About Scale

(Forgive me for the length of this post.)

The computer, my primary medium, lends me a peculiar relationship to scale. I can zoom very deeply into an image. By now I know at what point my modifications will be undetectable when the art is printed, but that is a feeling one gets for the scale of things that is not intrinsic to the information on the screen. On the screen you could be anywhere.

If you have ever worked with graphics on a computer you must know the importance of resolution. Basically, the amount of information in a particular image has to relate properly to its output size. You can print something smaller (to an extent) and retain information but if you keep blowing it up it will blow up into bits. If there is not enough information then the image gets garbled and the viewer has trouble making out the information, it all becomes a kind of average noise. In this sense resolution can be associated conceptually with focus: when something drops out of focus it also becomes averaged and its information unreadable.

Lately my work has been incorporating objects that I scan directly on a flatbed scanner. Obviously the objects must be relatively small to fit on the scanner. At the beginning of this body of work I wasn’t sure how big to make the scans. I can enlarge things something like 26000 percent. How big should I make each scan? I wasn’t sure yet what I was going to do with these things. Eventually I decided to make everything 24 inches wide (at a resolution of 240 pixels per inch) in the shortest direction—this is the width my printer can make. Through this rule of thumb I have accomplished a kind of leveling of scale of every source scan I work with. A quarter-inch watch gear becomes the same size (24 inches) as an 8 inch hubcap.

The scans combine high amounts of information with a very limited depth of focus. The part of the object that lays directly on the glass is perfectly sharp and the parts that curve away from the glass become blurred when they are more than about an eighth of an inch distant from the glass. This quick fall-off of focus we tend to associate with macro lens photography (the lens photography of very small things blown up large) so the eye can be tricked into thinking that all these objects are very small. But the scans can hold so much information about an object, more than I could see with my eyes or a camera lens and much sharper. So they are not really like macro photographs after all. I can zoom way in to these images–it’s like I’m flying myself in a tiny airplane super close. I get attached to this depth of information and sometimes find regular photographs lacking in sharpness and richness.

The Celestial Bodies series uses mostly scans of objects combined together—there may be ten different objects blended together to make each Celestial Body. I have noticed an interesting thing when people talk about these works. I have always thought of these objects as resembling very large objects–the sizes of stars and nebulae. But many people see these things as being microscopic, as some kind of diatom. This may be because of the focus drop-off tricking the eye.

I also work from photographs, not just scans. I need photographs because I can’t get everything onto the scanner–alas! I need photographs to reduce the very-large down to my 24 inch image.

In my recent piece, Small is Large is Small: Dendritic Rhymes on Multiple Scales, I combine images that share a branching dendritic structure: lightning; neurons; soil drainage patterns; blood vessels; street layouts in Old Delhi. All these are rhymed with the vascular structure inside the blades of some maple seed “helicopters.” There is a structural rhyme between drainage patterns seen in satellite images of West Virginia and the path of blood vessels in a mouse’s ear. Recently I am drawn especially to visual rhymes that work across large gaps in scale. It is like the physicists who are trying to find natural laws that can apply both to the very small quantum level and to the very large scale force of gravitation. The rules of the very small break down when you blow them up—sounds like resolution! This break down I show in the maple seed blade with the satellite image of drainage patterns in West Virginia: the image was scanned from a book and then blown up large and you can see the halftone dots of the original print. The dendritic pattern then can be best grasped if the viewer backs up. Essentially you have to reduce the image using a body zoom (moving your body away from the image) in order to find the “proper” resolution. We have to adjust ourselves in order to see things clearly.

Small is Large is Small: Dendritic Rhymes on Multiple Scales, is also the largest image I have made so far. I wanted to make something small, the maple seeds, into something very large. The piece is about six feet wide so when it is viewed up close the structures are clearly visible. This piece can be seen when the roll-up door is shut at Black Lab, my studio on the Arts Walk at Monroe Street Market. I have plans for another very large piece combining fennel flowers and galaxies. Stand by.