Mittan: A Retrospective

Mittan: A Retrospective is the photographic exhibit currently on display in the Special Collections and Archives gallery space in Strozier Library. The works of J. Barry Mittan candidly capture the student experience at Florida State University in the 1960s and 1970s. As a student and photographer for numerous campus publications, including the Tally-Ho yearbook and Florida Flambeau newspaper, Mittan often photographed students at official university-sponsored events and spontaneous student gatherings alike. Through his documentation of sporting events, Greek life, protests, concerts, study sessions, socials, and so on, he was able to construct a comprehensive view of FSU student life in which individuals banded together to share a common voice in an age of social change. Mittan’s unique perspective as a student informed his photographic purpose to see the individuals among the crowd.

For my first project as the Special Collections & Archives Graduate Assistant, I was tasked with designing and installing the Mittan exhibit. Faced with a daunting job of going through twenty-something boxes of unprocessed photographic materials, I was thrown head first into this new position. But having a background in art history and previous experience processing archival collections, I was up for the work. After an initial assessment, I determined that there was some order already established as slides, negatives, and prints were generally arranged by time period and subject. Because of this order, it was pretty easy determining what boxes would be useful for the exhibit knowing that we wanted to focus on Mittan’s work from when he was a student.

The most time consuming, yet entertaining, part of the design process was physically pulling negative strips out of sleeves and examining them through a magnifying glass over a light table. Although I’ve never worked with photography before, I eventually adapted to looking at the thousand or so tiny negative images. Having a pretty good eye for composition, my skills were tested when I digitally scanned the negative strips to determine the clarity and balance of the image. Having scanned about a hundred and fifty images, I eventually narrowed my choices down to thirty black and white images and twenty color images for the final exhibit.

The last tasks were just hard labor: printing, framing, and installing. I severely underestimated the stress of installing an exhibit seeing as this was my first experience. Using a large format professional printer was definitely a skill I acquired with a serious learning curve. I regret the loss of paper and ink that was sacrificed as we printed test strip after test strip trying to configure the color, size, and saturation of the first batch of prints. And I will never again underestimate the brutality of the small metal brackets holding the backboard of the frame as thirty sets of them pinched and bruised my fingers over the course of an afternoon.

After what seemed like a mad dash to the finish line, the exhibit actually opened fairly smoothly and nearly on time. Every day I’m proud of my hard work as I walk to Special Collections in the back of the library and am greeted by a poster that advertises the accomplishments and legacy of J. Barry Mittan. It makes me realize that what we do as college students has the potential to make a difference for the years to come. As a student in a time of social, cultural, and political change, Mittan captured the power of the individual to enact change. A sentiment college students still strongly hold on to today.

Mittan: A Retrospective, the photographic exhibit showcasing the work of J. Barry Mittan, is open in Strozier Library’s first floor exhibit space. The exhibit will be on display until mid-January and is open to the public Monday through Thursday, 10am to 6pm, and Friday, 10am to 5:30pm. An accompanying online exhibit is also available here which includes more images and descriptions not available in person.

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