Story concerning large pictures with microscopic detail
"All Pieces of a River Shore" by R. A. Lafferty.
I would have read this story about 40 years ago (give or take a couple of years).
The story was first published in Damon Knight's 1970 original stories anthology Orbit 8; you could have read it there, or in Donald A. Wollheim's and Arthur W. Saha's The 1972 Annual World's Best SF (which can be borrowed from the Internet Archive, free but registration required), or in Robert Silverberg's Alpha 4. One of these covers might ring a bell.
It begins like this:
It had been a very long and ragged and incredibly interlocked and detailed river shore. Then a funny thing had happened to it. It had been broken up, sliced up into pieces. Some of the pieces had been folded and compressed into bales. Some of them had been rolled up on rollers. Some of them had been cut into still smaller pieces and used for ornaments and as Indian medicine. Rolled and baled pieces of the shore came to rest in barns and old warehouses, in attics, in caves. Some were buried in the ground.
- The story concerned large pictures (either paintings or photographs).
- The pictures were scenes of a riverbank (possibly the Mississippi).
"Charley," he said, "do you know anything about 'The Longest Pictures in the World' which used to be shown by carnivals and in hippodromes?"
"Yes, I know a little about them, Leo. They are an interesting bit of Americana: a bit of nineteenth-century back country mania. They were supposed to be pictures of the Mississippi River shore. They were advertised as one mile long, five miles long, nine miles long. One of them, I believe, was actually over a hundred yards long. They were badly painted on bad canvas, crude trees and mudbank and water ripples, simplistic figures and all as repetitious as wallpaper. A strong-armed man with a big brush and plenty of barn paint of three colors could have painted quite a few yards of such in one day. Yet they are truly Americana. Are you going to collect them, Leo?"
"Yes. But the real ones aren't like you say."
"Leo, I saw one. There is nothing to them but very large crude painting."
"I have twenty that are like you say, Charley. I have three that are very different. Here's an old carnival poster that mentions one."
[. . . .]
"It's all there, Charley, every leaf, every knob of bark, every spread of moss. I've put parts of it under a microscope, ten power, fifty power, four hundred power. There's detail there that you couldn't see with your bare eyes if you had your nose right in the middle of it. You can even see cells of leaf and moss. You put a regular painting under that magnification and all you see is details of pigment, and canyons and mountains of brush strokes. Charley, you can't find a brush stroke in that whole picture! Not in any of the real ones."
- The protagonist was investigating these pictures.
His name was Leo Nation and he was known as a rich Indian. But such wealth as he had now was in his collection, for he was an examining and acquiring man. He had cattle, he had wheat, he had a little oil, and he spent everything that came in. Had he had more income he would have collected even more.
- At one point, the protagonist examined part of a picture (I think it
may have been a detail with a bee) and discovered that the cellular
structure of the bee was visible under a microscope.
"I have enough curiosity; I have already latched onto it," Leo Nation said. "That piece you have on the wall—it looks like—if I could only see it under magnification—"
"Certainly, certainly, Nation. It looks like a swarm of bees there, and it is. I've a slide prepared from a fringe of it. Come and study it. I've shown it to lots of intelligent people and they all say 'So what?' It's an attitude that I can't understand."
Leo Nation studied the magnification with delight. "Yeah," he said. "I can even see the hairs on the bees' legs. In one flaking-off piece there I can even make out the cells of a hair." He fiddled with low and high magnification for a long while. "But the bees sure are funny ones," he said. "My father told me about bees like that once and I thought he lied."
"Our present honeybees are of late European origin, Nation," the man said. "The native American bees were funny and inefficient from a human viewpoint. They are not quite extinct even yet, though. There are older-seeming creatures in some of the scenes."
- I have the impression that there was a theological angle to it. The
pictures were evidence of some design by a superior or divine being.
"The early Indian legends, Don Caetano, did they say where the Long Picture came from or who painted it?"
"Sure. They say it was painted by a very peculiar great being, and his name (hold onto your capelo) was Great River Shore Picture Painter. I'm sure that will help you. About the false or cheap-jack imitations for which you seem to have contempt, don't. They are not what they seem to you, and they were not done for money. These cheap-jack imitations are of Mexican origin, just as the shining originals were born in the States. They were done for the new great families in their aping the old great families, in the hope of also sharing in ancient treasure and ancient luck. Having myself just left off aping great families of another sort, I have a bitter understanding of these imitations. Unfortunately they were done in the late age that lacked art, but the contrast would have been as great in any case: all art would seem insufficient beside that of the Great River Shore Picture Painter himself.
"The cheap-jack imitation pictures were looted by gringo soldiers of the U.S. Army during the Mexican War, as they seemed to be valued by certain Mexican families. From the looters they found their way to mid-century carnivals in the States."