In Defense of the Small Print

A collection of small Ansel Adams prints

A collection of small Ansel Adams prints

Over the past dozen years or more, there has been a trend in fine art photography toward exhibiting larger and larger prints. For example, Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II, which is one of the most expensive photographs ever sold, measures 81”x151” framed. While this is an extreme example, at almost any contemporary photography show—even at the local level—one will find many prints in the 20”x30” range and larger. Besides benefitting galleries by driving prices upward, this trend has also benefitted the camera industry by fueling a megapixel and lens resolution arms race that continues on unabated. It seems the “bigger is better” mentality has fully infiltrated the photography world.

While I have done some printing in larger sizes, and will most likely continue to do so in the future, my personal preference is for smaller prints. Something around the size of a coffee table book seems ideal, in that range between 10”x10” and 14”x14". I like the intimacy of getting up close to an print (or even better, holding a physical print in hand) while still being able to see the entire image. Oversized prints force the viewer to back away, and getting up close feels too much like pixel peeping on a 5K monitor; it’s the rare oversized print that can withstand that kind of scrutiny.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to view a set of small Ansel Adams silver prints in the 8”x10” to 10”x12” range. They were absolutely gorgeous. I don’t believe they would have been any more enjoyable in larger sizes. In fact, I felt as if the small sizes drew me right in, inviting me to inspect the fine details at close range. The great Michael Kenna also prints small, with a majority of his prints over the past 30 years being no larger than 8”x8”. Here’s what he has to say about small prints:

"I prefer the intimacy of the smaller print. I experimented with 16”x20" prints in the late 80's but later destroyed most of them. Some collectors really like them but they just didn’t feel right for me. Apart from the more obvious technical and optical considerations, what is more important for me is the relationship that a viewer has with the print. The eye comfortably views and focuses an angle of about 30 degrees. This translates into a viewer comfortably standing about 10 inches away from a 4”x5" print and 3 1/2 feet away from a 16”x20" print. Small prints have a greater feeling of intimacy - one looks into the print. Large prints are more awesome - they are something a viewer looks out at. I believe in fitting the print size to one’s particular vision and prefer the more intimate engagement of the smaller image."

I couldn’t agree more!