Artist Spotlight: Photographer Mandy Mohler of Field Guide Designs
As a part of Highline’s 2017 mission, we want to share the stories and work of other Montana artists that inspire us. This particular entry is posted in conjunction with Mandy’s interview with the folks at Highline! For that interview please follow this link to read.
Mandy Mohler is a professional photographer with a studio in Kalispell. She is an accomplished artist who has found her niche creating portraits through taxonomies. Taxonomy is defined as a scheme of classification for an object, typically with scientific organisms. Mandy’s work takes this scientific ideal and applies it to photographic portraiture to offer something unique. Instead of simply portraying an image of a subject that the viewer is able to project their own assumptions and judgements onto, Mandy intercepts these assumptions by presenting physical objects. These objects allow the subject to speak for themselves, to be classified in their own way. It is truly a deeper reflection of Mandy’s subjects that offers to the viewer what is usually missing in portraits; an understanding of what is most important to them, what defines them, whether that be the subject’s work, their art, or their favorite past time.
Highline spoke with Mandy about her work and what inspires her.
Hi Mandy! Where’re ya from? What do your parents do?
I’m from Montana. I was born in Havre and raised in the Flathead Valley since I was two. My mom manages a water treatment plant and my dad is a self employed builder. I’m the middle of five children.
How/why did you end up in your field?
A few reasons:
I’ve always been fascinated with photography, and have been taking photos since I was a little kid. An early memory of mine was when I convinced my parents to buy me a Kodak Instamatic camera at a thrift store. I probably took thousands of pictures on that camera. It never had any film in it.
Towards the end of high school, I realized that I was serious about studying art in college. I have always loved to make things with my hands, but was on the fence about what to specialize in. Ultimately, I decided on photography because I was in college just before digital photography went mainstream and didn’t have access to my own darkroom.
I am really interested in how photography meshes science and art.
Perhaps it was hereditary. Turns out my Great Grandfather Boris was a spectacular photographer…
What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever created?
“Return From Cedar Valley”- a panel from my Masters project. It’s a photograph that I captured on a scenic drive in the Troodos Mountains of Cyprus. I combined photography, screenprinting and encaustics to make this dreamy image that looks a bit like an old Daguerreotype.
What are you trying to communicate with your photography?
Being a nostalgic person, I’m drawn to idealized versions of reality. My Masters thesis describes how I approach photography in a subtractive way – I find something of interest and remove anything distracting that doesn’t support my vision of perfection. The process is essentially tying an imaginary bow around my subject.
With my taxonomy work, I curate collections of artifacts to create abstract “portraits” of people and places. You can understand a lot about a person or a place based on collected objects.
These taxonomies, when combined with a single regal portrait, make for rich character studies.
Is there any creative medium you would love to explore but haven’t yet?
I absolutely love cinematography. I’ve dabbled a bit- but don’t do much. I can do the photography work and create beautiful images- but beyond that – deciding on interesting cuts and forming a storyline…. I’m a little too controlling and tend to over-analyze it to death. This is a medium that thrives on collaboration. It forces me to surrender my vision to somebody else with their own vision – and together we create a beautiful piece of art that would never happen as a solo project. For the record- collaboration is a very difficult exercise for me, but I’m learning to embrace it. Without it, some of my finest work would never exist.
What’s the strongest memory of your childhood?
My first day of Kindergarten. I was super excited and had fantasized about my very own desk full of brand new school supplies. As I stepped into the classroom, I scanned the desk tops- searching for my name tag. “Oh no, you get to come over here and sit at this big table with the other Kindergarteners.” This was Disappointment #1 – we shared a classroom with first graders. They got desks. We had a community table. Disappointment #2 : “Everybody -take out your pack of crayons. Put your red crayon in the red can, and your blue crayon in the blue can. We’re going to learn to share.” As the middle of five children, this was the first time in my life I had possessed my own set of crayons. My name was written on every single one of them.
What themes do you pursue in your photography?
Anthropology. Character Studies. Sense of place. Possessions. Order.
What makes you angry?
Clutter, cruelty and fluorescent lights.
Name something you love, and why.
Turquoise. I’m a raccoon to turquoise. I will buy things that I don’t need because they are the right color.
It reminds me of sunshine and summer. Perfectly clean cloudless skies. A calm sea with warm air. I guess it’s pretty ironic that I live in a place that gets a very heavy winter and cloud coverage 80% of the year.
Professionally, what’s your goal?
The physical act of creating tidy arrangements is very soothing and therapeutic to me. My “tool portraits” give me the chance to meet and learn about interesting subjects – often people I’d naturally be friends with, but might not encounter without my art. So, this process has an unusual way of bringing people together. While showcasing the uniqueness of an individual it also highlights our commonalities.
My goal is simply to keep doing that – Meet more people. Learn about what they do. Celebrate the tangible world of hand-made objects and hands-on talents. Celebrate people with grit who seek out adversity for the sake of adventure. Lastly, I’m trying my best not to become predictable and stale.
You have photographed thousands of tiny objects. Which ones will you never forget?
I remember all of my taxonomies. Each one is special. But yes, there are a few objects that really stand out. Courtney Blazon’s vintage hobo doll, the fetal mouse in formaldehyde, taxidermy mouse head, and teeth. They are such unusual objects. I love how honest she was including them in her taxonomy. Some people might try to hide such peculiarities. The beauty in Courtney is that she really embraces them. This is one of the reasons why we were very fast friends.
If you had to trade your personal taxonomy for one of your subjects, who’s would it be?
Maybe the English Equestrian. Because that would mean I own a horse- which is one of my oldest dreams. Perhaps in another life I will get to realize my fantasy of becoming a professional jockey.
Also Diving, from the Yard Olympics series. I absolutely love the idea of diving and ocean exploration, but I’m a terrible swimmer and it scares me. I’d like to be braver in that arena.
That’s really tough to choose. I absolutely adore cinema. Top three: The Black Stallion, Harold and Maude and The Fall.
Stranger Than Fiction and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty are pretty high up there too. Of course anything by Wes Anderson. What Dreams May Come is also a spectacular movie. And Medicine Man.