by Carol Armstrong
I begin with an admission of animosity: As long as I have been aware of it, I have been prejudiced against the big photograph. Some of the reasons for my bias are personal. I tend to be drawn to the quieter, domestic-inflected nuance of the lower genres, the lesser media, the small statement, and the quirky, offbeat artist who doesn’t fit within the major categories and heroic lineages. I tend to feel some remove from, if not an upwelling of sheer contrariety in the face of, the herculean and the grandiose, the large-scale enterprise of playing ball with the Olympian big boys. Others of my reasons for distrusting the big photograph are more specifically photographic and have to do with my sense of the photograph as some-how an innately small medium: something the scale of the quarter-size daguerreotype plate and the Kodak snapshot, something that could be held in the hands, placed in an album or a drawer, or reproduced in a book, a scrap of copper or tin or a jaundiced and friable bit of paper, something not singular but multiple, not valuable but cheap, not epic-proportioned but idiosyncratic and uncanny, having to do not with grand narratives but with small details and happen-stance conjunctions, not with invention but with the aleatory, not with permanence and posterity but with the small frisson and delicate shudder, the poignance of the passing of time. My sense of the photograph, in short, is regressive: the nineteenth-century “fairy picture.” And to me the photograph is a medium with a fragile chemical surface marked by its indexical ties to the objects, moments, and faces that it records; its material surface and medium-specificity, which slip so easily through the fingers as it is, seem utterly voided in the trend toward the big photograph.