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BIG Photographs

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EM, Arena, Amsterdam I 2000. Andreas Gursky (German, born 1955). Chromogenic print mounted on Plexiglas in artist’s frame; 276.8 x 207 cm. Private collection, New York 88.2001.  © 2016 Andreas Gursky / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York and Monika Sprüth / Philomene Magers, Cologne/Munich

 

Our sense of photographic scale was forever altered in the 1980s when a number of artists began producing gigantic prints. BIG presents eight monumental photographs made between 1986 and 2014; all but one are from the museum’s collection. Making their museum debut in this exhibition are works by Richard Barnes, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, Clegg & Guttmann, Kevin Jerome Everson and Michael Loderstedt, Laura McPhee, and Vik Muniz. They are joined by community favorites by Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth. Together the eight prints demonstrate how scale can alter a photograph’s meaning, as well as its physical relationship to the viewer and even the very experience of looking. Many photographs read well in reproduction, but not these gargantuan works, which have to be seen in person and insist on consideration not only as images but also as objects.


Andreas Gursky’s nine-foot-tall EM, Arena, Amsterdam I (2000) uses large scale and a steep, elevated camera angle to disrupt our usual relationship to the image. The precipitous angle, combined with radical cropping of the soccer field, transforms a three-dimensional space into a spare, abstract two-dimensional composition the size of a Minimalist painting. The players become tiny figures, animating and adding depth to the flattened design formed by the field’s markings. Gursky and Thomas Struth, also represented in this exhibition, were part of a small group of German photographers who pioneered fine art explorations of commercial color printing and mounting processes and digital manipulation and enhancement, which until then had been used exclusively for advertising and promotion.


Many artists have turned to large-scale photographs to create an immersive experience. Laura McPhee’s Early Spring (Peeling Bark in Rain) (2008), a diptych measuring five feet tall and almost 13 feet wide, is from her series Guardians of Solitude, which documents two years in the history of three forested canyons in central Idaho. These formerly idyllic spots had been ravaged three years earlier by a massive wildfire accidentally caused by a man burning a cardboard box in a barrel.


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Early Spring (Peeling Bark in Rain) 2008. © Laura McPhee (American, b. 1958). Digital ink print mounted to aluminum; overall 155.1 x 395.6 x 5.1 cm. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Alfred M. Rankin Jr. 2011.218


The scale of Early Spring makes us very aware of viewpoint. Each half of the diptych shows the same area but from a slightly different distance and angle, like stereoscopic vision gone awry. Looking from a distance, the tale is one of destruction. Viewing the picture close up reveals early signs of recovery and rebirth. McPhee has chosen a scale and viewpoint that make us feel as if we are wandering amid this forest. We look down to see the forest floor at our feet; above our heads, the treetops are cut off from view by the picture’s top edge. She engages us in a cautionary tale about human interaction with nature.


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Viaduct 1992. © Kevin Jerome Everson (American, b. 1965) and Michael Loderstedt (American, b. 1958). Gelatin silver print; 121.4 x 162.7 cm. Gift of Joan Tomkins and William Busta 2005.94



The aggrandizement in photographic scale is not solely a function of new technology. McPhee combined the old and the new to achieve her monumental prints, using film and a large-format view camera similar to late 19th-century models, but making a digital print to attain this size. Likewise, Kevin Jerome Everson and Michael Loderstedt used contemporary, commercially manufactured large-scale photographic paper to create Viaduct (1992), but their camera and printing apparatus harkened back to the earliest days of photography. Loderstedt built a pinhole camera—one that had no lens, just a pinhole for its aperture—that fit inside the bed of his Ford Ranger pickup. Then, he says, he and Everson drove around Cleveland “photographing monumental sites in the city. . . . One of us would climb inside the camera, unroll a large piece of photo paper, cut it from the roll, signal to the other artist to open the primitive shutter over the pinhole. We used roll black-and-white paper as negatives, then contact printed them onto more roll paper using a homemade contact printer.”


Viaduct was shot from the Superior Viaduct looking across to the Detroit Superior Bridge and down onto the structures in the valley below. Words added to the image—west, community, ornament, viaduct, and east—comment on how this particular site functions. The bridges and viaducts spanning the Cuyahoga River point out, and literally bridge, an important division in the city between the east and west sides.


Contemporary roll paper coupled with the most primitive of photographic technologies is employed by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin in their subversive 19-foot-long war photograph, The Day Nobody Died II (2008). Uncomfortable with the role that war photography plays in propagating human suffering, they asked to be embedded with a British army unit during the Afghanistan war. Instead of a camera, they brought along a box containing a long roll of color photosensitive paper. Every time an event happened that a photojournalist normally would cover, they exposed a six-meter section of paper to the light. The results are abstract photograms, unique images created by the temperature of the light on that day, at that moment, in that place. The vertical bands that run the length of the work seem to divide the horizon into measures or beats. Distance, as we move along the work, seems to become a marker of time passing. The week the duo spent in Afghanistan turned out to be the deadliest week of the war to that point, but on their fifth day there, when the museum’s section of paper was exposed, no one was killed—hence the title of the work and the series.


What led artists to suddenly begin making photographs on the scale of monumental paintings? In addition to new printing materials and technologies, the growing recognition of photography as a fine art meant that photographers found their work competing for visual attention with paintings and sculptures in galleries. Recognizing a trend that dated back to the salons of the 18th and 19th centuries, they realized that bigger works received more attention and were taken more seriously. As photography’s elevated stature led to higher prices, more artists could afford to experiment with those costly new processes. But perhaps most importantly, large-scale photographs offered the opportunity to explore new, immersive relationships between the viewer and the image, an impetus that drives our own decade to delve into 3D and virtual reality imaging.   

 


Cleveland Art, May/June 2016