Amon Carter Museum of American Art opens Big Pictures photographs exhibition

Amon Carter Museum of American Art presents Big Pictures photographs an exhibition on view on view through April 21 2013.

Understory Flareups
Understory Flareups, Fourth of July Creek, Valley Road Wild Fire, Custer County, Idaho, 2005 Dye coupler print © 1988 Laura McPhee Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, Purchase with the assistance of the Stieglitz Circle of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art

Big Pictures pulls together 40 works to explore what increased size brings to contemporary photography. Today photographs often reach staggering dimensions, stretching across museum walls to compete with large-scale paintings. “Suggesting a different purpose for the depicted scene, oversized photographs—unlike smaller ones—stop viewers from quickly glancing at the image and instead force them to step back and acknowledge the work and its physical presence,” says Katherine Siegwarth, exhibition curator and Luce Curatorial Fellow for Photographs. “Big photographs command more attention and draw the viewer into their wealth of information.”

Grand-scale photographs are not simply the result of new technologies. Recognizing that producing large prints has been a goal of photographers from the medium’s earliest days, the exhibition features images by Ansel Adams (1902–1984), William Henry Jackson (1843–1942) and Richard Misrach (b. 1949), among others, to offer new insights into the contemporary appeal of large size.

The show reveals that through the 19th century some photographers overcame the inability to make enlargements by using enormous cameras to create large portraits of important public figures, to better celebrate engineering feats, and to more vividly reflect the grandeur of the American landscape. These “mammoth plate” prints are magnificent technical achievements. Understanding their ability to deliver impressive expansiveness and heightened detail, railroad companies often hired photographers, such as William Henry Jackson, to create oversized images of majestic places newly accessible to tourists by train. By the early 20th century, artists like Adams began using enlargements to stake out more of a wall presence for exhibition works, as well as to mirror the grand scale of the vistas he captured in his images.

More recently, photographers have begun to utilize size not to signify grandeur or convey energy, but to make viewers stop, step back and take a moment to look. Melissa Pinney (b. 1953), for example, creates images that in subject are similar to typical family snapshots in her series Girl Ascending, a meditation on the transition from childhood to womanhood. But by enlarging her photographs—such as Balloons (2004), which is 30 by 37 inches—she delivers the sense of looking through a window, transforming the viewer into a bystander.

Other photographers practicing today use large prints to draw the viewer into the work. These large photographs can break the boundary between the viewer and the image. While Balloons keeps its audience at a distance, Spyder (2006) by Marilyn Minter (b. 1948) directly confronts them in a dramatic fashion. The sitter’s makeup-caked eyelid and lashes create a strange disjointed world. The 50-by-36-inch photograph cannot help but force women to take into account the shared experience of hardening eye shadow and clumping mascara. At this scale, the work not only highlights flaws in society’s ideal of feminine beauty, but drives home the less-than-glamorous reality that commercial fashion shoots airbrush away.

In their oscillation between physical presence and immersion, large photographs deliver a commanding impact that has made them central players in contemporary art. This exhibition explains how they do so and why.

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