Thursday, 21 June 2012

Working With Size

Umbra - installation view, 2012 © Julie Jones

For this post, I decided to put in writing a discussion with the lovely and talented Ms. Julie Jones.

Julie Renée Jones was born in Dayton Ohio. She received her BFA in Photography from the University of Dayton in 2007 and her MFA from Columbia College Chicago in 2012. She is a nationally exhibited artist and currently lives and works in Chicago, Illinois. Her work can be seen at

Julie and I work in two very different ways, yet we tend to share a number of views on photographic practice. I have become increasingly concerned with how size, and more specifically the mixture of a number of differently sized photographs within a body of work, affects the overall impact of the body of work, especially in an exhibition space.

Evan Baden: I don't know where I come down on the issue yet. I think there are contexts where varying the size of images within a body of work can be successful, namely within a medium with pages. But as far as exhibition space goes, I'm not sure what a change in size gets me.

I don't mind a small change in scale when looking at a body of work in an exhibition space, but when an artist starts going from small to large, I find it really disorienting. I don't know how to interpret what I am seeing, and more importantly, I can't figure out why I am seeing it in the first place. When scale changes so drastically, I figure it has to mean something, but I spend so much time trying to figure out why certain images where chosen to be exhibited larger or smaller that I don't focus on the content of the actual images. In this sense, the scale change becomes gimmicky and, for me, distracts from and diminishes the content of the work.

Julie Jones: I don't think just anyone can put their photographs randomly up on a wall at different sizes and be successful at it. I think to do it right it has to be extremely planned out. I don't think you can have work at two different sizes and then stuck in a traditional line, traditionally framed.

EB: Of course, if it is going to be done, it needs to be thought through. But that is like everything else when it comes to art; there needs to be a reason for doing it.

JJ: But if the printing (and the size) should be considered when making the work, then it seems logical to me that not all photographs in a body of work necessarily have to be printed at one size. And I don't think that it means that one photograph is more important than another, it just means that one photograph does something else than another when it is smaller or larger. I think it's a choice to heighten experience and atmosphere and I definitely do not think that all work can do this.

EB: I would go further and say that most work cannot do this. And I don't know that I have seen work on the wall where I think this works yet. I do agree that it is important (at least for me) that the work is printed very intentionally and that the presentation is considered and adds to the intention of the work. But I feel the foremost intention of any artists is to get people to look at the work and draw something from it, other than confusion (unless the confusion is the point). And to me, the constant shifting in size draws me away from the imagery.
And of course the images will operate differently at different sizes, but what I am concerned about is what happens between the images when they are a multitude of drastically different sizes?

JJ: I don't think that all series displayed this way are all confusing. They don't confuse me. I think that this point is subjective. I don't doubt that this kind of arrangement is confusing to some people. I personally think that a greater emphasis on the size of the photographs is a benefit to my own work. I think it clues the viewer into how to approach a certain image. An image of someone pulling a hoodie over their head is pretty normal, but what about when you're confronted with that gesture larger than life? Meanwhile, the 16x20 next to it with the identity of the person in the picture being completely obliterated by light references a picture hung in a domestic setting. That's strange. Haha! Okay, you might not go there, but I do and I'm the artist, that's what matters isn't it?

EB: I do think it is interesting to talk about your work when I am thinking about this issue, mostly because you were also experimenting with making a book of this work as well. In the case of your book, I really loved the variation in size and format, experiencing something new with each page turn, and being able to reflect on past images through my own memory. It is interesting to see you try and replicate that experience on a gallery wall, and more specifically, in the corner of a gallery. But I am also of the opinion that you can't replicate the same type of experience that you had in the book.

JJ: I don't mean to replicate it so much as draw from the success of the book and reconfigure it for the wall. I think it does very different things on the wall and I'm interested in that. By placing this cacophony (can I be romantic for a minute and use that word?) of images in a corner, I am inviting the viewer to be surrounded by the work. Surrounded by the photographs, which begin to seem like they're portals to an alternative universe, a parallel reality. I want them to be physically immersed in this strange, but familiar atmosphere and I can't get the physicality of that experience from a book. Which is what I was hoping for.

I think in this method of exhibiting the smaller to larger sizes do function similarly as in a book. There are pauses, some photographs are meant to be more intimate than others, some more experiential and threatening or made to evoke the sublime. In a sense, I think the wall is better suited for these ranges in emotional and experiential quality because you can get very large and juxtapose it with something smaller to create that feeling.

EB: I don't know. I do like your notion of not trying to replicate the experience but instead draw on the successes of the book. However, I think seeing change of scale in a book provides something very different than the prints on a wall. In a book, change of scale, from a full double-page spread to a small image placed on a sea of white, gives the viewer space to breath; to pause and reflect on the imagery they have just witnessed, and to ponder the intimacy of the image in front of them. I think this is partly because when images change scale in a book, the change is not that great, therefore the mood of the viewer is only slightly altered. The effect is subtle. I think it also has a different effect because in a book, for the most part (or at least to a much greater extent than a large exhibition space) the artist has control over the sequence in which the work is viewed. Most of that control is lost when walking into an exhibition space. Because that control is lost, it is harder to make the viewer pause based solely on the size of prints.

I do agree that with a wall space there can be a greater difference in size, but I think that is my problem. But what does pushing those extremes accomplish? I think the subtlety and, more importantly the control of how the viewer experiences the imagery in a book is what makes it successful. When the imagery begins getting extremely different, especially in size, and when the viewer can see all of the images at once (presumably), the effect gets murkier.

JJ: For me this kind of display completely broke the linear narrative read of my photographs as a whole. That was a very good thing for my work. Each photograph is very narrative on its own, but my intention was never that they would carry a coherent narrative from one image to the next. Exhibiting my work in a linear fashion caused a lot of people to be confused about what they were supposed to  "get" out of the photographs because they were trying to read from left to right a story that I was telling that was supposed to spell out the meaning behind the entire series somehow. I'm not telling a conventional, linear, simple story. I'm more interested in allegory and drawing larger themes from the nonsensical. And I had a greater success rate at this by breaking up how people normally read narrative imagery and exhibiting at different sizes. I first learned this from making a book of my work and I wanted to utilize some of the successes from the book format and transfer that to the exhibition wall, part of that included experimenting with varying sizes.

EB: What do you think happens to the individual photographs when installing like this? Do they begin to become more of a single installation piece? Do they loose their photographic individuality? It hurts me to have a photograph loose that individuality, but maybe that's because I still think in the traditional manner of having strong single images.

JJ: I don't think that the individual photographs necessarily loose their impact. I think that it is something that could happen when exhibiting at different sizes, but like you it would hurt me to think that the photograph somehow looses it's individuality because it's paired with other images of varying sizes. I think it's important that the way an artist chooses to exhibit their work when using this format creates a situation that invites the viewer to view the work as one large piece that they can observe from a distance and also one that they want to walk up to and investigate on an individual, intimate level. I don't think there is a formula to achieve this, but I think that it is something that any artist interested in "unconventional" exhibition should be experimenting with and hopefully the form of their photographs would evolve to solve this problem aesthetically.

EB: So then, thinking about what you have said here, do you think that in order to get the disparate sizes to mesh they have to be installed in some special way? Does that mean that the only way this works is to have some sort of unconventional installation? I think I tend to agree with that notion, but again, it really has to relate to the work and I feel that too many times when I see some sort of unconventional installation it adds nothing extra to the work and, more often than not, actually distracts from the imagery.

I think where I can see it working is if the viewer is really overwhelmed by an extreme amount of imagery, if a gallery is covered floor to ceiling in images of varying sizes, from the very large to the very small (although I'm still not sure if the very large could work even in this scenario). I don't really know what that type of installation says about the work, especially since we are just talking about installation methods and not actual imagery, but I feel like something like this could be successful. But to relate this back to earlier in the conversation, the viewer would be taking in the installation as a whole, unable to isolate much of the imagery, and that says something very different.

JJ: I'm going to disagree again and say that I see it this type of installation being more useful than just to overwhelm the viewer, but you already knew that. I think you make a really great point here; we aren't talking about imagery, but it depends so much on imagery. In the end, the imagery should dictate if a series of photographs can be exhibited successfully in this manner. It all goes back to the photographs. Maybe you just haven't seen a series of photographs that you feel work well in this type of situation, but I'm sure that it's out there. And for me, I've found it with several artists and it inspired me to try it out for myself, to break some boundary or normalcy in an otherwise predictable environment.

Evan Baden (Foam Magazine #22/Peeping)

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