Thinking small

By Lucas Olson

I’ve been fascinated by the tiny things in our big world ever since I was one of those tiny things myself. Dioramas and plastic army men often captured my young imagination, not to mention films like The Indian in the Cupboard or The Borrowers (though oddly enough, never Honey, I Shrunk the Kids). While my interest in playing with scale never quite graduated in complexity from Lego playsets to model trains, I’m still enamored with things that made either tiny things look huge or huge things look tiny.

It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that I’m excited about PEM’s upcoming exhibition Sizing It Up: Scale in Nature and Art. I’ve found myself drawn to Christopher Boffoli’s photography in particular, not only because of the photographs themselves, but also because I’d been inspired by similar images while taking a photography class in high school. I still have a few of the figurines I used for that project, so in light of the upcoming exhibition, I thought it might be fun to give it another shot.


Christopher Boffoli, Bagel Fishermen, 2012. Photo courtesy of the artist/Big Appetites Studio.

It’s the kind of thing anyone can try if they have dolls, action figures or small toys at home (the leavings of a childhood, essentially). I gathered my collection from a box in my closet and the point-and-shoot camera we had sitting around.

I cast the net wide as far as subjects were concerned. I had an elephant, an octopus, a leopard and a toucan but also a dinosaur and an astronaut with a ship to match. We’d recently taken out the front steps of my house, so we had a bunch of broken granite blocks sitting in our yard that seemed as though they might look otherworldly if they were photographed up close. So I took everything outside in the late afternoon (my photography teacher had convinced me that natural light was best after four o’clock) and got to work.

The shots with the animals didn’t really work — either they didn’t look natural enough or they didn’t look unnatural enough. Sometimes the background was too vague, or it just looked like a picture of two things propped next to each other (a lion next to a dandelion, for example). The dinosaur and the astronaut worked, maybe because they were smaller (close to the size of Boffoli’s figures) but also because they were the most alien.

Dinosaur 2

Photo by Lucas Olson

The fact of the matter is that when you get up close to things you usually only glance down at, they look weird. You can tell that a toy elephant looks out of place when you put it down somewhere that doesn’t look like its real habitat; it’s obviously unnatural. But do the same thing with a dinosaur and it becomes easier to suspend disbelief. Thinking small and changing perspective makes the familiar world look like an alien landscape, using a little spaceman as the subject only highlights the joke.


Photo by Lucas Olson

It’s the “thinking small” that makes the whole experience fun, provided you are willing to tolerate getting your clothes a little dirty and perhaps collecting a few bug bites. To get photos of these animals I either had to be lying down on the ground or squatting down, hunched over a pile of granite. You’re not just taking a picture of tiny things in a big world, you’re getting on eye level with them. There’s a kind of instant-empathy in the process that Boffoli’s work also captures — it forces you to reexamine the world you know from a completely fresh angle. Perhaps that’s why it appeals to children (who knows what its like to live looking up at the world around them), as well as to adults.

As fun as it is to try and make small things look big, it’s also possible (and increasingly popular) to do the opposite. Miniature faking, often called tilt-shift photography after the camera lens that can be used to produce the effect, is when one makes a photograph (usually a landscape) appear to be a photograph or a miniature or a diorama. While my pictures aren’t precisely ideal (it works better without sky), here’s an example of a landscape from my recent trip to Edinburgh, Scotland:

Edinburgh Untilt 1

Photo by Lucas Olson

And then, after it has been edited:

Edinburgh Tilt 1

Photo by Lucas Olson

The effect works by blurring (usually) the top and the bottom of a landscape photograph, which simulates a small depth of field and a very close focus, which tricks the brain so it thinks it’s looking at something small, like a painted diorama, rather than a train station in the center of a Scottish city.

Edinburgh Tilt 4

Photo by Lucas Olson

There’s a special lens that can be used to take photographs with the miniature faking effect, or the blurring can be done later (if a little sloppier) in Photoshop. But as the effect has become popular, so have free websites dedicated to helping people make big things look small. Now there’s a button for it on Instagram.

The time spent trying to take these photos only made me more excited to see Sizing It Up. Not only to indulge my childhood fascination, but to see the way children react to the scale-warping art. This kind of art, after all, has a fundamental appeal to children. It makes parts of the adult world appear alien, and puts adults and children on the same level.

Sizing It Up: Scale and Nature in Art opens October 10.


Lucas Olson is an undergraduate English major at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He spent the summer working as an editorial intern at PEM and dreamily staring at art. His writing has also appeared in The Golden Key.


  1. Janey Winchell says:

    I really enjoyed your investigations into miniaturization and tilt-shift photography! There will be some fun examples of both in the “Sizing It Up” exhibition, including an opportunity to look through a real tilt-shift-o-scope in PEM’s atrium.

    One of the things I have really enjoyed about scale as a topic is that any of us can be fooled or surprised by scale, regardless of our age or prior knowledge. It is a great equalizer!

  2. Emily Larsen says:

    Great blog post, Lucas!

  3. Gail says:

    Looking forward to this exhibit. Interesting article.

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