Two exhibits raised a particular question. One was a room devoted to the Düsseldorf School of Photography, including photographers Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff among others, whose life size photographs dominate the room. In fact, the curator card on the wall tells us “the monumental size of their pictures produces an immersive quality, challenging our expectations of the nature of the medium and the boundaries between photography and painting.”
A second room, part of the American art exhibition, featured two photographs by Charles Sheeler of the same scene, but framed and displayed in different sizes. The larger was not monumental, and both images are within the normal range of sizes of traditional photography of Sheeler’s time. Putting aside for the moment the exposure and other issues (remember this is a photograph of a photograph), we can compare side by side which image size is preferable.
But the broader question raised by the Düsseldorf School images is reminiscent of the early Pictorialism of photography. In the 19th century, as photographers sought to establish photography as a respectable medium of art (and not just as a utilitarian exercise), they engaged in posed pictures to emulate art. We then saw the Photo Secessionists who sought to establish photography as an art form independent of painting and its replication. Have we come full circle?
This is not to criticize the work represented, but merely to note that while these are powerful works, and size does not, in all instances, make the image. The photography of Walker Evans, Robert Frank and Berenice Abbott, to name just three, are cases in point.
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