24″ it will be necessary for the observer to move his eyes in order to see the entire picture space, and this motion is unconsciously associated with the idea of magnitude. Hence, it follow that those artists who are concerned merely with esthetic qualities need not work in large sizes, but the ones whose ambition is to produce a pictorial effect should make their prints as large as possible without exceeding the natural limitations of the medium. (115-116)

Paul L. Anderson, Pictorial Photography, 1917

I find it interesting that the “pictorial effect” is not connected with aesthetic considerations, but rather realism. A key consideration of print layout and composition is eye movement—the changes in print layout in the following decade are foreshadowed here, for the net effect of the “double-page spread” is to encourage eye movement. Fixed reading distances in books and magazines also lends itself to greater attention to matters of scale.

This presents a major problem for electronic display design—with variances in screen sizes, it is difficult to gauge how things will appear to viewers. Perhaps the increasing use of 2:1 panoramic displays will represent a similar revolution in web design. The 3:4 ratio of conventional screens is a relatively “stable” compositional space. Panoramic displays force the eye to wander; it isn’t only a matter of size, but of proportion.

In later books, Anderson asserts that the “esthetic response” is an intellectual matter; however the “pictorial effect” is an emotional one. These matters are both rooted in composition. Anderson sees basic composition as a function of logos, but the net effect of a “pictorial” approach is targeted wholly towards pathos. His distinction is subtle, but important when consideration of this bizarre and ill-defined moment in photographic history. It’s an important turn— a turn that I’m not sure has happened yet in most theories of the electronic “composition.”