ARTS ALMANAC: Show offers intimate portraits in XX-large

By Kathleen Mellen

Even when she first started work two years ago on her latest project – an exhibit of nine gigantic portraits – photographer Susan Mikula knew she would need to find a really big venue for the show. She surprised nearly everyone, she says, when she chose the unlikely setting of the 4-H Exhibition Hall at the Three County Fairgrounds in Northampton. The photos in the exhibit measure 9 feet long and are as high as 11 feet. ‘They are meant to be viewed from a distance of at least 20 feet,’ Mikula offered.

‘I wanted [the exhibit] to be monumental in the true sense of the word,’ Mikula said. ‘The only time you see humans this size – which is much bigger than life – they are selling something on signs and billboards. It’s not about who they are,’ Mikula said. ‘Here, I’m really getting something of that person in that big, washing-over-you kind of way.’

Mikula chose to work in portraiture – a new genre for her – because it offers a way to glimpse something both personal and emotional in her subjects. The largeness, she says, enhances that. ‘There is some small piece of themselves coming through huge. It’s what makes a portrait a portrait.’

Through a process that leaves the camera shutter open for an extended period of time, Mikula has achieved a ghostly quality that gives the illusion of an aura around her subjects. Because of that, and the size of the pieces, Mikula says, they are unreadable at certain angles, or if the viewer is too close. ‘My work is largely abstract, it can take time for people looking at it to figure it out,’ she added.

Mikula deliberately steered clear of a traditional art gallery setting, she says, to forestall preconceptions about how art should be viewed.

‘People tend to view art in the same way in a gallery. They come in, look around, spend a little time in front of each piece, and then walk on.’ The artist says she hopes the expansiveness of her exhibit – and the unlikely setting – will challenge that ‘learned way of looking at art.’ Plus, she adds, she likes the rustic setting at the fair, with its high ceilings, cement floors and brown wooden walls.

The two-year process has been an arduous one, Mikula says, especially for her subjects, for whom a sitting lasted about two hours.

‘They think sitting will be the easiest thing in the world, but it’s hard to have your picture taken,’ Mikula said. ‘First, I’m asking you to be 100-percent open and present. We talk, but some don’t want to talk. They want to focus,’ she said. ‘Then, I’m telling you very specific things to do with your body. If a hand is turned so only two fingers show – not five, at 9 feet tall, that’s going to show.’

Mikula estimates that she shot 5,000 full-frame, color portraits with two vintage Polaroid cameras, using available light, before turning some of those images over to Dave Dumas of Pivot Media in Florence, who digitized the pictures using a super high resolution scanner. Then, the final portraits were printed in Framingham on construction mesh. They will be hung with sturdy line attached to the ceiling and to sandbags on the concrete floor. Mikula says she hopes the enormous photographs don’t sway.

‘It will be the enemy of viewing this if it moves,’ Mikula said.

Indeed, the whole process has been one of trial and error. ‘You can plan and plan and plan. You think you know how it should be, but I’ve never done this before,’ Mikula said. ‘I suspect it will take eight hours to hang the first [portrait] and then eight hours to hang the other eight.’

Mikula admits to being a little nervous about the installation and has called upon several friends to help out, including her partner, Rachel Maddow, who will take a day off from her job Friday as host of an Air America Radio show in New York City to lend a hand.

‘If all she can do is calm me down, that’ll be a help to everyone,’ Mikula said.