As a gallery we are always on the lookout for work that fascinates, resonates if you will, and sticks to you. Work we would like to acquire for our own collection. We look everywhere, from fairs to the web and anything in between. In this search we stumbled upon a book entitled Polar Night by Mark Mahaney. Owning a vast library of photography books containing over 4.000 titles this was one that captivated us instantly.Seeing the works in real life we were determined to share the series with our audience. So we brought the work to Amsterdam. A selection of the series is now on show as part of the exhibition Exclamation Mark: a groupshow. To accompany this exhibition we asked Lola van de Graaff to interview Mark Mahaney about his practice and the making of Polar Night in particular.
Polar NightSmall Town Boy - Mark Mahaney Documents Unique Places that You've Probably Never Heard of Before
American photographer Mark Mahaney (b. 1979, Chicago) shot campaigns for clients such as Nike, Levi's, and Google, saw his editorials published in magazines like The New Yorker, Time Magazine, and Vanity Fair, and was asked to portray big names like David Hockney and Elon Musk. What he likes to do most, however, is capturing small towns and their unique stories.
LVDG: When did you pick up a camera for the first time?
MM: There are a lot of artists in our family and I was really interested in art from specifically my mother, but I was never very good at painting or drawing, which frustrated me. My older sister went to a high school with excellent photography facilities, which was rare in the US, and got a camera from my mom. I started using it, and was hooked once I was old enough to take the classes myself. So it wasn’t necessarily my dream to become a photographer, but something clicked, and after high school I did go directly to art school and studied photography. My dad, an airline pilot, always pushed the idea of doing something for a living that you would want to do as a hobby, and most of the time I feel extraordinarily fortunate to be doing what I’m doing and to be paid for it.
POLAR NIGHTpublished by Trespasser Books
LVDG: Do you see yourself as a photographer or as an artist, or both?
MM: That has changed a lot over the last few years. For a while, I didn’t feel comfortable saying either - if somebody asked me what I did, I would just say that I was taking pictures for a living. But now I have no problem with it. There are some days where I am a photographer, and some days where I’m an artist. It depends on the job: if it’s a shoot for a not particularly compelling visual brand, then I’m more of a photographer, with a more mechanical, problem-solving way of working. And there’s other times where I feel like an artist, like when I recently shot a campaign for Levi’s vintage clothing.
Before the Polar Night project, I was only doing assignment work for other people: nothing that was self-motivated. And so I had a hard time using the title of ‘artist,’ because I hadn’t done anything for myself. But since then, I’m bringing more soulfulness and more of me into my assignment work. I’m being very selective in which jobs I take on, and if I can do it the way I want to do is one of the criteria for whether I say yes to a job or not.
LVDG: When you graduated, did assignments come in right away? How did your career take off?
MM: I went to school in Chicago and Savannah, Georgia, and then I moved to New York City. I moved at a challenging moment - a few days before 9/11 happened, so it was not easy to find work. However, I found my way in with a portrait photographer, and ended up being his assistant for five years. During the day I was working for him; at night and on the weekends for myself. Eventually, I had enough work of my own coming in, so I could stop assisting. A lot of people are skipping the assisting stage these days. Photography is so accessible now - with today’s camera technologies you can take good pictures easily, in a way you couldn’t before. But so much of what I do on a daily basis is not taking pictures: it’s stuff you can’t learn on Instagram, you have to learn through experience. Being an assistant was all about learning what not to do - by watching what worked and didn’t work.
It’s not easy to walk on to big, commercial jobs, where you’re the main person of fifty people on the set. You have to be able to delegate, answer questions, stay calm and manage to work with clients who are sometimes anxious. So my number one advice is: be an assistant.
LVDG: Can you tell something about your creative process, about your approach when photographing a person, landscape, commercial or editorial project?
MM: I try to approach them all the same. I used to do a lot of large format film photography, but now I’m very much into these really incredible, mirrorless digital cameras. They have afforded me a ton of freedom and being off of a tripod.
I’ve always loved mixing portraits with details or still lives with landscapes and interiors, all in one story. And I still do that, but in an entirely different way. Before, I used to find a space that felt like a good fit to put a person in, and now I do the opposite: I build the space or light around the person. Sometimes I come in with six cases of lighting equipment and don’t use any of it, I’ll just use fabric to cover up the windows.
One of the things I started to do differently, and this is a result of working with these mirrorless digital cameras, is experiment more. The Polar Night project is a good example. The idea was to do ‘a day in the life of’ these people that have to live and survive within sixty-five days of total darkness in wintertime…
LVDG: Yes, about that project: how did you find out about Utqiaġvik, Alaska, the Northernmost town in the United States, and why did you want to shoot your first personal project there?
MM: I saw a headline in The New York Times about this town that was about to begin its polar night, and that was deemed Ground Zero for climate change. At that moment I was very desperate to find something to work on for myself for the first time ever. Me and my assistant just went there and figured out all of the logistical things, which there were tons of - for example, camera and lighting equipment do not function well when it’s negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit, so I had to think of how to keep everything warm.
Right from the beginning, it didn’t feel good to do a ‘day in the life’ of these native Alaskan people. Being a white man, it felt like I was going to exploit their lives. So for a couple of days, I was just figuring out what to do. I wasn’t really stressed about it, because it was more about the journey for me, as a gift to myself. I dove into the problem-solving tool-set I lean on when I’m on a job, finding out how to treat and shoot the images. I started mixing black and white and color, building out a narrative around portraits, landscapes, details.
I really enjoy the process of documenting things and creating a narrative through fragments of images, where none of the images tell too much, but they say something as a collective. It is similar to what I used to do, but it’s done in a different, much looser way.
LVDG: Do you have a favorite image from the Polar Night project?
MM: I think it’s the one of a truck that looked like a pile of snow when we drove from the back of it, but when we turned around, we realized there was a truck under it all. It’s a very classic, American Chevrolet truck, which I also really love. I had my assistant drive our car beyond the truck, shining lights back at it, so our vehicles’ lights are lighting the truck for the most part.
There’s something about the image that I’m very happy about - I feel like there are a lot of successful images in this series, but to me, this is the most satisfying print.
LVDG: What was it like to work for yourself instead of a client? What were the benefits and/or challenges you experienced?
MM: It was super challenging. For ten years prior, I had only taken pictures based upon somebody saying: “Go to this place, we need this and this photographed, and we need the images by Monday.” There were all these to-do-lists and boxes to check off. So for me, this was a very daunting endeavor. I actually asked my photography agent to tell me what to do, because I had a hard time telling myself what to do. He didn’t do that, thankfully, but it was definitely trial and error.
I was there for twelve days, and around day eight I suddenly felt like I had something. And funny enough, the sequence I had going on that day, is basically what we ended up with in the book. Somehow I got into this groove of making work that I was happy with. And thankfully, Utqiaġvik is visually a unique place: when we landed there, it was night, the town was lit below, and it looked like we were landing on the Moon or some other realm. And it felt that way very much while we were there.
Despite making the place immediately compelling, the extended night time is challenging. During the darkness, the suicide rate goes up, as well as spousal abuse and substance abuse, people get disorientated and confused. Even as a visitor, I could feel this heaviness. We injected the idea of survival into the project through the photographs of the dogs. There is an old, arctic, sort of crude way of measuring the intensity of the cold: when it’s a really cold night you would say that it’s a ‘three dog night’ or a ‘four dog night,’ indicating how many dogs you needed surrounding you at night, and have their body heat keep you alive.
The idea was to do ‘a day in the life of’ these people that have to live and survive within sixty-five days of total darkness in wintertime…
LVDG: Why did you decide to include only one portrait in the book?
MM: I shot a lot of good portraits, but they felt disjointed from the snowscapes. And my friend Bryan, one of the publishers of the book, was very adamant about taking all the portraits out and only an image of a wrestler - another injection of that idea of survival. In his book Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes writes about the concept of punctum - the element that 'pricks' or 'wounds' the viewer. And this portrait, as well as the dogs, is a moment of punctum injected into the sequence.
LVDG: You were born in Chicago and live in Berkeley, California. How does American life influence your work?
MM: I have always been very much interested in documenting towns, specifically small towns. I grew up in a small town, outside of Chicago, so there's something about small town life for me that is very romantic and beautiful. Also, it's a good place to see the things that are or aren't important to people.
Compared to Europe, America is a young country. With that youth also comes a unique level of impermanence: there doesn't seem to be a rich value system for preserving things that are important. People are not even interested in protecting national parks. And there's also the whole manifest of 'the land of the free' where anything is possible. People come here for a better life, like my own grandmother who moved here from Eastern Europe at the age of sixteen. For me, the interesting question is: don't you value what your grandparents built on this land? And the answer is often no: we destroy it and build something else. You can revisit a place twenty years later and it looks entirely different. Much of what was exciting to see has been torn down or modernized in some horrible way.
There's something about America in that way that is super unique and interesting to me. An example: for a project I did for Sixteen Journal, I went to San Francisco to photograph an old clock. Above the clock used to be a beautiful neon sign that said "open tonight." Instead of fixing that neon sign, they replaced it with a boring sign that no longer lights up. There's nothing compelling about it anymore. That's America in a nutshell.
Mark Mahaney - Polar Night
Dimensions: 34 x 26,5 cm
Price: € 50,-
LVDG: Is that something you love about photography, that it allows you to capture a moment or place and keep it like that forever?
MM: Absolutely. They are like living documents, capturing what was there that is no longer, or that is now a bit different. Photography is useful in many ways, but I love how useful it is in that way. Photographer William Christenberry (1936 - 2016), who grew up in Hale County, Alabama, returned there each summer since 1961, documenting how the places of his youth changed over time. You see the sheds and buildings abandoned, or in a state of disrepair. I really love and appreciate that.
It would be interesting to revisit Utqiaġvik to document the town in ten years. The place might have to be lifted and moved inland a couple miles because due to climate change, the sea is getting closer. I thought of doing a sister project in the summertime when the sun never goes down for about two months, but it’s not a place I’m eager to go back to now. Also, the image of the truck without the snow would not be an interesting one.
The Wooden House ProjectIn collaboration with Veda Mahaney
LVDG: In your series The Wooden House, your daughter Veda is both model and artist. What would you say to her if she wanted to become a photographer herself?
MM: I can’t say I would be thrilled to hear that she would want to be a photographer - that goes back to the artist vs photographer thing and not being comfortable in calling yourself a photographer. But I would support her in doing whatever she wanted to do. She definitely has an interest. Part of what started this project was quarantine. I wanted to do something fun and bring her into my day-to-day life. And also teach her about creating and shaping light, the science of taking pictures and working on them afterwards, how you edit them. She is very smart and fun to work with. If I’m trying to choose between images or how they are sequenced, there are four people I ask advice from, and my daughter is one of them - even though she is only ten years old now, and eight when we started the project.
There’s something so beautiful about being a child and having this unvarnished, very pure view of things, not even needing to know all the thoughts behind the images. It’s just an impulse of instinct: that’s the one! She is always very clear. And most of the time, the one she picks is the one I was leaning toward.
Unfortunately, we stopped the Wooden House-project. Veda makes herself heard, which I appreciate, so even at age eight, she said: “This is not how I want to spend time with you. I don’t want to do this anymore.” I had to respect that, and I agree with her: it got to a point where it was no longer fun. I was asking her to sit still for a really long time. But even unfinished, it stands as only the second personal project I have ever done. I would like to button it up in some shape or form, but I don’t know yet what that is. If I doubled the number of images, it could be an intimate, Japanese-feeling book. The prints are all in black in white and really beautiful - fun, but also very honest. There’s a story behind every image, like the one with lemons connected by wire. Living in California, we have year-round citrus trees in our yard. We created a still life in my office with hand-picked lemons. It is about the bitterness of lemons and the bitterness of that time, but also the sweetness and what you can make with lemons.
Every image has some significance in documenting what our experience was. It’s a time capsule of that very bizarre, anxiety-riddled time. The Wooden House is the name that my daughter gave our house in California: in it, you’re surrounded by wood. I value the project even more because we’re soon selling that home, one my daughter grew up in and holds all those memories in its walls, to move to new shared adventures.
LVDG: Do you have a dream project - something or someone you'd wish to capture, if there were no restrictions whatsoever?
MM: I think it’s just a continuation of what I’m doing. The line between what I do for personal work and for commercial work is starting to get blurred. The goal for me is continuing to blur that line of the end usage of an image, and the fact that it can exist properly in all these different realms, whether it is on a storefront, on somebody’s wall or on the page of a magazine. The same image could be used for all those different things.
With regard to an actual project, there are plenty of people I would love to photograph: well known, old artists, writers and cultural figures. I was asked to photograph David Hockney two years ago. It was a very short shoot, but super cool to spend a couple of minutes with him. I photographed Elon Musk for the cover of Time Magazine in December - that was very interesting. The whole shoot was done in under ten minutes, which brought me back to what I learned through assisting, working under pressure and dealing with challenging personalities. But even if I had been given a couple of hours to take pictures of him, I would have been happy coming away with the same images. The universal response was that, whether people like him or not, they saw part of him in those images that was different from what they had ever seen of him before. So in that way, I feel like it was a success.
But, to answer the question, a lot of my projects revolve around documenting specific towns. My grandmother lived in Missouri in the Midwest, in a town that has only seventeen people in it. I can’t think of anything that I would rather do for personal work than something that is actually personal. Much of my family has passed away over the last fifteen years, and there is so much I don’t know about my dad or my grandparents. I would like to dive into the areas where they lived, to answer questions I have that they are no longer around to answer.