Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

Archive for ‘March, 2012’

Musings on: the relationship between subject and viewing size

'From Reine'

Needs to be bigger...

My recent trip to the Lofoten Islands in Arctic Norway has led to a musing whose implications I’ve yet to fully conclude upon, but I thought I’d write it up and see if anyone has any input or violent disagreement. (If you do, please don’t hesitate to use the comment form below!)

This may well be painfully obvious, and perhaps that’s why I’ve not seen anything written about it, but there seems to me to be a strong relationship between the subject matter of an image and the size at which it can ‘successfully’ be viewed. Specifically, the classic ‘big vista’ images – and that is well over half my images from Lofoten – don’t work as well when viewed on small screens.

Reduced emotional impact

That’s not to say that I’m not happy with those of my captures which feature wide expanses of landscape; I am. Viewing them on a relatively large screen (24″) whilst I made them, I was very pleased indeed with the results. Studying them subsequently on my other, smaller screens, as many people will be, I’m less thrilled; they seem constrained by the display dimensions. Effectively, the reduction in size – and I’m not saying that even 24″ is big enough here; it’s not in many cases – makes them tend to become ‘just pictures of landscapes’; they’re less ‘involving’ and have reduced emotional impact when seen smaller.

Conversely, the more abstract images I made in Lofoten and elsewhere – typically those of details – are relatively unaffected by viewing size. Yes, they’re probably better bigger, but the essence of the image is still very much there at reduced sizes; I don’t think that’s true of the big vista shots.


Probably best not seen too large!

Representation versus abstraction

I wasn’t especially aware of this when I processed my desert captures from the US. Many of those are largely about shape, form and texture, and in some cases colour, whereas the Lofoten collection is far more representational. Even though I set out in Lofoten to abstract the landscape in many cases, by creating work which was reminiscent of pen and ink drawings rather than photographs, they show obviously huge scenes compressed into small, rectangular or square boxes – it’s somehow frustrating to look at!

The key here seems to be subject matter. To take two obvious and well-known extremes:

  1. Mark Rothko’s ‘multiform’ works and his late period pieces – the blurred blocks of colour, most of which are far from being small paintings – do also ‘work’ very well indeed at smaller sizes, even postcard sizes;
  2. conversely, John Constable’s representational paintings of pastoral scenes lose an enormous amount of impact when seen on the web, or printed at postcard size – at least, they do to me.

Yes, I realise that the sheer scale of Rothko’s work is something which leaves people in awe, and I entirely concur with that. I contend, however, that they’re still captivating when reproduced smaller, albeit in a different way. The critical point here, to me as the viewer, is that, even if the experience of a small print is considerably different, they’re still effective. I don’t feel that I can say the same for Constable’s work, or for similar subject matter shown smaller than intended.

I’m interested in whether this is what everyone else finds (?).

Print ‘big vistas’… big?

Clearly, one solution to this problem – if such it is – is to print these vast landscapes, and to print them suitably large. At some point I shall certainly be printing the first of my images of Lofoten from my previous post – the shot of Olstind rising above a rack of drying fish heads – and it’ll be as large as the resolution of the file will tolerate. Nonetheless, realistically, the majority of individual views of a given image in 2012 and beyond are on screens measuring 15-17 inches, and that’s unlikely to change much.


'Pumpernickel' - not a landscape perhaps, but I like it

In many ways, this is a shame. Whilst the ability of the web to enable people to see various forms of art is undeniably both fabulous and a marvellous resource – I’m certainly not decrying it – the absolute quality of the experience of seeing a piece of work from the big landscape genre on a small screen is, in my opinion, much reduced as a result. We see more work, and we see a wider range of work, but the emotional impact of much of that work is sadly reduced.

Since I see this as considerably more of a problem for landscape photographs which capture large areas, I’m now even more inclined than I was, before I went to Lofoten, to endeavour to find ‘intimate landscape’ compositions, or at least to abstract large landscapes as far as I can so that their form, texture and colour is the important thing, rather than representation of the real world landscape used as the basis for the image.

And some final thoughts…

Whilst I don’t have any firm conclusions from the above – it’s really just an observation which was new to me – I do like to identify some kind of potential, behavioural change in myself from each of these musings. From this one:

  • I shall certainly consider printing things more often than I do currently, when the subject demands it;
  • I am also encouraged to visit photographic art galleries rather more than I have in the past – which is to say, barely at all – in order to experience works at an appropriate size for their subject matter.

Beyond that, maybe a recognition of the style of presentation that an image will need will affect what I capture and, as I noted above, increase my tendency to capture smaller views. Realistically, I do like big vistas and I’ll carry on making them!

On a very positive note, however: one thing I’m continually finding fascinating with this whole process of making images, and the development of my vision of how and what I want to make, is that very development. In the past, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that different images lent themselves to different forms of viewing experience, or that prints were intrinsically very different from the same thing on a screen. As my thoughts evolve, all these things take on nuance which I’d never suspected was there. It’s a very stimulating, interesting and enjoyable ‘journey’!

At the risk of mildly contradicting the above: the following detail of Olstind, Lofoten’s iconic mountain, is much better when clicked on and enlarged – but that’s a resolution consideration rather than a scale thing ;-)

'Olstind's X'

'Olstind's X'