Mark Mahaney

“People are chronically
dehydrated,” says Mark Mahaney, washing down a breakfast crepe at
a SoHo café. For a photographer, trained to observe the
body’s surface qualities more than its pathologies, water
consumption seems an unusual passion. It springs in part from interest
in his long-term girlfriend’s studies in holistic nutrition; but
he also has a particular body awareness since his father’s recent
death from pancreatic cancer. For Mahaney, the external is less
important than what happens under the skin.

Raised in a small town
west of Chicago, Mahaney studied photography at nearby Columbia College
and at the Savannah College of Art and Design, but his interest in the
art form developed earlier. “My mom bought my older sister a
little Vivitar SLR camera when she was 17, and I ended up using it more
than she did,” he recalls. Now shooting primarily in medium
format, Mahaney hustles by day as a full-time assistant to celebrity
photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, while creating images on his
own time for magazines like SEED, TOKION, and the
politically conscious GOOD. “I’m more interested in
cultural figures that actually have become well known based upon doing
good things,” he says. “To take a picture of Jay-Z is
absolutely of no interest to me.” Then, perhaps realizing that
Jay-Z, an activist for potable water, isn’t the best example,
Mahaney adds, “If I were to do it, it wouldn’t be some
glamorous picture, or how their publicist would want them.”

Some of his favorite people to photograph are on the other end of
the celebrity spectrum: science stars such as biologist and professor E.
O. Wilson, whose picture he shot for SEED, and inventor and
new-media artist Natalie Jeremijenko, whom he shot for RES.
Mahaney does his homework before meeting such brilliant minds,
attempting “to not be a completely blank slate, to have something
to talk about.” The results show in Wilson’s playful
expressions as he shows off his ant paraphernalia at Harvard, and in the
glint of Jeremijenko’s eye as she stands before her robotic ducks.
Wilson generously gave him five hours of his time, and in
Jeremijenko’s case, he says, “I actually was helping her
move out of her studio during the time we were doing photos.”

Friend and colleague Cary Murnion of Honest attributes that level of
trust to the fact that “he is one of the kindest people I know. I
think the people he shoots see this kindness in him and give him
something that they normally wouldn’t to any other
photographer.” He also notes Mahaney’s wicked sense of
humor, which appears subtly in his work. In his large-format series on
urban sprawl, “The Smartland,” Mahaney takes issue with the
misleading names developers give subdivisions like Oak Hills in North
Aurora, Illinois, where “there are no oak trees and no
hills.” Another shows a square body of water with the caption:
“The pond is fake and the ducks know it.” Mahaney hopes such
projects might make some small difference in the world. “I want to
do things for good reasons and have a lot of good energy behind
them.” Whether his subject is ponds or people, Mahaney keeps
looking beneath the surface.

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