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Photography and Scale:

Projection, Exhibition, Collection


Olivier Lugon

Scale is one of the most central and neglected issues of photography theory. For almost a
century, the key feature of the medium was thought to be reproducibility, and, following
Walter Benjamin, this was mostly conceived in an industrial mode.1 According to
Benjamin’s view, one image could be endlessly reproduced in a standardized way, each
new copy being identical to its source. Such ‘industrial’ definition, however, rarely
applied to analogue photography, as silver printing proved to be quite inefficient, too
costly and time-consuming to allow for the mass production of standardized prints.
Only by transferring photographs to the older medium of ink reproduction could this
endless repetition of the same be achieved. Silver printing, on the other hand, opened
up to complex issues of scale, as the size and format of an image could be modulated by
each new copy. Like a pantograph of light, photography could enlarge or miniaturize,
bringing the malleability of the projected picture into the field of images on paper. Thus
photography produced a paradox as it was able to make each reproduction look like the
same picture, yet also radically different in its impact, display, and potential audience.
The reproducibility of photography then has to be understood as flexible, as it
operates along two trajectories. On one hand, enlargement greatly contributed to
photography’s reputation as a tool of revelation. Things too small to be seen by the
naked eye could be made visible, and images circulating in private circles could be
made large enough to enter the public sphere. On the other hand, miniaturization
played an equally central role as an agent of knowledge: by reducing and accumulating
data, it allowed for a new condensation and availability of information. Beginning in
the late nineteenth century, this led to new forms of picture archive and museum, such
as Léon Vidal’s Musée des photographies documentaires in Paris in 1894, followed by numerous
similar projects all over Europe, in which photography was conceived as a way of
gathering in a much-concentrated form all objects of the world. In the interwar years,
the first national and international microfilming programmes would then expand
such fantasies to include all types of iconographic or textual information.
Operating on both fronts of enlargement and miniaturization, such flexible
reproducibility made photography ubiquitous. By playing on scale it provided each
Detail of workers installing
war bond mural, Grand image with the capacity to invest in a multiplicity of spatial, cultural and social
Central Station, New York, realms. This capacity proved fundamental in photography’s complex relationship
1941 (plate 6).
to art, as the new flexibility of scale yielded to a new mobility of the cultural status
DOI: of images. This essay hones our understanding of the full scope of such mobility
10.1111/1467-8365.12155 by outlining, in a broad survey, the overlooked, shifting relations of scale and
Art History | ISSN 0141-6790
38 | 2 | April 2015 | pages 386-403 photography over the span of its 150-year history.

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Photography and Scale

The Contradictory Scales of Photography


Before photography, any image had its own permanent scale, set by the time of its
production according to its planned function, audience and mode of display. The
advent of paper-printed photography, however, disrupted such a straightforward
relationship as it gave birth to an image without any specific scale. The size of
the photograph was no longer necessarily connected to the size defined by its
production. Thus, photography questioned the very idea of what ‘scale’ meant in
a picture. Especially so since analogue photography always combines two distinct
moments of reproduction and thus requires scale to modulate between two separate
stages, something which may also lead to opposing scalar decisions. On one hand,
photographs scale objects at the moment of the shooting – i.e. the production of the
negative, which generally implies a miniaturization of the captured objects. On the
other hand, scale must also be addressed during the production of the print, which
often means an enlargement of the negative. The combination of the two produces
a whole range of solutions, challenging the very definition of what the ‘scale’ of a
photograph may be. Is scale a ratio between the picture and the captured objects,
one might ask? This seems to be the suggestion, for instance, of photographer Karl
Blossfeldt, who, in the captions of his famous 1928 book Urformen der Kunst, articulated
the exact proportion between the size of the plates and the size of the real plants.2 Or is
scale the ratio between pictures? This might be the relationship of one specific picture
with what would be the ‘normal’ or dominant size in its image category, or with its
matrix, that is with the image used as basis for the enlargement or miniaturization.
This second definition of scale, which connects pictures to pictures rather than to
objects, often appeared in discourses about giant prints that emerged in the first half
of the twentieth century. Such prints were celebrated as tremendous magnifications
of tiny negatives, even if their size remained much smaller than the actual size of
the captured objects. An example is the reproduction of the Sistine Chapel ceiling in
the 1956 exhibition Illuminations of Fifty Great Paintings that Life Magazine organized at New
York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (plate 1). The curators celebrated it as a gigantic
photograph and an exceptional achievement of photographic enlargement. The
catalogue of the subsequent touring exhibition reads: ‘for the first time the element
of size, as a major factor in the artist’s concept, has been added to the photographic
reproduction of fine art.’3 And Life’s publisher Andrew Heiskell in the introduction
to the first version of the catalogue suggested: ‘freedom from page size limitations
enables Life to add the major element of scale and surpass even its most brilliant
efforts within the magazine itself.’4 Yet, despite such words of praise, the size of the
reproduction was actually only a quarter of the real ceiling. So was it an enlargement
or a miniaturization? And could a picture possibly be both at the same time?
The Life Magazine show on the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art also
allows us to reflect on the role of scale in photography’s unstable relationship with
art. Scale both reflects and conditions this relationship in various, complex and
often contradictory ways. How much does scale affect the cultural and social status
of a photograph? Is enlargement always a trigger for artistic dignity and, conversely,
miniaturization necessarily a sign of the informational or documentary function of a
photograph? And do such connotations remain stable through time?
Certainly, in the last three decades, the triumph of large-format prints has
been strongly associated with the recognition of photography in the art world.
Photography’s increase in size coincided with its spreading into the spaces and the
market of contemporary art. In the 1980s photographers such as Andreas Gursky
and Thomas Ruff began, following Jeff Wall, to blow up their prints, moving

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Olivier Lugon

photography from the realm of the graphic arts (affiliated to prints and drawings, and
the popular press) to the realm of painting and the walls of exhibition spaces. In 1989
the French critic, theoretician and historian, Jean-François Chevrier gave a name to
this new kind of art photography: la forme tableau (the tableau form).5 It designated a print
made primarily for the wall and that engaged its audience less in the scrutiny usually
claimed by small works on paper than in an experience of physical confrontation
with the work, as was the case for painting, or, say, minimal sculpture. Since then,
in photography large scale has been widely interpreted as a sign of artistic dignity.
Many photographers, such as those working for Magnum, who had previously only
produced small prints for the magazines started to expand the scale of their works
and even began to reprint at a grander scale photographs which had originally been
made for the printed page. Indeed, large scale photography is today very much
identified with art photography. But this has not always been the case. Depending
on the period, the status of large-format photographs has oscillated between being
art and industrial, disposable pictures made primarily for mass communication – a
vernacular form of grand scale, associated not with painting but with posters and

1 One-quarter-scale replica
of Michelangelo’s Sistine
Chapel ceiling, in lluminations
of Fifty Great Paintings,
Life Magazine exhibition,
Metropolitan Museum of Art,
New York, 1956. Washington,
DC: American Federation
of Arts records, Archives of
American Art, Smithsonian
Institution.

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Photography and Scale

billboards. In fact, throughout the twentieth century, distinctions between elitist and
populist responses to large-format photography can be discerned.

Between Magic Lantern and Tableau


Originally photography belonged to a tradition of small-scale images. Made for
private viewing, photographs were observed from above in albums, portfolios and
books, which had to be held in one’s hands or placed on a table. Since the positive
could only be reproduced by contact printing, like engravings and prints, it was
impossible to change the initial format and to compensate for its fundamental
miniaturizing function. This made photography an ideal tool for collecting, since
it allowed one to easily archive, compare and visually possess all the objects of the
world. It was, however, a poor tool for exhibition, as it required a type of observation
that was akin to reading. The individual photograph was too small to fill the wall,
which led to a multiplication of the prints on display, tending toward distracting
overcrowding (plate 2). Moreover, a sensibility to light made them fade at the very
same time at which they were shown. Photography thus remained outside the
modern parameters of fine art as defined by easel painting, which required the

2 Internationale
photographische Ausstellung
(International Photography
Exhibition), Berlin, 1865.
Woodcut by J. Jamrath,
in Photographische
Correspondenz, Vienna, 1865,
vol. 1.

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Olivier Lugon

3 Hanns Friedmann, ‘A
modern photographic Salon’,
print in Photographische
Kunst, vol. 4, no. 12, 30
September 1905.

combination of both collection value and exhibition value. These two dimensions
were correlated in the modern art world, as art works were collected for display,
and, in return, their exhibition increased their collection value; early photography,
however, disrupted such a co-dependent relationship.6
Accordingly, the question of enlargement became a key issue for early
photographers seeking to conquer the spheres of the salon and the art gallery. The first
solar enlargers appeared during the 1850s. They were rotating chambers installed
on the roofs of photography studios in order to follow the path of the sun, but they
delivered poor results due to extremely long exposure times.7 In the 1860s portrait
photographers began to work with artificial light. In 1865 the French photographer
Numa Blanc, for instance, named his enlarger the électro-mégascope.8 This method of
projection meant returning to the older technique of the magic lantern, even if its use
shifted from being a display device to a production tool. As it happened, photography’s
elevation to the status of art was in fact helped by the appropriation of a technique
strongly associated with entertainment, spectacle and popular pedagogy.9 From then
onwards, any large photographic print would imply the invisible presence of light
projection, like the projection of a lantern slide that took place prior to a public showing.
The importance of large pictures grew at the end of the nineteenth century
with the international development of a pictorial type of photography that
explicitly sought to compete with painting. In French, such photographs were
called tableaux photographiques, while, in English, wall pictures.10 Like easel painting,
these photographic tableaux were made to combine both exhibition and collection
values. The pictures had to be large enough to be publicly displayed, but small and
mobile enough to be privately collected. The larger dimensions of such pictures
contributed to their isolation on the wall: photographs were arranged in one or
two rows, thus fostering the deep and concentrated contemplation of an individual
viewer immersed in a single print (plate 3). Such a relationship was crucial for the
emancipation of photography from the status of industrial image. The increase in size
led to a reduction in the number of items shown, a negation of quantity, a repression

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Photography and Scale

of the very idea of mass production and mass consumption, from which pictorial
photographers had wanted to distance themselves. Analogous to the ‘white cubes’
of the late twentieth century, the blank space stretching between the prints allowed
photographers to proclaim their ability to discriminate, reject and strictly select from
the sheer volume of photographic production: it visually affirmed their legitimacy
as jury.11 But conversely, the very fear of being associated with industrial production
also imposed a limit on how large prints could be. As with easel painting, prints
had to be large enough to be contemplated on a wall, but they had to be perceived
as the work of a single author – the producer of the negative – without any exterior
intervention, any paid labour or collaboration of any kind. Therefore, in every aspect
the large print became an expression of rarity and exclusivity: one producer, one
viewer, and one single image contemplated at any one time.

From Tableau to Photomural


In the period between the wars, however, such a balance was challenged by another
increase in scale, with the so-called photomural, which ended up contradicting
the principles of the tableau and transforming the very definition of large-format
photography. From being an image for the wall, the photomural turned photography
into an image as the wall.
In the 1930s all media can be characterized by a trend towards the mural, with
strong political implications: to invest in the wall meant going beyond the idea of
the work of art as a luxury commodity made for private sale and consumption, and
thinking of art as having more of a social role.12 Photography seemed especially
equipped for such a task since with the rise of the picture press it had already been
perceived as a mass medium and its size was easily extendable. The conquest of
the wall simply proved to be an intensification of photography’s collective quality,
bringing together physically in front of a single picture the fragmented audience of
the printed media. Between 1930 and 1937 the photographic community had high
hopes for such new-found monumentality, seemingly facilitated as it was by the
development of limitless reams of large-scale photographic paper. In all countries
and political regimes, from the Soviet Union to the United States, and from the Third
Reich in Germany to the Popular Front in France, the specialized press supported
the medium’s new public presence and produced a range of photographs that all
competed for the title of ‘world’s largest’.
Such pictures, widely used for commercial or political propaganda, were
almost the opposite of tableaux. First, far from being the work of one single author,
the photomural implied collaboration and production at an almost industrial level.
Instead of being downplayed, this collaborative dimension was more often than
not celebrated in contexts just as much commercial as political. In the Soviet Union,
it even became one of the main arguments for supporting the photomural as a
fundamentally socialist medium. As early as 1928, El Lissitzky demonstrated this
quality in his highly influential photo-frieze for the Soviet pavilion at Cologne’s 1928
Pressa exhibition (plate 4). Though twenty-four metres long and four metres high,
the frieze did not attempt to be ‘monumental’. It comprised dozens of individual
snapshots, taken by different photographers, loosely juxtaposed in front of the wall
in mid-sized formats. An expanded photomontage, the photo-frieze was supposed
to symbolize a new participative form of the Soviet press. Allegedly it was made
by numerous readers through a dense network of journalistic and photographic
correspondents. Accordingly, the creation of the frieze embodied a new definition
of the monument, which no longer corresponded to a gigantic dilation of a single

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Olivier Lugon

work of art, with one dominating figure or authoritative voice, but rather became the
aggregate of countless pictures and producers.13
This emphasis on the collective dimension of photographic practice even
remained present in more unified works, such as the huge photomurals created
by Gustav Klutsis for several official Soviet celebrations in Moscow in the 1930s,
including, for example, two twenty-five-metre high portraits of Lenin and Stalin

4 El Lissitzky with Sergei


Senkin and others, ‘Photo-
frieze’, Soviet pavilion, Die
Pressa, Cologne, 1928. Los
Angeles: El Lissitzky letters
and photographs, Special
Collections, Getty Research
Institute.

5 Edwin Rosskam and others,


photomural to promote the
sale of defence bonds, Grand
Central Station, New York,
1941. Washington, DC: FSA/
OWI Collection, Prints and
Photographs Division, Library
of Congress. Photo: Arthur
Rothstein.

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Photography and Scale

displayed on the occasion of May Day 1932. In his writing, Klutsis highlighted the
aggregate quality of their production as an affirmation of a communist ideal:

[It] is also marvellous in that the method of collective work, the method of
socialist competition and shock-working was genuinely applied here for
the first time. The work, in which approximately 200 people participated,
occurred in an atmosphere of great élan; it forged together all the best forces.14

Such rhetoric similarly recurred in Western democracies. In 1941, for example, the
Farm Security Administration created a thirty-by-thirty-six-metre photomural for
the hall of Grand Central Station in New York City after the United States entered the
Second World War (plate 5). The photomural represented a late instance of the ‘world’s
largest’ photomural.15 In an FSA photo-story depicting its creation, its production was
praised for its collaborative nature and for the fusion of energies it had required, to be
expected from a nation facing a new war (plate 6).
Indeed, the collective character of the photomural likewise applied to its beholders.
Photomurals were intended for mass communication and not for the isolated
contemplation that had been emblematic of the tableau. They were pictures for the
crowd. Like in the movies, to which they were constantly compared – the photomural
was described as ‘a stabilized documentary film’ and the cinema as ‘a photomural
in motion – their large size primarily reflected the multiplication of gazes aimed at
them.16 Once again, such a dimension was important for politics. To display a gigantic
photograph was not only to address a group explicitly; it was also an opportunity to
provide the scattered visitors of an exhibition with a collective experience and to stage
its randomly composed audience as a (fictionally) tightly linked community. The Third
Reich, for example, made particular use of such quality. In Die Kamera in Berlin, the first
photographic exhibition after Hitler came to power in 1933, individual visitors were
made to stop immediately after entering, in front of a high row of giant prints depicting

6 Workers installing war


bond mural, Grand Central
Station, New York, 1941.
Washington, DC: FSA/
OWI Collection, Prints and
Photographs Division, Library
of Congress.

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Olivier Lugon

7 Opening Ceremony of
Woldemar Brinkmann, Gebt
mir vier Jahre Zeit (Give Me
Four Years), Hall of Honours,
Berlin, 30 April 1937. Photo:
Max Ehlert/Ullstein Bild,
Berlin.

the crowds at Nazi rallies. The intention was to arouse in the ephemeral crowd scattered
across the exhibition space a quasi-ceremonial experience akin to the contents of the
representations above them. Four years later, in the show Gebt mir vier Jahre Zeit (Give Me
Four Years), photomurals in the entrance hall took the form of nine so-called ‘picture-
books of history’. Eight metres tall, the books had their pages mechanically turned,
each turn accompanied by recorded commentaries, symphonic music and flashes
of spotlighting, reminiscent of a film screening in which pictures, projection and
sounds have lost their unity (plate 7). Yet, in contrast to the cinema, where the audience
collectively disappeared into the dark, here the audience’s confrontation with giant
images became a consciously shared, even ceremonial event. An awe was generated
amongst the packed audience intent on seeing the main hall, where it was greeted by
an almost twenty-metre-high photographic portrait of Hitler. Here, just as in front of
Klutsis’s enormous images of socialist leaders, we come across a third definition of
scale in photography: one that involves not only the ratio between picture and captured
object, or between one picture and others, but a ratio between the dimensions of the
picture and the size of the beholders. As Klutsis put it, it was ‘mandatory that the photo-
giants be arranged in such a way that the masses have free access to them – only in this
case will a genuine impression of the dimensions of super-magnification be created.’17
The very presence of the audience, which the Gebt mir vier Jahre Zeit exhibition considered
as both subject and object, was the very trigger for monumentality.

Disposable Monumentality
There was another element, also inherited from the magic lantern, however, that
presented the photomural as an almost opposite to the tableau: its ephemeral nature. The
very size of the long paper strips comprising the photomural, the fact that they were
pasted rather than hung, their unprotected exposure to light and crowds, all made
them particularly fragile. Indeed, almost none of the 1930s photomurals survived
their original display. They were deliberately conceived to be thrown away after their
intended use, like posters or commercial film reels. The photomural then reversed

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Photography and Scale

8 Installation view of Murals


by American Painters and
Photographers, MoMA, New
York, 1932, including on
left photomural by Edward
Steichen. Photo: MoMA, NY/
Scala, Florence.

the initial logic of photography: photographs were printed specifically for public
display, but such a function made them inappropriate for collection. In other words,
photography increased exhibition value while diminishing its collection value – a new
form of instability with regard to the system of the arts in the twentieth century.
Yet, for many critics and photographers of the time, this ephemeral nature
constituted the very essence of photomural’s modernity. For champions of its political
use, it correlated with the idea of the picture as action, guaranteeing its continuing
vitality during times of ongoing change. But at the same time, according to capitalist
logic, such transience may have appeared in line with the modern world, where
everything was supposed to be submitted to permanent renewal and accelerated
obsolescence. Both such arguments were used in the exhibition Murals by American Painters
and Photographers at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1932 (plate 8). As the first
exhibition of photography to be held at MoMA, it was also the first to introduce giant
prints to an art museum and to date remains one of the very few to explicitly focus
on the question of scale in photography.18 In the catalogue, co-curator Julien Levy
promoted photographic murals by explaining that modern buildings, subject like other
commodities to the dictum ‘make it new’, were deliberately built to be replaced after
mere decades, thus making the photomural an appropriate decoration for them.19 It
would inaugurate a highly modern form of disposable monumentality, far from the
permanency traditionally associated with frescoes or mural paintings. Levy called
it ‘flexibility’ but others spoke of ‘interchangeability’.20 In 1936, the magazine Photo-
Illustration wrote that ‘like an obsession, [painting] stays in place for decades in spite of the
changing whims of fashion. Photography is interchangeable.’21 Pierre Liercourt added:

One supposedly – even if it still should be proved – gets tired more quickly
from a monochrome photograph than from a painting or a woodcut. But
one understands at once what variety can be introduced into decoration by
this technique of mutation … The photographic décor cannot be blamed for

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Olivier Lugon

monotony: its interchangeability gives to it an ever-renewable appeal, which


painting cannot provide.22

In short, the giant mechanical picture perfectly suited the instability of the modern
world, since it was soon doomed to become outmoded and replaced just as quickly.
Monumentality was no longer incompatible with the modern pace of fashion. Despite the
hopes of photographers such as Margaret Bourke-White and Laure Albin-Guillot, who
had intensively promoted the use of photomurals in the home, this new condition of the
monumental image certainly hindered photography’s success in the market for domestic
decoration since the home remained the supposed haven of permanence.23 ‘By virtue of
its essentially mechanical extraction’, reads a magazine of the time, ‘the photomural can
in fact have an appeal of limited duration …. For this reason, while suitable to public or
semi-public places, it is not usually suited to the domestic interior.’24 On the other hand,
monumental photography showed the potential for bringing architecture closer to the
tempo of the new mass media, namely magazines and newsreel. In the summer of 1937,
for instance, the façade of the Spanish pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair, displaying both
texts and a large photomural, changed during the course of the exhibition, as its Civil War
progressed.25 Thanks to the photomural, even architecture could adapt to the new speed
of modern media, in line with the news footage shown inside the pavilion.
Yet such potential eventually mired the association of large-scale photography with
modern forms of artistic grandeur. It left the photomural perpetually divided between
two opposing models of large-scale image: the billboard and the monument. The former
sought attention for the purposes of quick communication while the latter aimed at
inspiring quiet meditation; the billboard was a cheaply produced image without any
intrinsic value, producing accelerated obsolescence, while the monument expressed
grandeur and collective pride in a form that aimed at historical durability. In short, was
a large photograph just big and eye-catching, or was it grand? And could it possibly be
both at the same time? The 1941 Grand Central Station photomural seems to suggest so
(see plate 5). On one hand, it was nothing but a huge advertisement for defence bonds
temporarily installed in a very mundane space. But on the other, it was also perceived as
a majestic image that produced the same reverence that one would expect to be directed
towards a national monument. Its inauguration incorporated a choir of a thousand
singers, several military bands, a number of distinguished guests, and was broadcast in
the USA from coast to coast.26 Solemnity was likewise an effect of the display. Beneath the
photomural was a balcony on which were installed two cardboard soldiers, standing like
guards to a sacred object. These figures also functioned as a relational device, their tiny
presence, once again, helping to make the photomural all the more monumental.27
Strategies of giving photomurals the quality of a monument such as this, however,
did not always succeed. Especially after the 1937 Paris World’s Fair, where photomurals
were commonplace and walls were covered by ‘square kilometres of mute
enlargements’, they came to be perceived as a vulgar form of mass communication
or persuasion, depriving the images contained within them of possessing artistic
respectability.28 Large prints could only aspire to be a cheap perversion of the
monument, in line with the very logic of propaganda. Such an effect, for example, had
been foreseen by the German critic Wolfgang Born in a 1930 review of the Munich
show Das Lichtbild, which had featured some slightly larger-than-usual prints:

Enlargement, which is becoming common today, weakens any artistic effect


for the sake of advertising appeal, without being able to compete, however,
with the painted poster. … The attempt at monumentality, which led to

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Photography and Scale

heads larger than life by the Germans, can only fail because of the very nature
of photography, which reproduces all details. Even if it were to have already
been invented, the camera would have been of no use to Michelangelo!29

The Return of the Tableau


Large-scale photography’s reputation did not change in the post-war years. With the
rise of photographic posters and billboards, the giant enlargement disappeared from
fairs and exhibition spaces to stretch over streets and highways. Besides their association
with political propaganda, photomurals primarily gained a reputation as being a
commercial medium. From 1950 to 1990, for instance, Kodak’s Coloramas occupied
the main hall of Grand Central Station, on the very wall as had the former defence
bonds photomural. For decades these gigantic back-lit panoramic transparencies
represented the most famous exemplars of very large prints in the United States.30 With
them the idea of a disposable monumentality achieved new meaning, since each image
was scheduled to be replaced by a new one after only three weeks.
Large prints were certainly, however, still present in art museums after the war.
MoMA’s blockbuster show The Family of Man of 1955, for example, displayed several
wall-sized enlargements. Yet, unlike other artworks in the museum, they were
nothing more than industrial copies intended to last for the duration of a world tour
and to be disposed of afterwards. Accordingly, until the 1970s, in art photography
circles enlargements were often held in contempt, defined as degraded and kitsch,
bound to rapid consumption and disappearance after having conveyed their message,
or thought of, in the words of Ansel Adams, as ‘expensive wallpaper’.31 With
the establishment of a significant market for art photography in the early 1970s,
gallerists and collectors concentrated on small-scale prints, freed from any industrial
connotations and guaranteed to be creations of individual authors.32 Smallness
became a visual equivalent of the signature, as if a ratio with the negative close to 1:1
would guarantee privileged access to the creative act – the shooting – and so the print
could approach what might be a photographic ‘original’.
Enlargements’ discredited reputation grew in intensity with the improvement in
colour printing, as larger photographs became commonplace in home decoration,
in advertising, and in semi-public spaces such as restaurants or the lobbies of
commercial offices (plate 9). But it was precisely because they represented an image
without artistic legitimacy – a kind of ‘other’ in respect to art photography – that by
the end of the decade and into the early 1980s, artists like Jeff Wall and the so-called
Pictures Generation, including Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince and Barbara Kruger,
developed an interest in large images.33 Their images broke with the canon of
museum or gallery prints, their size instead being one of the features that addressed
the tension between high art and mass media. Such a tension, however, became
diluted by the comeback of the tableau form. And once such large colour pictures
entered the museum, they soon achieved the legitimacy of great art once more.
To give an example of this complex shift in status, we can consider the 1976
exhibition Signs of Life: Symbols in the American City put on at the Renwick Gallery in
Washington, DC.34 Commissioned for the bicentennial of American Independence,
the show was curated by controversial architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown
and Steven Izenour – authors four years earlier of the famous book Learning from Las
Vegas – in collaboration with art photographer Stephen Shore. Counter to the dogmas of
high modernism, which they saw as the empty incarnation of elitist good taste, they
intended to celebrate the vitality of the ordinary urban landscape of the United States
and the richness of its vernacular environment, both commercial and residential.

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Olivier Lugon

9 ‘What’s New in
Wallcoverings?’, advertising
leaflet for Crown
Wallcovering Corporation,
c. 1976. Philadelphia: Venturi
Scott Brown Collection,
Architectural Archives,
University of Pennsylvania.

Interested in bringing such environments inside the museum, they filled rooms
with the products of American everyday culture, amongst which were colourful
billboards and several photomurals presenting the ordinary urban and suburban
landscape, created by Stephen Shore (plate 10). Shore had intentionally made use of a
new commercial technique, a Japanese process originally intended for gigantic urban
advertisements, trade fairs and commercial spaces, and distributed in the United States
by the company 3M under the name ‘Architectural Paintings’ (plate 11).
The exhibition proved to be highly controversial, with some accusing it of
being an uncritical celebration of consumer society, others denouncing it as ‘a bit
mocking’ and demonstrating a ‘condescending attitude’ toward middle-class life.35
Yet overall, reactions to Shore’s images were very positive. The New York Times wrote
that ‘throughout the galleries, there are outstanding photographs by Stephen Shore’,
with The Washington Star describing them as ‘fantastic photographic blowups’.36 Even if

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Photography and Scale

10 Stephen Shore, ‘The


Home-Row House
Exterior’ photomurals,
in Robert Venturi, Denise
Scott Brown and Steven
Izenour’s exhibition, Signs
of Life, Renwick Gallery,
Washington, DC, 1976.
Philadelphia: Venturi Scott
Brown & Associates. Photo:
Stephen Shore.

their very technique denoted commercial ordinariness, some reviewers saw in them
a form of beauty, leading one commentator to conclude that ‘to the modern architect,
scenic wallpaper and Rocky Mountain-genre photomurals have always been for the
birds. But design snobs may change their views, as it were, when they see what can
be done with Architectural Paintings.’37 This evaluation encapsulates the paradoxical
clash between popular culture and the art museum as it ended up ennobling the
exact element that was supposed to question criteria of cultural hierarchy. Even
Steven Izenour began to praise the artistic quality of such large-format images once
they were displayed within a museum, claiming that, in this context, large-scale
photography could compete with painting:

Until now, the one thing the painter had over the photographer is that he
could increase his scale far beyond what the photographer could normally
afford to do. With this new process, photographers and painters can compete
on an immense scale. A lot of people are going to want to try it for a lot of
different things.38

And indeed, the Washington show unexpectedly opened for 3M the market of
the art world and the museum, one which they specifically targeted with a press
release aimed at ‘selected architectural, art and design publications’ incorporating
Izenour’s words of praise.39 In short, Venturi, Scott Brown, Izenour and Shore’s
large-format photographs could emphasize in 1976 the very element of popular
culture that had once jarred with the idea of fine art, and thus gain artistic praise.
Without any apparent contradiction, large-format photography could act as both
wallpaper and monument, as both billboard and tableau. And tableau is exactly
what was exhibited in the last room of the Signs of Life show. It included a set of
Architectural Paintings whose display in tight rows made them appear neither
as wallpaper nor billboards, but as the works for a nineteenth-century salon

© Association of Art Historians 2015 400


Olivier Lugon

exhibition. Between its first and last room, the Signs of Life exhibition staged the
transfiguration of the billboard into a tableau.
In the years that followed, other artists and photographers variously adopted the
large format. In 1978, for example, Jeff Wall exhibited in a Vancouver art gallery his
first large-size back-lit photograph, The Destroyed Room. With reference to both history
painting – in this case, Eugène Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus – and commercial art,
he displayed it not in the exhibition space but in the window of the gallery, facing
towards the street, like the many illuminated billboards and signs in the city, on a
threshold between the spaces of art and the street (plate 12). In a similar way, Cindy
Sherman’s move in 1981 from small black and white prints to colour enlargements
played with the mundane connotations of the large format. Further emphasized by
the title of the series, Centerfolds, Sherman’s first large prints made explicit reference to

11 ‘The Incredible Electronic


Mural Painter: 3M’s
Architectural Paintings’,
advertising leaflet
reprinted in The Professional
Photographer, March 1976.
Philadelphia: Venturi
Scott Brown Collection,
Architectural Archives,
University of Pennsylvania.

© Association of Art Historians 2015 401


Photography and Scale

12 Jeff Wall, The Destroyed


Room, installed in the
display of the Nova Gallery,
Vancouver, 1978. Photo:
Courtesy of the artist.

the central spreads of pornographic magazines, with pages where otherwise small
illustrations became blown-up to poster size, more for visual stimulation than for
aesthetic delight.
In the cases of both Wall and Sherman, just as in that of Venturi, Scott Brown,
Izenour and Shore, the artist’s gesture involved appropriating the techniques of
advertising, commercial imagery, and the mass media in order to confront an art
world whose autonomy was being called into question. It was comparable to the
principle of the ready-made – the picking up of an everyday object from the street and
transforming it into a work of art simply by placing it within an artistic framework.
The gestures of Wall and Sherman, however, reversed the status of the ready-made.
As their work involved images from the very start, Duchamp’s anti-pictorial gesture
was upturned, ending in the construction of the tableau form from its opposite.
Indeed, during the 1980s and 1990s, Wall, Sherman and many other photographers
tended to move closer and closer towards the tableau, downplaying the initial popular
or commercial references of their pictures. With the triumph of the tableau form since
the late 1980s, large-scale photography has increasingly been seen as belonging to
a tradition of grand painting, exemplified by Cindy Sherman’s ‘history portraits’
of 1989–90, which not only quoted old master paintings in their subjects but were
also placed in golden frames, thereby engaging in requisite strategies of display. In
such works, the fundamental collaborative and mechanical nature of large prints
was concealed beneath a single signature; their material fragility was downplayed
by elements such as their frames, that is, signs of artistic durability. Through such a
process, the fusion of exhibition value and collection value finally became a reality
for photography.
Yet if photography finally has gained the status of older arts, such arts have in
turn been transformed by their being subject to the new ubiquity of photography.
Any image, even the canonical paintings quoted by Sherman, is today primarily
known through reproductions, present everywhere but always different, and in no
way bound to a unique, stable scale. If the large photograph born from the magic
lantern has been accepted as an art form, we would nonetheless do well to remember
that nowadays a magic lantern shines behind all images.

© Association of Art Historians 2015 402


Olivier Lugon

Notes que la peinture ne saurait remplir’. Liercourt, ‘L’embellissement du


1 Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, “Home” et la photographie’, 338–9.
and Other Writings on Media, eds Michael William Jennings, Brigid 23 See Brenda Edgar, ‘Le motif éphémère: ornement photographique
Doherty and Thomas Y. Levin, Cambridge, MA, 2008. One exception et architecture au XXe siècle’, doctoral thesis, Université Paris 1
to the lack of interest in the question of scale in photography is Panthéon-Sorbonne, 2013.
Wolfgang Kemp’s early and important essay, ‘Qualität und Quantität: 24 Anon., ‘The interior for leisure and display’, 278.
Formbestimmheit und Format der Fotografie’, in Foto-Essay: zur Geschichte 25 See Catherine Blanton Freedberg, The Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World’s
und Theorie der Fotografie, Munich, 1978, 10–50. Fair of 1937, New York, 1986, vol. 1, 284.
2 See Karl Blossfeldt, Urformen der Kunst: Photographische Pflanzenbilder, Berlin, 26 See Anon., ‘Huge decoration for a gateway to the nation’, New York
1928. Times, 9 December 1941; and Anon., ‘Sale of bonds advocated’.
3 Anon., ‘How life’s illuminations were made’, in Illuminations of Fifty Great 27 In the show Die Kamera, in the second introductory hall – a hall of
Paintings & the Sistine Chapel Ceiling Produced and Presented by LIFE in Association honour to the dead – two real guards stood at the lower corners of the
with the American Federation of Arts, exh. cat., New York, 1958, n.p. central photomural, their very presence helping to bring to the room
4 Andrew Heiskell, Introduction, in Illuminations of Fifty Great Paintings, n.p. an atmosphere of silence and awe surely more so than the picture
5 See Jean-François Chevrier and James Lingwood, Une autre objectivité/ itself.
Another Objectivity, exh. cat., Paris, 1989; Jean-François Chevrier, ‘Les 28 Pierre Liercourt, ‘La photographie à l’Exposition 1937: le pavillon des
aventures de la forme tableau dans l’histoire de la photographie’, in Etats-Unis’, La Revue française de photographie et de cinématographie, 18: 426, 15
Fotokunst. Du xxe au xixe siècle, aller et retour/Arbeiten aus 150 Jahren, exh. cat., September 1937, 260.
Stuttgart, 1989. 29 ‘die heute üblich gewordene Vergrößerung schwächt die
6 In his essay on the reproducibility of the work of art (see note 1), künstlerische Wirkung der Werbewirkung zuliebe ab, ohne doch
considering painting and photography, Walter Benjamin opposes the die Konkurrenz mit dem gemalten Plakat aufnehmen zu können.
‘exhibition value’ of these modern images to the ‘cult value’ of earlier … Aber der Versuch zur Monumentalisierung, die deutscherseits
times. He does not, however, consider the fact that such movable zu überlebensgroßen Köpfen geführt hat, muß gerade an der
pictures are not only intended to be exhibited, but also collected. Ureigenschaft der Photographie scheitern, daß sie alle Details gibt.
7 See Helmut Gernsheim, The History of Photography from the Camera Obscura Für einen Michelangelo wäre die Kamera unbrauchbar gewesen, auch
to the Beginning of the Modern Era, London, 1969, 311–15; and Beaumont wenn sie damals schon erfunden gewesen wäre!’ Wolfgang Born,
Newhall, History of Photography from 1839 to the Present, New York, 1982, 62. ‘Lehren und Ausblicke der Münchener Internationalen Ausstellung
8 Ernest Lacan, ‘Revue photographique’, Le Moniteur de photographie, 1 “Das Lichtbild”’, Atelier des Photographen, 37, 1930, 68.
December 1865, quoted in André Rouillé, ed., La Photographie en France. 30 On Coloramas, see Colorama: The World’s Largest Photographs. From Kodak and
Textes & Controverses: une Anthologie, 1816–1871, Paris, 1989, 429. the George Eastman House Collection, New York, 2004.
9 On the history of the magic lantern, see Laurent Mannoni, The Great Art 31 Ansel Adams, An Autobiography, London, 1985, 210, cited in Monique
of Light and Shadow: Archaelogy of the Cinema, Exeter, 2000. Berlier, ‘The Family of Man: Readings of an exhibition’, in Bonnie
10 See Anon., ‘Exhibitions – Old and new’, British Journal of Photography, 39: Brennen and Hanno Hardt, eds, Picturing the Past: Media, History, and
1685, 19 August 1892, 530. Photography, Urbana, and Chicago, IL, 1999, 220.
11 See Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, 32 John Szarkowski, head of MoMA’s department of photography since
Santa Monica and San Francisco, CA, 1976. 1962, was very influential in reviving the codes of small fine prints
12 On the importance and paradoxes of the mural in the 1930s, see Romy in art photography and in defining the canons which would come
Golan, Muralnomad: The Paradox of Wall Painting, Europe 1927–1957, New to dominate the early market for art photography in the 1970s; see
Haven and London, 2009. Christopher Phillips, ‘The judgment seat of photography’, October, 22,
13 This new definition of the monument strongly echoes Alexander Fall 1982, 27–63, esp. 53–63.
Rodchenko’s rejection of the ‘synthetic portrait’ and his search for 33 See Doug Eklund, The Pictures Generation, 1974–1984, exh. cat., New York,
more collective forms of representation. See Alexander Rodchenko, 2009.
‘Against the synthetic portrait, for the snapshot’ (1928), in 34 For a more detailed discussion of the exhibition, see Olivier Lugon,
Christopher Phillips, ed., Photography in the Modern Era: European Documents ‘Avant la “forme tableau”: le grand format photographique dans
and Critical Writings, 1913–1940, New York, 1989, 238–42. l’exposition ‘Signs of Life’ (1976)/Before the tableau form: Large
14 Gustav Klutsis, ‘A worldwide achievement’, Proletarskoe Foto, 6, 1932, photographic formats in the exhibition ‘Signs of Life’, (1976)’, Etudes
trans. Cynthia Martin, cited in Margarita Tupitsyn, Gustav Klutsis and photographiques, 25, May 2010, 7–41.
Valentina Kulagina: Photography and Montage after Constructivism, exh. cat., New 35 Paul Goldberger, ‘How to love the strip: “Symbols in the American
York and Göttingen, 2004, 241. city”’, Artnews, 75: 7, September 1976, 50; Peter Gluck, cited in Beverly
15 Anon., ‘Sale of bonds advocated: Huge photo-mural in Grand Central Russell, ‘Real life: It’s art!’, House & Garden, 8, 1976, 79.
Terminal dedicated’, New York Times, 15 December 1941, 31. 36 Ada Louise Huxtable, ‘The pop world of the strip and the sprawl’, New
16 M. C. de Santeul, ‘La composition et la photographie: la photographie York Times, 21 March, 1976; Benjamin Forgey, ‘An exhibition that keeps
décorative et ses possibilités actuelles’, Le Photographe, 23: 408, 20 April the cities’ insight’, The Washington Star, 29 February 1976.
1936, 120; Anon., ‘The interior for leisure and display’, Architectural 37 Joan Kron, ‘Photo fi nishes’, New York Magazine, 22 March 1976, 56.
Review, 82, December 1937, 279. 38 Steven Izenour, cited in David S. Lindsey, ‘“Architectural Paintings”.
17 Klutsis, ‘A worldwide achievement’, 242. “Impact”, “Texture” are the strong points of new medium,
18 Other exceptions are: ‘Blow-Up’: Zeitgeschichte, at the Württembergischer architectural specialist says’, press release, 3M Public Relations
Kunstverein in Stuttgart, 1987; and Towards a Bigger Picture at the Victoria Department, 12 March 1976, 3 (Venturi Scott Brown Collection,
and Albert Museum in London, 1988. Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania, PA).
19 Julien Levy, ‘Photo-murals’, in Murals by American Painters and Photographers, 39 David S. Lindsey, letter accompanying ‘Architectural Paintings’ press
exh. cat., New York, 1932, 11. release, 19 March 1976 (Venturi Scott Brown Collection, Architectural
20 Pierre Liercourt, ‘L’embellissement du “Home” et la photographie’, Archives, University of Pennsylvania, PA).
La Revue française de photographie et de cinématographie, 17: 406, 15 November
1936, 339.
21 C. S. [M. C. de Santeul], ‘Le Salon des artistes décorateurs’, Photo-
Illustration, 3: 21, July 1936, 38.
22 ‘On se fatigue plus vite, dit-on – et encore serait-ce à prouver? – d’une
photo monochrome que d’une peinture ou d’un bois gravé. On voit
de suite quelle variété peut être introduite par ce procédé de mutation
dans la décoration. … Le décor photographique ne peut être accusé de
monotonie: son interchangeabilité le doue d’un attrait renouvelable

© Association of Art Historians 2015 403