Photography • Photography Shooting from the Hip: Mark Mahaney

What’s harder to photograph, an Alaskan landscape or a Hollywood star?

Mahaney's portrait of Oscar Tuazon for Wallpaper magazine.

Born in 1979 in Chicago, Mark Mahaney is an American photographer living in California and New York. His editorial shoots and portraits have appeared in The New Yorker, M, Le magazine du Monde, and Time. Commercially, he’s shot for Nike, AirBNB, and IBM. His first book, Polar Night, was published in 2019 and is a photographic journey through Alaska’s northernmost town of Utqiagvik. He spoke to Create about capturing people, places, and stories.

How did you get started with photography?
I grew up outside of Chicago and started doing photography in high school. I continued to study photography at Columbia College in Chicago and then at The Savannah College of Art and Design. After graduating, I moved to New York. I was a full-time assistant for five or six years until my own assignment work started to take shape.

Can you tell us about your process?
I’m pretty much fully digital now. Cameras have evolved so much in the last few years. On projects, I travel with two mirrorless camera systems, Sony A7r4 and Fuji GFX100. The Sony is my favorite. It’s kind of a complicated camera at first, but it’s a tiny camera that yields huge files. It’s so sophisticated, specifically the autofocus settings. And the dynamic range is massive, allowing me to do a ton to the files in Adobe Lightroom as I process the RAW files. I lean heavily on what Lightroom can do. The before/after of the RAW files is often quite dramatic. I do my best to try to replicate the look and feel of scans and prints I made when I shot film. This takes a great deal of effort. I originally studied photojournalism in school. Everything needed to be very pure.

Photography by Mark Mahaney
Photography by Mark Mahaney

Left: Greta Gerwig. Right: A scene from Mahaney's book, Polar Night.

How has that influenced your editing?
I now feel like the decisions made in post are just as important as what is done during the shooting process. The RAW file is like the foundation and I keep building on that in Lightroom until the feeling I’m after arises. I’m so comfortable with my post process, it sometimes dictates how I shoot something. I fiddle with the majority of the dials in the development module. It’s not only a really powerful and intuitive processing tool, but my entire archive of over 10 years of shooting is catalogued using Lightroom as well. Every project is just a few clicks away, fully organized. 

Your reportage work often features silhouettes. How did that start?
I’ve just always been drawn to them. Remember those old silhouetted portraits you could get done at Sears or JC Penney’s family portrait studio? I remember loving those as a kid and being fascinated by the fact that the simple outline of a face or figure, with no other details, can be so unique and informative. I guess I’m still drawn to it for that reason. Silhouettes also present the opportunity to have gradients of color in the background. I’m a sucker for sky gradients.

Who are your photography heroes?
I can’t say my work is immediately influenced by someone else. But, based upon the photos they made, I’d say Alfred Steiglitz, Dorothea Lange, and Harry Callahan come to mind as heroes. You can look at their photos from 50 to 100 years ago and some of them look so modern. I keep an ongoing folder on my computer with images I love and sometimes use as reference for inspiration. Most of those images are from the 1960s or earlier.

Photography by Mark Mahaney

Above: A shot from Mahaney's photo essay for Racked, about the 'Sisters of the Valley.'

How has the "shelter in place" coronavirus situation changed your work?
I’m actually quite inspired to take images at home all of a sudden. I’m not someone who normally has a camera at home, other than my phone. But, now that I’m spending so much time at home, I’ve been taking pictures with my eight-year-old daughter. The other day I gave her a general lesson about how a camera works and a brief tutorial on lighting with strobes. We’ll continue to do this. I’m also talking with a client about a project to shoot while homebound, maybe collaborating with my kiddo.

What do you prefer to shoot, a landscape or a person?
Definitely the person. I love landscape photography, but I’d rather experience a landscape without a camera up to my eye.

Photography by Mark Mahaney
Photography by Mark Mahaney

Left: A portrait of rapper Del the Funky Homosapien, for The New Yorker. Right: A recent travel photograph.

How is your process different when photographing a Hollywood director, for example, and a “real” person on the street?
The main way it’s different is based on the limitations imposed on a shoot of someone well known. Those shoots are normally very short and with PR people who are often doing all they can (or at least it seems so) to make the shoot as challenging as possible. I shouldn’t say that, but it’s true. Sometimes a good portrait happens quickly and sometimes it’s a process to get there. When you have only a few minutes, it’s hard. 

What other challenges come with shooting the famous?
There’s always the moment where you look at a photo of someone famous and think, “Do I just like this image because it’s of an actor I like, or an artist I idolize? Or is it actually a good image?” In the shoots I’ve done of well-known people, it’s always my goal to break that barrier. I want it to be a strong image on its own, not because of who’s in it. 

Photography by Mark Mahaney
Photo by Mark Mahaney

Left: Another scene from Mahaney's book, Polar Night. Right: A portrait of Lorde for Time.

When embarking upon editorial projects, how do you tell a story with pictures?
I feel like it’s hard to tell a story with images, especially a single image. It doesn’t seem like the medium of photography’s strong suit. However, I now really only take on projects where the subject matter interests me, and where I feel confident I can build the shoot out into a series of images to show on my website or on Instagram. Perhaps it doesn’t result in a complete story, but it results in images that play well together by way of a created visual narrative or rhythm.

How do you create an intriguing photo series?
Regardless of the subject matter, I like to create a push and pull of sorts within an edit. The best way I’ve found to do that is by varying scale, potentially varying the lighting approach from image to image, varying the treatment of the images, combining a portrait, then a detail, an interior, back to another portrait, maybe a landscape, then another detail. Without this push and pull there’s no rhythm or flow. It’s just one note.

Photo by Mark Mahaney

David Hockney, by Mark Mahaney.

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