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PanAm Games Feature Stunning Backlit Exhibition

Robert Young, McRae Imaging collaborate to print 'World Faces' photography.

Big Picture

When Robert Young photographs a woman for his Young World Faces exhibit, 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 artist has been shooting portraits of women with their faces painted in the colors of their native flags since 2009, but when the Pan American Games (a major summer sporting event held among athletes from nations of the Americas) came to his hometown of Toronto in 2015, Young saw the perfect stage for his 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. His next challenge was finding a presentation that would be as powerful as the portraits themselves.

“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, the 57-story west tower of Toronto’s historic 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 via a Google search of local large-format printers. During their first meeting, he saw an enormous backlit print of a woman for a makeup ad and set his intention to use similar media. The process, however, wasn’t so simple.

“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,” he explains.

At long last, the project was ready for printing. McRae customized 21 double-sided light boxes measuring 4 feet wide by 7 feet tall. Each portrait was printed on the shop’s Reggiani ReNoir textile printer and sublimated with a Monti Antonio heat transfer press onto Lux Backlit fabric. The exhibit was arranged as a modern-day Stonehenge, says Young, with 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 was “quite an undertaking,” requiring a team of seven people. But he insists 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.”

Read more from our April 2016 "Inspired Interiors" issue.

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