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Mark Mahaney, Polar Night

Every now and then I'm revisiting some of the photography books and other items on my shelves here. This time it’s . . .

Fron cover of Worktown People by the photographer Humphrey Spender

Mark Mahaney spends most of his time, like me, working as an editorial and commercial photographer with family commitments that limit the time he has for personal projects. That rings a bell. His first book, Polar Night, is also his first personal project. It’s an amazing way to start: a book edited by the great Bryan Schutmaat and sold out almost immediately. My copy is a signed second edition. I had a look at his website to see what kind of work he usually does and it shows him to be a great photographer with a wide range of skills and really communicative images. I think this is something that commercial and editorial work can give you which filters into your personal work too. It’s never an easy balance to achieve but he pulls it off really well, reminding me a little of Nadav Kander, another photographer that combines his commercial and personal projects seamlessly. 


Polar Night is a sumptuous book, from its dark blue soft cover with white stitching, simple title and no mention of the photographer (he comes across in interviews as a modest kind of guy). Inside are large, beautifully printed photographs. There are only 26 images in the series, a mixture of colour and black and white, tightly edited by Mr Schutmaat. The location is Utqiagvik in Alaska, a small town situated 500km above the arctic circle which every year endures 2 months of darkness, the polar night of the title. The inhabitants go into hibernation mode, as Mahoney says, and what he imagined would be a series of portraits, interiors and landscapes around the town became almost entirely shot outside involving little contact with the locals. 

The images are beautiful and disturbing at the same time. ‘Darkness brings darkness’. It is a series that talks of survival in an inhospitable landscape, a theme played on by the menacing presence of dogs throughout the book and the single portrait of a sportsman towards the end. There is an implicit nod towards climate change and impending disaster for those, like this particular community, on the front line. Perhaps even a glimpse of what’s to come as that front line moves towards us. 

Polar Night by Mark Mahaney. Published by Trespasser, 2019, 2021.


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