Profile: Susan Mikula

john seven
22nd Jun 2010

Photographer Susan Mikula sees beauty where some see only waste, and her effort to capture these visions are part of an aesthetic race against time in more ways than one.

Mikula’s new show “American Vale”  follows up on “American Device,” which had her depicting plants and refineries in California and Texas.

Mikula has now turned her lens to capture the same landscapes in Pittsfield, an extension of her aesthetics, which date back to her upbringing in New Jersey. Mikula proclaims her home state beautiful — all aspects of it, including the industrial landscape that many see — and she finds the same pleasure elsewhere.

“To my eyes, these places have always been places of wonder — and in the same way that someone else might find when they’re looking out at the beach or out at a mountain,” Mikula said during a recent interview. “I think that sort of wonder and the mystery of the physical objects — the buildings or the oil tanks or the warehouses, whatever those things are — I find them numinous, like there is that little bit of mystery, there is that ghostly beauty to it. I think it goes way, way, way back and it never has left me. I really love those places. I love them as a part of who we are as Americans.”

Mikula believes Americans were defined by the Industrial Revolution, on a personal level as well as on a national, economic one, and is attracted to the remnants of that history. She points out that, like it or loathe it, industrialism — and that includes the mistakes of industry, even the devastating ones — are an important part of the American landscape in both the past and present. Often, it’s the sites’ movement through time that makes them so alluring, the fact that they are dying or dead but still stand.

“A lot of what you see, though not everything, in ‘American Vale’ is GE,” Mikula said. “With what we know about GE and what’s happened to the Hudson and the bodies of water around it because of the PCBs and what’s leeched out of those labs, I think it’s extremely hard to look at those old places for some people and see the loveliness of shape that I see — the divine, the color, the way they sit in the landscape, the way they work in the neighborhood.

“In Pittsfield, as well as when I was doing the coast for the other show, these are things that people see from their homes. In Pittsfield on Tyler Street, those houses sat just across the street from these places, so it’s very much part of Pittsfield’s residents’ lives.”

The passage of time — and the way it reflects on industrial areas — might have been part of what caught Mikula’s eye, but it also worked against her. The structures she chose to make studies of were rapidly disappearing, but not by normal decay — they were being torn down.

“I would go one day and take pictures, and I’d go back a week later and the place was down — or it would be half down, and then it would be down,” Mikula said. “I was just like, OK, I can see that I’m on a timeline here. This has to happen now. I was surprised at how, once the decision was made to eradicate those buildings from the vista of Pittsfield, it went very fast. It’s amazing how many places I took pictures of that aren’t there, that are just flat now.”

If the buildings appeared as ghosts on the landscape when Mikula first approached them, they really became ethereal following the act of taking the photographs, which began to function as memorials to these complicated and controversial areas. As Mikula viewed them, they were monuments in people’s ordinary lives, regardless of their industrial purpose or environmental impact, and their disappearance did affect the human space of Pittsfield.

“These are mostly places you can’t walk into,” she said. “They’re locked and they have razor wire, so it’s for me to find an angle that I can find from a public space. All of these are taken from legal-to-stand-on public spaces. I say that not because of the legality, but because they are things that any person could have seen. I like that, and therefore did see — people saw them on their way to work or when they looked out their window doing the dishes.”

The passage of time affects Mikula’s work in other ways, most significantly in her choice of equipment — old Polaroid cameras that require an understanding of their mechanical individualism in order to get the specific photo she sought. As she points out, the cameras with Polaroid were an afterthought in contrast to its main product — film — and this meant camera production was farmed out, creating a situation in which the same models of camera would probably offer different results in quality.

“You could have five vintage Swinger cameras, and every one of them is going to give you a different picture,” Mikula said. “In this case, I was shooting with an XS-70 — I have a lot of XS-70 cameras with different kinds of lenses ground at different places — the cameras all have very different kinds of viewfinders. They can be identical cameras, and yet each one is made so differently.”

For Mikula, there is also the factor of what Polaroid means in Americana and how inclusive it was in the perception that anyone could take a photo and see the result of that action immediately.

“For me personally, Polaroid — it doesn’t get more American than that. I actually don’t know anyone who hasn’t had some experience with a Polaroid camera or picture. That’s a pretty great uniter,” she said. “I would be really sorry if that went away for all of the upcoming generations of people who might want to pick up a camera.”

Mikula goes into each project knowing exactly what specific camera she wants to use because she has worked with each camera enough that she can predict the image based on that camera’s own personality. In this way, her photographs function a bit like a collaboration between herself and her equipment.

“I go into it with a lot of good information — and that doesn’t mean that every photograph works, even with all that information. It means that I’m front-loaded on information, and I know what I can get and I know what I can push those cameras to do, so that’s the intersection between the cameras and my own personal vision,” she said.

This one area of chance to her process does require that everything goes mostly right at any given session — the buildings are coming down, and any shoot might be her last opportunity to get it right.

Mikula also has to deal with a further limited resource — aging Polaroid film, which she stockpiled early on. The age of the film affects the outcome of the image itself — she has managed to analyze what to expect based on age. She can also use the specifics of the Polaroid developing process in creating her images.

“These are chemicals, so they’re constantly changing,” she said. “Some Polaroid is peel-apart film, and that does not have plastic coating on it, so that kind of film you can interrupt the developing, because the developing is happening between two pieces that you are going to pull apart.

“The film like the XS-70, that’s happening behind a plastic. With the peel-apart film, I have the opportunity to affect it in another way, which is to stop the developing process, and sometimes I do that because I know the order that the colors develop in, so I know what I’m going to get. I know what’s going to drop out, what color is not going to be developed.”

For “American Vale,” Mikula used recently expired film — within the past two years — but she has older film that she tucks away like a rare wine for a special occasion.

“I do have film that’s seven years expired or 15 years expired, and some of that is so dear to me that I don’t even know exactly what it’s going to and I save it out for a special one-of or single thing,” she said. “If I only have 15 or 30 shots, that’s not nearly enough to do very much with. With that, you could do one little object.”

It’s Mikula’s embrace of a type of photography entrenched in American industrialism that brings her love of that crumbling landscape to full circle and completes her projects as a thematic whole. She understands that some of these sites are emotionally and politically charged, and that environmentalism may for some people trump whatever aesthetics she sees in them. The challenge is to look past the personal emotions and expand their thematic vista of industrial areas, which are integral to who we were, who we are and who we are destined to be.

“It’s a funny little tightrope to walk because there’s such a very straightforward good and bad aspect to these things,” Mikula said. “This is how America works; this is how people make their livings and raise their families, so there’s that — and that’s always been an important part of these industrial sites — but there’s the downside to them to. I’m saying that I understand all of that, but let’s take a step back and just look at them as physical spaces and how they’ve affected us.”