Susan Mikula fights the future
About a month ago I went to my first art opening since leaving Memphis and, as usual, I have been extra slow to write a post about it. The show was called “desidero” by photographer Susan Mikula. I discovered her work a few years ago through her partner Rachel Maddow (and I actually heard about the opening by way of a Maddow tweet the day before). If you know anything about me, you know Rachel Maddow is kind of my hero. As I was thinking about the opening, it did occur to me that I might get to meet her (which I did), but I was way more nervous about the possibility of meeting Susan and overwhelmed by my excitement to see her work in person.
I wrote an essay about her work for a photo class about a year and a half ago. Afterwards I thought of photography quite a bit differently, but it wasn't until after the opening that I realized how much her work has influenced my own. Here is a slightly edited excerpt of that piece:
Susan Mikula’s images defy the shift toward digital photography and relentlessly fight against the impending obsolescence of film photography. By clinging to older Polaroid film cameras -- a favorite being the SX-70 Alpha -- she makes a case against relying on the new technology. The lack of focus in her images points out that sharp focus is not the only way to see the world. It may not always be practical (or especially safe) to see the world as shown in her images, though they make a compelling case against constantly relying on corrective lenses. In Curve Magazine she said “what’s interesting is that although a lot of people email me things that I'm sure they intend to be mean, they are actually kind of true. I have read, ‘If this is how you see the world that you need glasses.’ And I think, this is how I see the world, and I'm happy with that.” Obviously she is not the only person in the world without perfect vision, but the difference between her and majority of those people is that she exploits it in her work instead feeling burdened by it.
In most fine arts media, the conventional wisdom is that the artist makes up what she wants the viewer to see. In photography, however, the conventional wisdom within the general population seems to be that it is unbiased and simply captures things as they exist naturally. Photography is often seen as a medium that “exposes the truth,” not one that creates its own truth. Unlike drawing or painting, photos shot outside the confines of a studio are often assumed to capture a situation outside of the photographer’s control. This is certainly true at times -- photojournalism relies on this idea and I would argue that most of us see those images more regularly than fine arts photography -- but this assumption can't be applied to the photographic medium as a whole.
Miluka's photographs go against expectations by obscuring the truth rather than exposing it. Though her images do not all show staged scenes, they also do not bring to light any specific subject. In her 9 Portraits series, featuring nine portraits displayed nine feet tall, both the subjects and the settings are intentionally unclear. In "9 Portraits #4," a woman is shown in a field of blue, not engaging the viewer directly. Her hand is in the foreground, palm facing out, creating a physical barrier between herself and the viewer. Her head is turned to the side, making it seem as though she is in the middle of a conversation with someone else and suggesting that she will turn to address the viewer as soon as the conversation is done. Her surroundings are unclear, though there appear to be windows behind her, suggesting that she is indoors.
The woman’s situation in the foreground within an interior space suggests that she is someone the viewer knows. Her hand gesture and turned head give the impression that she is a friend. If the viewer was a stranger and the gesture was intended to keep him away, she would likely be facing out of the image and addressing the situation directly. The turned head makes the hand gesture seem more casual and allows her to acknowledge the viewer’s presence while continuing her current conversation.
Displaying images that are not in sharp focus on a large scale is somewhat counterintuitive. When people look at images on a large scale high frequency processing prevails, in other words, they see the details of the image rather than the generalized shapes. With smaller images, the effect is the opposite. In the 9 Portraits series, all of the photographs are displayed on a gargantuan scale, but there seem to be no details for the viewer to focus on. The scale thus allows them to be viewed in two ways: as abstract images if viewed up close, or as portraits if seen from further away.
In "9 Portraits #4," for example, the abstraction makes the image less about a specific person and more about the situation. The viewer is free to project whomever he wants onto the image and do likewise with the surroundings. The image calls upon the beauty and universality of human interaction, something which is a common experience for all of humans across all cultures and all time periods.
Like her portraits, Mikula's American Device series creates ambiguous, yet enchanting settings. In "American Device #31," a delicate fence graces the bottom right of the image and appears to be in the foreground. On the left side is a structure resembling a bridge or aqueduct. The lack of focus and muted tonal range make it hard to be sure exactly where the objects lie in space, but the composition is not completely devoid of depth cues. The fence posts hint at linear perspective, bringing the leftmost post into the foreground. The structure on the right is situated squarely on the horizon, putting it further back into space. The geographical location and function of the structures may not be particularly important. They are intentionally made unrecognizable so the viewer will focus on their beauty rather than the specific place itself; it's as if the image is asking him to consider his own surroundings in a similar light.
Mikula's decision not to use digital cameras makes the setting of her photgraphs more ambiguous than they would be if created digitally. The lack of focus serves to confuse the location, but the process is what most obscures the images' situation in time. With digital images it is safe to assume that they were taken during the digital age. With images that use non-digital processes, this assumption is diminished. In many cases the content of a photograph places the image in time, making the question of whether or not the image is digital is only a secondary factor. In this case, neither the imagery nor the process indicate when the images were taken, giving her images a kind of universal appeal.
By sticking to polaroid Mikula also avoids being distracted by the glitz of the digital technologies that are now widely available. Just because photoshop allows people to make unnaturally flashy photographs doesn’t mean everyone has to do it. This kickback to old school processes combats the homogeny of highly manipulated images the digital age threatens to create. At this point it seems like anyone who can get their hands on a digital camera and a bootleg copy of photoshop thinks he’s a photographer, which I think discounts the profession as a whole. Mikula points out that even though there are new ways of doing things, the old ways are far from obsolete.
After the opening, when I described the work to my mother on the phone she said, "That sounds like your book," in reference to a book arts project I did about a year ago. It hadn't even occurred to me, but I think Mikula's work did have a big impact on how I approached that project.
I also have to say that seeing her work in person made me seriously reconsider my decision to leave art school.