Although I had primarily gone along to see the Chris Steele-Perkins show it was the Mitch Epstein photographs that I took most away from. The Steele-Perkins photographs were all pretty familiar. Seeing them printed large and framed behind glass added nothing to the experience of looking at them in books or even on a monitor. If anything the glass made viewing them more difficult and to my eyes, even close up, the prints were nothing startling. The Epsteins were a different matter.
Being stuck behind glass was still troublesome for viewing the pictures, reflections are the problem. What I wasn't prepared for was how the scale affects how the pictures act on you. I've always been well aware that an image's size has an effect on how it is perceived, and that looking at prints in books isn't always the same as seeing the real thing. In the case of the Steele-Perkins prints they were not much larger than they can appear in books. Certainly not large enough to make a difference. Seeing a photograph at a size that fills an A4 page is one thing, but seeing the same photograph printed at six feet across (or thereabouts) is another experience altogether.
What seeing these very large prints did for me was explain the benefit of large format film. At something like A3 the level of detail that can be revealed from any size negative or digital file is limited. At six feet across small elements in a large scene can be revealed. It is this level of detail that sometimes attracts the photographer's eye. By standing close to the print this detail is revealed, by stepping back the full composition is revealed - yet the mind retains the information from the closer viewing. The overall impact is much different to seeing the same image printed small.
My two favourite prints from the American Power exhibition were the Hoover dam picture and the Martha Murphy and Charlie Biggs double portrait. Both benefit from being viewed large to show. The former as it reveals the intricacies of the power lines and so forth, the latter because it allows you to examine the items in front of the pair, and the tattoo on Charlie's arm. I had never understood the point of making very large photographic prints prior to seeing these. I left the exhibition contemplating how not only the aspect ratio of a format can affect the photographs you take, but also the scale of the negative (or sensor) and the size to which the final print can successfully be made. My eyes had been opened to alternative photographic ways of looking and seeing.
Restricted to an APS size digital sensor I tried making some photographs that suited it as I made my way back to the car park.