San Francisco-based photographer Mark Mahaney has a real knack for storytelling. Whether he’s capturing pot-growing nuns and their fridges full of merchandise or renowned surfer John John Florence in full bee keeping garb, it’s the detail in his work that conjures a tangible sense of place, especially when capturing the essence of American life. That Mark creates such strong narratives is particularly impressive when you discover that for many of his most expressive shoots, he only had a matter of hours to execute the images.
One such project is the aforementioned John John Florence shoot, commissioned by GQ Style. Taken at his beachside home, the series features some atmospheric portraits plus details of the ocean and the surfer’s home taken in absentia after he had left for a big tournament. “I feel like I’m well-trained at making something out of nothing,” says Mark. “In this case it was good subject matter but it was a very short amount of time where the magazine was expecting a lot to happen.”
Mark attributes his speed to his background in editorial photography where often you only have a few, high-pressure moments to secure the much-needed portraits. “You were expected to pull a rabbit out of the hat every time to make something visually compelling out of something that wasn’t necessarily and do it in a very rushed, controlled environment,” he explains. Whereas this process was fun when working in New York on assignments to photograph artists and their visually rich apartments, after moving to San Fransisco four years ago, the work got a bit more predictable. “I’d just made this big move with my family and suddenly I was in the belly of the tech industry. The assignments I was asked to do were all very quick CEO portraits suddenly, where I had zero time and I was being firmly ruled by the PR.” Mark wanted something that stretched his skills and allowed him the time to capture details. Enter some weed-smoking nuns.
The commission to photograph the Sisters of the Valley, a group of non-denominational self-appointed nuns based in Merced, California, came from publication Racked just at the peak of Mark’s frustration with his Bay Area commissions. The “visually rich subject matter” of nuns that “sit around and smoke pot all day” was a great opportunity for Mark to show future editors the type of projects he really wanted to be working on. Featuring exquisitely lit Rembrandt-style portraits of toking holy women, behind the scenes shots of the production process, and the lush, verdant crop, this series was also shot in just a few hours.
“They smoked weed non-stop!” says Mark. “There’s a picture of one nun with smoke swirling round her, she was all of 90lbs and smoked all day. I have no idea how she was standing. Me and my assistant had a contact high just from being there.” The nuns were a bit sceptical of Mark in the beginning and definitely wanted to be seen in a certain light, but were very happy with the pictures and have invited him back. “The whole thing is part of their sales shtick,” explains Mark, “but it’s also a reverence for what they’re doing, infusing sacred qualities into the health-related products that they’re making.”
Another series that has made most of Mark’s speed and sensitivity is a passion project investigating the success of San Quentin State Prison’s rehabilitation programme. The tech entrepreneurship scheme teaches everything from web coding to inspiring business plans, and runs completely at odds with a movement in the US to turn the prison system into a for-profit enterprise. “It’s crazy to me, it gives the system no motivation to improve the lives and mindset of the prisoners so they can be put back into society as positive people,” he says.
Following inmates both before and after release, the series features portraits and details from the classroom. When photographing one former prisoner who had been released the week before, the man got a phone call saying that his cousin had been shot and killed on the street outside of his house. “It was this immediate feeling of how difficult it is for people to get out of this cycle,” Mark explains. “This guy was sent to prison for something that wasn’t right, but he’s done everything right since, and really tried to improve his life. Yet he was not in the sort of environment that was conducive to maintaining that sort of positivity.”
In the US sixty per cent of people that leave prison find their way back there, but for those enrolled in San Quentin’s programme that percentage drops to zero. Mark has begun laying the groundwork for a long-term project where he would follow people for the months and years after they’re released. “It’s a really important subject and I feel like it should be getting more face-time than it is,” he says.