Photographs by John Mahony
Humboldt State University First Street Gallery is pleased to present, Exclusion Zone: Photographs by John Mahony, on exhibit from February 2nd through March 9th, 2008. This exhibition will feature photographs from various international and domestic sites of environmental degradation into which Mahony inserts male and female figures engaged in a variety of dramatic, often enigmatic actions.
After graduating from UC Berkley as an Art major, Mahony moved to Salmon Creek, California where he has worked for several years as a land developer. While participating in a watershed protection project, Mahony photographed train wreck sites along the Eel River in California. He noticed, “The train cars were really ugly but also very intriguing, getting twisted, turned, embedded and polished by the river and nature.” The experience led him to rediscover his passion for art and his desire to capture something beautiful and meaningful within neglected, often misunderstood settings of environmental distress.
Mahony focused on photography and challenged himself to portray man’s disruption of nature and nature’s inevitable, albeit altered, reclamation of the earth. Some of these sites include the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in the Ukraine, the Hanford Nuclear Preserve in Washington State, abandoned mining sites, and military aircraft crash sites. Mahony introduced the figure of brides into these spaces as a human emblem of fertility and hope; a symbolic salve to these wounded, forsaken landscapes. He further populates his pictures with attendant grooms, and a variety of other characters arcanely interacting with one another to enhance the dream-like, post-apocalyptic quality he sees in these Exclusion Zones.
Mahony has gone so far as to risk personal exposure to radiation in some of these hazardous areas in order to present to us with a poetic vision of humanity’s current relationship with nature. Telling of his life-changing trip to the nuclear wasteland of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in the Ukraine, he reflected, “it’s such a phenomena to be in a place surrounded by an invisible poison, that you can not see or smell… it’s very sobering to be there and to experience what that’s like.”
To learn more about this exhibition, you can visit the artist’s website at www.johnmahonyphotography.com
What is the Exclusion Zone?
The title of this booklet and the accompanying show, Exclusion Zone, references the world’s premier toxic wasteland,
Chernobyl, Ukraine. Specifically, the zone is an area around the world’s worst nuclear accident with a radius
that extends between approximately 100 and 500 kilometers that is uninhabitable for another 100,000 years.
This wasteland is strewn with crumbling high rises, 6 abandoned nuclear reactors, gutted factories and rotting
farmhouses. It is also a lush forested area where trees have sprouted out of rooftops and roadbeds. At times I
wonder if our entire planet is headed for this distinction—too polluted for human habitation, and yet wild again,
and being taken back by the other species.
John Mahony, November 18, 2007
Foreword by Paul Swenson
John closes his eyes when he talks. I don’t know if he is imagining what he is going to say or if he is bashful, hiding from the attention that his words attract.
When John and I flew to New York City together in November
of 2002, only 14 months had passed since the devastating
attacks on the World Trade Center. Our journey had begun in
California the day before, a cruise south in John’s pick up truck
down highway 101 through redwood glades and vineyards to
Oakland. It ended with an afternoon taxi ride through the
dense urban landscape of New York City. The cab driver told
us stories about his old neighborhood in Queens as we skated
past it and crossed the river into Manhattan. Our hotel room
was twelve stories up and looked down onto 7th Avenue and
Madison Square Garden. After unpacking we had dinner at
a restaurant around the corner on West 31st. It was 7 o’clock
New York time and we were modestly hungry. Three lost hours
traveling against the sun’s arc had pushed time back to midafternoon in our heads. The waiter spoke with a heavy Italian accent. The redundancy of waiting tables year after year to dunder-headed tourists had filtered the pretense of care out of his voice. That didn’t much matter to us. We were artists and we were in New York City.
In the morning we set off for a photography convention on
11th Avenue. I attended a dry lecture on the improved color
gamut in the new ink jet printers of the day. At lunch time
John’s models, two New York women he had met and worked with in Humboldt County, California, found us there at the Javits Convention Center. With costumes and camera gear we crowded into a cab, and drove around Manhattan looking for a location in which to shoot. The location turned out to be the site of the fallen twin towers of the World Trade Center. The two women disappeared down a stairway just off Church Street into a nearby subway restroom and emerged minutes later gliding across the street in wedding dresses.
Surely to those watching, the majority being tourists, it was the small kind of big city thrill that one can’t wait to describe to their friends back home, or at least chat about over a beer later. Here you are visiting the site of the worst terrorist attack ever on US soil and there is a New York Photographer shooting for Vogue no doubt. To embellish the spectacle, there I stood with my Rolleiflex photographing the photographer. And to
further cement the evidence of our visit were the numerous bystanders snapping away with their cameras, our likenesses now carefully preserved between the pages of vacation photo albums all over the world.
However this was no big New York City photographer, but
what I would normally consider a reserved quiet man from
Salmon Creek, California. What they were witnessing was
more along the lines of a good old fashioned “happening”, some odd piece of performance art, with an improvised script, actors, and a director and photographer rolled into one, all on location at the most hallowed ground in the city, at that time maybe even the country. It was then that I realized John was a performer. I’d seen and printed thousands of his images. We had discussed f-stops, lighting, cropping and the usual odds and ends, but I had never seen him work. I didn’t really know what to expect, and nothing could have prepared me for it. He was like an actor who disappears into his role.
I hid and watched the scene in reverse through the lens of my own camera, apprehensive and in a state of slight disbelief that we were actually doing what we were doing. Can you get arrested for taking pictures of would-be brides at the memorial site of 911? John and the models seemed nervous too. They worked with a sense of urgency, fueled no doubt by the thrill of the spotlight entangled with the anxiety of being a public spectacle. They must have been worried that people would misinterpret their little play as a mockery of this sacred place and the grievous event that now defined these city blocks.
This couldn’t have been further from the truth. For as long as I have known John he has been drawn to the places in our world that are damaged, that need healing. Though I have never thought of him as a saint, his work casts light into those places, and is no less heartfelt than the flowers and letters left behind at these tragic sites.
Were people upset? Far from it. Fascinated, many gathered around to watch the three street performers. Others, no less curious, puzzled furtively from a distance. Though there was an enigmatic, what is going on, quality to our presence that drew people’s curiosity, I couldn’t help but sense there was a spiritual draw as well. Being in the presence of a bride in a public place is close to a sacred experience for people. It may seem as though I am overstating this, but having been a wedding photographer I have witnessed this phenomenon. Other than birth and death there is little else that holds such sway in our culture as the sacred right of marriage. There is a sense of reverence and awe when the public happens upon a bride being photographed in a secluded location. And here we had two, in a very public, emotionally charged place. Behind the high chain link fence that surrounded, essentially, acres of air heavily laden with absence, was a large hole in the ground so clean, it could have been mistaken for the excavation of new construction. The truly powerful and heartrending reminder of what had taken place here lay just a block away, where written tributes and flowers clinging to a church’s wrought iron fence fluttered in the afternoon breeze. On the sidewalk below stood a photographer and his two angels.
We rarely ever get to see this process of the artist making his
art; it is generally a private endeavor. This day, a single soul,
thoughts hidden, laid his working process bare to hundreds
of complete strangers. As John often does, he shot with a wide
angle lens. This put him within arm’s reach of the two women,
almost physically in the picture himself. John’s close proximity
forged a synergistic relationship between himself and the
models before him. He moved like a fashion photographer on
location. His models in their wedding dresses moved with him.
It made me think of Matisse’s, The Dance. There was a circle
of joy and movement, a connection between the photographer and his models. It made me realize how vital the actual act of making the photograph was to him, perhaps more important than the success of the final image on paper. The push of the shutter button was the crucial moment of creation. The dance that lead up to it, a kind of foreplay.
John might not like being compared to a fashion magazine
photographer, even though you could argue there are
similarities. Fashion photography is about the clothes, and
their prestige. The costume in John’s pictures, the wedding
dress, is a powerful symbol in our culture. Placing the model
in an environment that is contrary to what one would associate
with a bride, the ruins of Chernobyl, train wreckage, the site of the fallen Twin Towers, only emphasizes this symbol. This tactic has been used before by commercial fashion photographers, though it is unlikely that they have had to carry a Geiger counter with them to avoid the hot soil, or chosen to kayak down the Columbia River, or climb the spans of abandoned bridges, or scale mountains of debris in a scrap yard.
We live in a world of bad news, filled with harrowing doses of
tragedy so numbing, it blends into white noise. It’s no wonder
that everything else on TV seems to be an antidote to the
latest war, crime, or environmental disaster - a cocktail of fluff, an opiate of meaningless entertainment. In a twisted circle, these tragedies and real life horrors ultimately become the entertainment. Video games, TV and movies are more violent than ever. Nothing shocks us anymore. In our screen worlds it becomes difficult to separate reality from fiction. Which is “based on a real story” and which is the real story? Ironically, however, it is the screen that often replaces real experience for us and acts as a barrier between us and our environment*. For John, his art is a conduit, a way to truthfully experience his environment and come to terms with what is happening in the world; to place his feet on the real ground, breathe the real air, and see the real thing with his own eyes; to think about the state of the world and his place in it.
What does the cryptic language of symbols have to do with the way we experience the world? Symbols speak to us in a way that may on one level seem bewildering, but prod at a quiet part of our within. The artist’s journey to examine these symbols and encroach upon self discovery begins to encompass something bigger as we view his pictures. What do these symbols mean, if anything, to us? What is our place in the world?
What we, the audience, are left with is the evidence of the artist’s journey, his photographs, a brew of the photographer’s literal intent and meaning, artistic training and influences, veiled personal biases, the models’ personalities and improvisations, the location and light at the moment of capture, good luck or bad, accidents, happy or not, and finally the inutiae of the digital processing world. We never see the multitude of images dismissed as failure by the artist. Perhaps he has unwittingly relegated his masterpiece to the recycle bin on his desktop. Back in the day before the digital printing revolution, when I was hand printing real silver gelatin prints for John, he would hand me his marked up contact sheets to work from, and I would always think, “why isn’t he printing this one, and why is he printing that one?” It was clear my tastes in his images ran toward the more formally beautiful and enigmatic pictures that lacked the trace of a narrative. It seemed that these images, to him, were often the accidents, or perhaps the aberrations, and though interesting, ultimately were not what he wanted to accomplish with his pictures. Many of his images I thought smacked of a melodrama, that seemed artificial, were often his favorites. Then there were the scores of images that seem to stray into the middle ground.
John and I have often talked at length about the conflicting
influences that are at odds with the purity of an artist’s
originality: 1) The opinions of others, the desire for worldly
success, and to engage and please a larger audience, versus 2)
A maverick sensibility, to follows one’s vision and be damned
what anyone else thinks. This is a tightrope that many an artist
must learn how to walk, and ultimately decide which shade of grey they can live with. A critic might say that John’s work lacks the singular clarity of vision. But is the path to understanding ourselves a straight line? I would say that any journey worth taking, especially as an artist, is about the side trips, listening to the voice inside and going where it takes you, not about trying to fit your work into a neat ideological box. That sought after
mature clarity of vision, if it is ever reached, is a result of all the train wrecks and mountain peaks, the friction of the journey and it’s shaping of the artist’s persona. The guide through this odyssey is a map inside the artist’s mind revealed piecemeal only to him.
On the way John cannot help but see beauty in the forms of pollution and decay he reviles, or be distracted by the eroticism and sensuality of the human body. In the heat of the moment, peering through the camera’s lens, light flashes off the river, piercing the bride’s veil, dazzling his eye. The way shadows play across the model’s skin have nothing to do with any preconceived grand design. It is a beautiful picture and the shutter is released. Of the thousands of images taken, a final image, reflecting off the gallery wall, flips upside down through the lens of the viewer’s eye and sifts through their own personal filters. This picture become a tantalizing synthesis of the artist’s journey and our own personal experience.
When John takes a photograph his eyes are wide open.
Archetypal Reflections by Richard McCutchan
The title of John Mahony’s exhibition of photos, Exclusion Zone, alerts us that we are entering restricted terrain. His images challenge us to face the disastrous consequences that Western culture has imposed upon our world’s environment. We are also invited into another exclusion zone, the inner mind of the artist himself. In Mr. Mahony’s photographs there is a dreamlike human presence that takes us far beyond the literal. With visual metaphors, he leads us into mythical realm of mundus imaginalis, the realm of the imagination. (Plate 1)
Mr. Mahony has sought out places where man has polluted, desecrated, or disrupted nature. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, abandoned rail cars along the Eel River Canyon, Hanford Nuclear Preserve, abandoned mining sites in Oregon, hydraulic gold-mining sites in Nevada County, California, and mangled metal from crash sites in the Yuma Desert are all places of past tragedies and ecological disasters that show the devastating consequence of man’s unrelenting technological drive. He tells us that he is drawn to these sites not just because of the desecration, but that “they are the new landscapes, industrially impacted, and yet still wild and beautiful and often in the process of being reclaimed by nature.” 1
His photographs could easily stop here, giving us a powerful
and much needed political and artistic expression of mankind’s
horrendous influence on the environment. However, he
goes beyond the literal, the rational, and the certitudes that dominate us in today’s world. He plays with our inner world by introducing dreamlike characters to disrupt the concrete
and challenge us to make sense not just with our logical minds but also with our imagination. The characters he adds to the scenery are bigger than life. Their presence encourages us to make a leap of imagination. Mr. Mahony’s imaginal capacity,
his ability to form images that carry energy, constructs a bridge
to infinite worlds that lie beyond our rational and emotional
capacities. (Plate 2)
Mr. Mahony’s photos lead us not into a world of fantasy but
into a world of shared images that resonate in the human
psyche. With their universality these images speak the
language we see in the works of the poets Dante, Goethe, Rilke,
Elliot and Blake. Their writings, like these photos, engage our
imagination by touching something that resonates deep in our soul. It is here in the interplay of an artist’s presentation and our own internal response that we enter the collective realm of the archetypal imagination.
Mr. Mahony doesn’t have to spell out the destruction that the mechanistic mentality of our time is perpetrating on our environment. His imagery confronts us with both our personal and the universal relationship between destruction and beauty. Everyday we see on TV or read something about global warming, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, oil spills in the San Francisco Bay, or some other ecological tragedy. The same questions that, I imagine, reside in Mr. Mahony are now our questions as we stand in front of his images and allow them to move our own psyches. What is our part in this disaster? Where do we stand in relation to this new landscape that Mr. Mahony presents to us? Can we look at a smoggy sunset, at a murky river, the disasters and tragedies in his photos and still see the beauty? Do we feel hope? Despair? Denial? Fear?
Mr. Mahony presents us with the contradictions, chaos and
confusion that are all around us. He gives us no answers, yet
he gives us images of the archetypes that are at play in our
world today. The bride that is sometimes clothed, sometimes
naked, now a spirit, now a witch, an angel, a temptress, a muse
. . . the forms keep changing. Is she mankind’s soul or animus
leading us to redemption or is it Lilith from the Old Testament
returning to take her revenge on mankind?
Wildcats shall meet with hyenas,
Goat-demons shall call to each other:
There too Lilith shall repose,
And find a place to rest.
There shall the owl nest
And lay and hatch and brood in its shadow.
Isaiah 34:1 f
Mr. Mahony’s numerous images of brides are often juxtaposed with both destruction and beauty. (Plate 4) I am reminded of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, which suggest a similar poetic image.
Where praise already is is the only place Grief
ought to go, that water spirit of the pools of tears;
she watches over our defeats to make sure
the water rises clear from the same rock
that holds up the huge doors in the altars.
You can see, around her motionless shoulders, a feeling
dawn’s -- we since more and more that she
is the youngest of the three sisters we have inside.
Rejoicing has lost her doubts,
and Longing broods on her error,
Only Grief still learns: she spends the whole night
counting up our evil inheritance with her small hands.
She is awkward, but all at once
she makes our voice rise, sideways, like a constellation
into the sky, not troubled by her breath. 2
As you can see my imagination jumped from Mr. Mahony’s imagery to my own, which then elicited my memories, resonating with Rilke’s imagery. Likewise, Rilke reminds us that his images are connected to Dante as well as to the Old Testament. This is where I/we enter the realm of the archetypal imagination. When we let our minds step away from concreteness, the images take on a power and life of their own. The French philosopher of Persian mysticism, Henri Corbin, called this realm of the imaginal mundus imaginalis.
When we enter this state the images are like angels, or rather diamones, those ambiguous beings mediating between spirit and physical. Both Islamic mystics as well as artists of the Renaissance considered images and imagination to be the way in which the heart perceives.
Perhaps no one spoke and painted with images more elegantly about the divine power of imagination than the engraver William Blake. In a letter written in 1799 he said, “to the eyes of the man of imagination Nature is imagination itself. As a man is so he sees . . . to me this world is all one continued vision.” Mr. Mahony is moved by nature. His photos embrace images of destruction, beauty, nakedness, brides, guns and much more. These images in relationship to his/our new landscape confront us with our past, present and questionable future.
When I look at the naked man on top of the wrecked railroad car my thoughts go to mankind today trying to divert a train wreck that has already happened. (Plate 5). But the power of his nakedness sparks a recollection of the brushstrokes of William Blake glorifying the beauty of all that is natural and never ending. I am mesmerized by the resonance between Mr. Mahony’s photo of the train wreck and Blake’s words . . .
“Strength, Beauty, and Ugliness escaped the wreck, and
remain for ever unsubdued, age after age.” 3
Mr. Mahony has said that he sees his work as coming from his “inner struggle between my male and female selves” which he describes as “the Main event in my drama, this figure in my view finder looking back at me. . .” * Certainly as we look at his photos we can see the feminine and masculine at play. The archetypes of the feminine and masculine in various forms tease us with their changes and contradictions. However, there is another mythological drama being played out in his photographs. Mr. Mahony’s new landscape doesn’t let us forget that lurking in the background is the theme of tragedies and destruction and even death.
The poet Federico Lorca believed that art is always related to man’s struggle with death. Lorca reminds us that though the muse entices us and the angel protects us, that it is the duende that brings our soul alive. It is the duende that leads Mr. Mahony into the new
landscapes of tragedy and destruction. It is the duende that calls him to heal that wound to the earth as well as to his own soul. As Lorca says this is the origin of all of mankind’s work. Lorca writes,
“through the empty arch enters a mental air
blowing insistently over the heads of the dead,
seeking new landscapes and unfamiliar accents;
an air bearing the odor of child spittle, crushed grass,
and the veil of a Medusa announcing the
unending baptism of all newly created things.” 4
Richard McCutchan, December, 2007
Richard D. McCutchan, Ph.D. teaches archetypal psychology and
has a private therapy practice in Nevada County, California. He
is the author of the book, Awakening the Spirit of Osiris: The
Transformative Power of Anger.
1 John Mahony; quoted by Angel Goldman in an interview with John Mahony at Mr. Mahony’s studio in Salmon Creek, California, 11-14-06, available online at
2 Rainer Maria Rilke, Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Robert Blye (New York, Harpercollins, 1981)
3 William Blake,The Portable Blake, ed. Alfred Kazin (New York, Penguin Books, 1976)
4 Frederico Garcia Lorca, Poet in New York, trans. Greg Simon and Steven White, ed. Christopher Maurer (New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998)