Matting and Mounting

San Diego — One of my readers asked about the types of mats I mentioned in the last post and wondered about how all that effects viewers or more specifically, judges.  That is a great question so I want to address it here for all to see.

Photographers tend to use the terms “over-mat” and “window-mat” interchangeably but actually they are different. Both involve cutting a hole in a piece of mat board (ideally either “museum” (rag) board or “conservation” board (buffered alpha cellulose) in order to minimize or eliminate the nitric acids in the normal nitrocellulose boards from attacking the image and shortening its life.  But an over-mat actually covers a tiny bit of the edges of the image area showing none of the paper on which the image is made.  In an ideal world the opening would precisely correspond to the image area but I don’t know anyone who can consistently cut mats that perfectly so usually the image is ever-so-slightly oversized and the opening is able to crop into it a tiny bit.

But the overmat creates a problem.  To establish a proper provenance for the piece it needs to be signed on the print.  Photographers have followed the model of the printmakers and signed on the paper below the image area (although some printmakers also signed in the plate itself as well).  However an over-mat covers that external signature so someone using an overmat needs to sign again on the mat itself.

As an aside, that signature on the mat is often done in pencil.  This was because old reproduction techniques did not copy pencil-made text very well and so it was hard to fake.  Modern techniques and scanning have rendered that pointless.  And, in any case, the “real” signature on the print needs to be permanent so that it cannot be erased or fade over time and be lost.

OK, back to mats… By comparison with the “over-mat” a “window-mat” leaves a “border” around the image area, usually properly bottom weighted, which shows not only the paper (nice if high quality mould-made paper is being used) and also reveals the real and permanent signature on the print.

For those indulging in the pretense and conceit of editioning their photos this also provides the space for that data to go even if it is bogus.  Some unsophisticated buyers are fooled by it and sometimes gullible enough to pay more for a work that claims to be editioned.  I would normally have no trouble helping a fool part with their money but unfortunately, for myself, I know it is meaningless at best and a fraud at worst so do not do it.  Besides I prefer, as did Adams, to constantly experiment with pieces to see if I can make them better.

Bevelled mats simulate the plate mark on intaglio prints (etching and engraving). Mounting, matting, and framing (or other final display techniques like Diasec, etc.) served an important purpose im the art world. for one thing it served to define the “universe” of the piece and set it apart from the “real” world in which it was displayed.  But the hallmark of poorly cut mats is the overcut at the corners.  It is almost always a sign that the blade depth in the cutter is not properly set and it always cheapens the look of the whole package.

Further, for real artists of any medium, the design and style of the whole package was and is carefully thought out and crafted to enhance the work itself.  Only photographers still try to pretend it has no effect or value except to protect the print and therefore assert that it should have no real effect on how the image itself is viewed.  That is wishful thinking and aesthetic ignorance gone to seed.

The reality is that when a viewer walks into a room they see the whole package. They “get,” even if they cannot articulate it, the effect of a liner or design on the mat or frame and how it conveys or stifles the message of the image.  As importantly they also “get” the sense of “implied value,” a concept critical in the advertising and marketing world in which study after study has shown clearly most people will make a value judgement about a product based on the quality of its packaging.

I’ve even tested that in classes; taking two photos of identical quality then sloppily mounting one of them, slightly askew with tissue showing and the other one carefully matted complete with a tissue overlay.  Without exception student and non-photographer viewers have stated that the well matted one is a better one. There are some of those human nature characteristics we simply cannot avoid no matter how much we might want to or try to fool ourselves into accepting.

On my website’s SDCC page there are handouts for easily determining the proper placement of the image in the aesthetic/optical center of the mat and how to properly hinge mount the images.  In my own classes I promise an “F” to anyone turning in a print using photo corners.  Those are for scrap books… period.  I have a print on the wall in my house from a colleague that is no longer visible in the mat because it was done with photo corners and now has slipped out of sight.  I leave it there as a statement.  This year during the print judging a print came out of its photo corners as it was being shown to the jurors.  How cheasy…  Guess how the jurors reacted…???


About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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