After walking the Dales Way in England two years ago, my wife and I continued our civilised adventure over five days in the Lake District. From our impeccable accommodations at Blenheim Lodge in Bowness on Windermere we bussed to surrounding villages to visit museums and attractions. We weren’t alone—the fine spring weather brought out flowers and tourists in equal numbers—but all were well-behaved, even when the bus broke down (it was a short walk back to the village, and a pub—no harm done). Sadly, there were no missile launchers or giant balls of twine about for our amusements, but we nevertheless enjoyed walking on the grounds at Brantwood, John Ruskin’s home overlooking Coniston Water, and touring Dove Cottage in Grasmere, where William Wordsworth lived.
My favorite glimpse into a storied life, though, came at Hill Top, where Beatrix Potter lived. We crossed Lake Windermere one morning on the little ferry boat and walked a narrow road to the house, in the hamlet of Near Sawrey. As we waited our turn to go inside (a timed-ticket system keeps scrums to a minimum) we chatted with a bus driver, who pointed out swallows hunting insects in a field across the road and a house that he said was where Potter actually lived (she also wanted to avoid tourists).
The day after that we went to the village of Hawkshead, to the Beatrix Potter Gallery. Although as a child I was a stranger to Peter Rabbit and Tom Kitten, I stood entralled as an adult before her original sketches and paintings. The necessary subdued lighting of each could not hide their depth, nor the subtle colors throughout. Most surprising (to me) was their small sizes, which were likely a practical matter given the methods of reproduction in her time.
As a photographer, that encounter has caused me to think about print sizes and how we view photographs.
Commentaries on almost any photography forum inevitably include “print it big” among their numbers. This will, it’s assumed, allow the audience to get up close and see fine details, but it’s a poor way to experience the essence of any photograph. And it isn’t the way we viewed the scene out in the field, standing behind a tripod while waiting for the perfect light. Our eyes are marvelous (even when they require a bit of assistance), but we focus on one thing at a time: our field of vision is limited. I doubt many landscape photographers count individual blades of grass or leaves or rocks as they compose a photo (unless it’s a close-up)—these are all elements in a grander composition. Standing inches away and counting them after the picture is on the wall misses the point of the work entirely.
We may blow pictures up to billboard size or zoom beyond 100% on a computer monitor, but in doing so we lose our intimate connections to them. It’s no surprise that photography books remain popular (including, increasingly, self-published volumes)—everything we need is right there, a comfortable arm’s length away. Just like Peter Rabbit.