Northern California based photographer Mark Mahaney has published his first book, Polar Night. The hemisphere tilts away from the sun during the winter months, communities near the North Pole experience a phenomenon known as the polar night: a period of uninterrupted darkness. In Utqiagvik, it lasts for approximately two months a year.
When did the production of images start? Knowing that Utqiagvik, Alaska’s northernmost town is not a “plane away”, how did you organize the development of this project?
I tend to quickly read the news headlines each morning and happened upon a headline that read something like, “Alaskan town about to enter into over two months of night.’ I was looking for a project to work on outside of my work for clients. The more I read about the town, the more I wanted to go explore it, but simultaneously, the more challenging it sounded logistically. Because of the extreme arctic temperatures there, I’d have to invest in the proper clothing, I had to do extensive research on which equipment would be able to endure those conditions and I realized I needed an assistant to join me. Everything about this town is remote. It’s one of the most remote places on earth. For most of the year, you can only fly to Utqiagvik. There are no roads that lead there. There are no trees there, no fresh fruits or vegetables. Every single thing, be it groceries, building materials, clothing, etc, it’s all flown in. As a result, it’s an extremely expensive place to travel. A gallon of laundry detergent is $45, a box of cereal is $12, I saw half of a watermelon for $34. All this to say that if I wanted to go there, I knew it was going to be not only a time commitment, but a sizable financial investment for such a short trip. As someone who hadn’t been able to prioritize doing a personal photography project, I saw this as an investment in myself and what I wanted to do more of. I had no expectations of what the end result would be. I just needed to do it.
It took four flights, over the course of a full day, to get there. From San Francisco to Portland to Anchorage to Prudhoe Bay and finally to Utqiagvik. It was like landing on some unknown world. From the plane as we descended, out of total darkness, the town appeared below, dotted with these deeply saturated orange colored vapor lights, dry snow being whipped around in all directions. It looked like what you would imagine a civilization looking like on the moon or on mars. The full sized airplane lands at the airport, which is in the exact center of this little town. The door of the plane opened and I remember feeling that level of cold for the first time. It was immediately intimidating, even as someone who grew up living through brutal winters in Chicago. This was different.
The Arctic Ocean is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the planet. What are the key consequences of this phenomenon for Utqiagvik? Have you experienced a particular situation?
In my relationship to myself, my relationship with loved ones, I’m very much interested in exploring what’s below the surface. I feel the point of life is to peel back and give light to the layers of darkness that are weighing us down. While my intention with Polar Night wasn’t to overtly comment on the current and forward looking climate related struggles this region is and will be facing, it’s hard to ignore what’s happening there. Perhaps it’s easier for the locals to turn a blind eye to the causation when everything is blanketed with snow. Below those layers, below what you’re able to see in the imagery, is evidence of a problem that’s not going away. Because the arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, the barrier of ice that forever shielded this seaside town from mighty coastal storms is now thinning so rapidly that the storm surges now make contact with land, eroding the landmass. The town is being swallowed up by the sea.
Climate change is also impacting their culture; their ability to hunt, the health of the wildlife, etc. And no one there seemed to really want to discuss the topic. When I reached out to the local museum for information for the text for my book, I was turned away. They aren’t giving out information to anyone because of all the negative press the town has been getting about global warming. The locals are caught in a bargain of sorts because their main livelihood (income that funnels into their town via oil development) is also the main thing threatening their land, their culture, their future. What do you do when you concurrently have the most to gain and the most to lose? That’s their struggle right now.
There is only one portrait in the entire book, a gamy wrestler. It comes as a double surprise after so many pictures with darkness and also because your photographic approach has so many portraits. It seems like he is there to sum up many potentially portraits of other residents of the town. Can you elaborate on this?
I thought this project was going to be a ‘day in the life’ kind of project of this town as it endured prolonged darkness. I did quite a few portraits while I was there, some of which I really like. But meeting people there was hard. It was beyond freezing and people were either working or in their homes. People asked what sort of project I was working on and I didn’t entirely know how to answer them because I was figuring it out as I went along.
“The colder the temperature, the more dogs you’d need to sleep beside you for their warmth in order for you to survive the night.”
Part of that involved eventually abandoning the pursuit of portraits of random people. I realized I was a white man in a town primarily made up on native locals and I didn’t want to be exploitive. I needed to change course. During my final days in Utqiagvik, I narrowed my focus of the project to juxtaposing these melancholic and desolate winter landscapes with portraits of optimistic and spritely high school students. I’d befriended the principal of the high school and he helped pull students to do portraits of. Once home and after I struck up a dialogue with Trespasser Books, my friend Bryan Schutmaat (one of the publishers) was adamant about only having one portrait in the book. I fought the idea at first, but ended up caving because he was right. The reasoning behind the one portrait is to inject energy into a series of otherwise fairly quiet photographs. It’s not a thick book. There are only 26 images. We were very deliberate about the sequencing so it doesn’t come across as one note. The dogs also inject these moments of energy and hint at the overall theme of survival and endurance. The dogs featured in the book are the last sled dogs in northern Alaska. The last vestige of what was once an integral part of the culture for those in arctic regions. The book was going to be called ‘Three Dog Night,’ if it weren’t for the popular 1960’s band of the same name. That phrase originated in the arctic as a crude metric for communicating the severity of the cold on a given night. The colder the temperature, the more dogs you’d need to sleep beside you for their warmth in order for you to survive the night. Going back to the wrestler and why we chose that particular portrait…we just felt it worked in that same way as the dogs did. He’s in the pose a wrestler takes as they’re about to pounce on their opponent, in defense, in an attempt to survive.
Some photographers prefer photobooks-magazines, while others prepare exhibitions for presenting their work. Taking into consideration your artistic activity, you probably belong to the first category. Where do you position yourself, and why do you prefer this way of presentation?
This is my first book. It’s actually my first complete personal project. My practice has previously been as a full time commercial and editorial photographer. Not only were the conditions of trying to create photographs in such an extreme place very challenging, but I felt hugely intimidated by the idea of working on a project that wasn’t assigned to me by someone else. It took me a long while to figure out what felt right and how best to go about it. I had very few expectations of what the trip would yield. The whole trip felt like a gift to myself and a step in the direction of the kind of work I want to do more of in my career. The way I moved beyond feeling intimidated was to approach the work as I do on editorial projects. I made shot lists and created the edit and potential sequencing as I was shooting to some extent. There was no plan or intention to create a book of the work. I showed the work to a few people and about half of them told me it wasn’t enough work to create a proper book. The more I sat with the work, I disagreed. I love photo books. They seem like the ultimate viewing experience for photographs. The sequence is set in stone. It’s printed and it’s done. It’s very democratic and accessible. You have the work in your hands, it’s an intimate way to relate to photographs. A great photography book yields a visceral experience for the viewer. Honestly, my favorite part of my book is how it smells. You can smell the thick ink sitting atop the paper. Photo exhibitions can be great as well, but it seems like something that should only happen after the book. I have yet to exhibit my work in a large-scale presentation. There are talks of doing shows with this body of work. Nothing finalized yet though.
Can you share with us some backstages about the Polar Night book designing and binding?
The book was designed by Cody Haltom, one of the three guys that make up Trespasser books. When we decided to create a book, I flew down to Austin, Texas with a box of about 100 small prints. The four of us set aside two full days to create the edit and settle on a design approach and within two hours, we figured out the final edit/sequence and had a very solid sketch of the design. We were all caught off guard by how easy and smooth the process was. There were a few images I didn’t plan on putting in that I was talked into including. One is the image of the snow covered van, which I still don’t entirely love, but everyone has different opinions and that image is a favorite for some. The other image is the last in the book. It was taken on the final day of the trip, as the sun was beginning to show its face. In the photo is a beached whaling boat and an arch, made up of the jawbones of a bowhead whale; a nod to the local heritage. The image is both a hopeful end to a book otherwise full of darkness, but it also speaks to the undeniable threat facing the Inupiat culture.
We decided the book should be fairly large, with the horizontal images as double page spreads. We wanted people to really be able to enter into the world. The color of the cover stock was chosen because that was the most common color of the sky while I was there. Because it’s only 26 images, we felt it wasn’t enough content to warrant a hardbound book, so we decided to make the book soft covered. We needed a binding that would allow the images to lay very flat and of the binding options that allow for this, singer-sewn binding seemed the most durable. The book itself has a simple design, so the contrast of the white thread on the dark blue stock was a welcomed element. We made a few shifts in the design over the coming months, but largely the design remained true to Cody’s first instinct from our initial meeting.
One moment before wish you all the best for 2020, instead of asking you about your last year’s highlights, I would prefer you to mention a major difference between back then, in early career years and now in your art making or art perceiving in general.
It’s been about twelve or thirteen years since I stopped assisting and started doing my own work. For most of that span of time my practice has been in the editorial realm, on assignment for magazines. When I look back at the work, I used to be much more rigid. Everything was super clean, everything was meticulously lined up, nothing askew. There were a lot of wider environmental portraits, the subject often centered. Most images were shot using daylight. If I had to light something, I tried my damnedest to make it look like it wasn’t lit. Everything was shot on film, often with a large format view camera. I feel like now my photographs look like they’re done by the same hand, but I think (hope) they hav more soul. I do a ton of work in post playing with colors. I used to only shoot on a tripod, now I almost never do. I feel my work is more loose, but still has a structure to it. I’m less interested in exactness. It’s now all digital and I think that’s what has allowed the change. It’s less precious and allowed me to experiment more. The transition from film to digital was rough. It only happened a few years ago and took me a long time to figure out what to do with the raw files. How to make them look like the type of images I was used to from a color standpoint. I use a ton of artificial light now. It’s a way of having more control or sometimes a way of bringing a banal situation to life. If I’m not using artificial light, I’m often heavily modifying the daylight. Typically this consists of blocking almost all of it to intensify the weight or direction of the light. Within the images of a project/assignment, I try to create a push and pull, something lyrical… either by varying the distance from the subject or by shifting the lighting or the color grading in post, etc. I feel much happier now creatively. I put a lot more pressure on myself though. More than I did before. I’m very selective about which jobs I take on and feel a bit gutsier with how I approach projects. Commercial work needs to be more aligned with what a client is wanting and asking for, but with editorial, even though I want the client to be happy, I first want to make myself happy. I think that’s the big difference between the past and now. My own happiness wasn’t prioritized before. As I’ve shifted that dynamic, that soulfulness has surfaced.
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