Exposure: Mark Mahaney

By Gemma Fletcher

As a culture, our preoccupation with targeting the young and the new means that incredible talents can go undiscovered. Mark Mahaney is one of those photographers; he’s been shooting for over ten years but remains relatively under the radar. After graduation, Mark’s work started to garner interest and it wasn’t long before he was picking up awards and accolades such as the PDN 30 and had become a go-to photographer for a handful of magazine photo directors. Around this time, the unpredictable and chaotic events of life took over and while he continued to shoot to provide for his family, he was unable to give his practise the focus it merited.

Like many photographers of his generation, Mahaney doesn’t engage in aggressive self-promotion. Until recently his internet presence was almost non-existent and at 38 he is just finalising his first printed portfolio and kicking off his first significant personal project. He jokes that his path to date has been at odds with, “Essentially every piece of advice people give you about succeeding in this business.”

Nike – Chicago Courts; Top, John John Florence for GQ

While Mahaney wasn’t brand building and chasing new opportunities, his work continued to evolve and a stream of editorial and commercial jobs continued to find him by word of mouth, a true testament to the quality of his storytelling and collaborative approach. Clients have included The New Yorker, California Sunday Magazine, Fader, Vice, Wired, M Le Monde, The New York Times Magazine as well as Nike, Google, Ikea and AirBNB.

He has developed a signature style that resonates with a wide variety of subject matter from celebrity to science. He’s photographed everyone from Al Gore to Del the Funky Homosapien and his portraits feel honest and intimate. “I do my research before a shoot looking for points of connection with my subject,” he says. “Often having these shared experiences make them feel comfortable and create a space for me to explain my intentions and needs for the shoot.”

Del the Funky Homosapien for The New Yorker
Del the Funky Homosapien for The New Yorker

His visual language is informed by a library of screengrabs drawing inspiration from a wide range of sources from sketches by Da Vinci, Michelangelo and John Williams Waterhouse to paintings by Balthus. He’s not referencing artists per se, but interested more in body language and pose. This really comes to the forefront in his story on Rene Redzepi (chef at the Noma restaurant) for The California Sunday Magazine. Mahaney blends his intimate and emotional style with the tableaux feel of a renaissance painting perfectly capturing the force of energy and stress in the Noma test kitchen. Much of his work explores themes that speak to craft, determination and focus.

Mahaney feels his approach is a combination of “Intuition and precise planning”. There is an almost forensic sense of rigour and attention to detail from his research through to his editing and postproduction. He starts with key images that form the skeleton, and then builds the rest of the story around these, creating an active narrative allowing the viewer to build connections between objects and environments. Small everyday details reveal a deeper exploration of a subject, heightening the experience of the work. Stand out projects include Sisters of the Valley, an exquisite portrayal of a highly specialised and devout collective of women posing as nuns (although they have no religious affiliation) dedicated to cultivating cannabis tinctures and oils for the ill and The Last Mile, a program at San Quentin State Prison that teaches inmates the skills needed for tech related employment after they are released. Both works offer a proposition for transformation politics and social change, themes in which Mahaney is particularly interested.

Sisters of the Valley
Sisters of the Valley

In the last couple of years, Mahaney’s work has started to feel more soulful; marked by an almost otherworldly beauty. In his recent profile on surfer John John Florence and a feature on Adaption Ecology he is starting to draw connections between enchantment and nature while retaining his graphic and considered sensibility. The work feels looser and more confident bringing richness to his overall approach.

There is no tidy way to live and, after a challenging decade, Mahaney is now back in full force with a deeper appreciation of his medium and a renewed passion to explore new ideas and build new collaborations.

The Last Mile, San Quentin Prison

markmahaney.com, @mahaney_mark; gemfletcher.com, @gemfletcher

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