Big Picture Magazine

SEEKING THE LIGHT

When Robert Young photographs a woman for his World Faces exhibit, he says he asks them “to find in themselves what it would look like if this image could wipe away all poverty, all violence, all distressing issues in their nation.” The photographer and artist has been shooting portraits of women painted with their native flag since 2009, but when the Pan American Games came to his hometown of Toronto in 2015, Young saw the perfect stage for the body of work to come together as a whole.

After pitching the idea to the competition’s organizers and landing a commission, Young sought out 41 women throughout Toronto whose nationalities represented those of the participating nations at the games. His process was meticulous, measuring each woman’s face and coordinating with a makeup artist to create the perfect representation of each nation’s flag. Finally, it was time to find a way of displaying the portraits in a way that was as powerful as their subjects.

 “Originally, the traditional aspect was to print them on a semi-gloss paper, put them in a traditional frame, and hang them in the windows,” says Young. But the venue, Toronto’s historic 34-story Commerce Court, seemed to call for more. “It was such a dynamic, open, and massive space with nothing in the middle and glass all the way around the sides,” he continues. “As I began to really look at how we could incorporate the space, I wanted the exhibition to be interactive. I wanted people to feel like they could walk right up to the body of work and … feel like they could be one with the image.” 

It was then that he discovered fabric printer McRae Imaging (mcrae-imaging.com). During their first meeting he saw an enormous, backlit print of a woman for a makeup ad, and the decision was a no- brainer. The process, however, was anything but thoughtless.

“We did test after test after test,” says Young. When you’re curating an international display featuring symbols as precise and revered as a nation’s flag, color management is more than important – it’s pivotal. “There were a lot of challenges in terms of how to deal with the gradient, the deep, dark paint falling off into the dark shadows, keeping blacks black yet also maintaining the saturation and color temperature.”

At long last, the project was ready for printing. McRae custom built 21 double-sided light boxes measuring 4 feet wide and 7 feet tall. Each portrait was printed on the shop’s Reggiani ReNoir textile printer and sublimated with a Monti Antonio onto Lux Backlit fabric. The exhibit was arranged as a modern-day Stonehenge, says Young, and four strategically placed openings so that “your experience viewing the 41 nations changed every single time you walked through the space.” 

Young adds that the 7-hour installation, which included a 40-foot rug to cover the web of electric cables, was “quite an undertaking,” requiring a team of seven people to complete. But he continues that every minute was well spent. “Kids were running through the exhibition identifying their mothers and slamming their hands on the canvas. There’s no way we could’ve created that interaction with it printed small scale in classic museum style frames … It would’ve been hands off, stay away, stand back a few feet, and look … It was even better than I could have imagined.

Story by Kiersten Wones