There’s something in Jim Mangan’s story that we can all relate to. He was a young boy from Illinois who fell in love snowboarding and most of all, the mountains of Utah. His path must have seemed obvious—as a sponsored snowboarder, working within the industry was a natural transition, but as time went on, he knew it wasn’t for him. Taking a huge leap of faith, he followed a much deeper impulse. He left an unfulfilling job to pursue another, less certain path.
Using film, his friends, and the patterns and textures of Utah’s geological wonder, he began his own process of creative and professional rebirth. Incidentally, rebirth was also the thematic centre for his first photographic project trilogy: Winter’s Children, Color’d and Bedu.
And courageous rebirth is almost always rewarded. Mangan’s work has been internationally praised and exhibited. His photographic series, Bedu, won him the Lead Award’s 2013 Gold Prize.
Mangan’s photographs are figuratively and metaphorically naked: they strip away, they bare themselves, they show you how liberating letting go can really be.
We had a conversation with Mangan through mail and skype to find out more about his journey, process and inspirations.
Interview by Redia Soltis
Portrait by Aaron Wynia
Images courtesy of Jim Mangan
Copy editor Jennifer Chiu
Is Utah your home? What inspired you to be there? How did you end up there?
My parents had me skiing at age three or four on a little ski hill outside of Chicago. I loved it. It sort of planted the seed for me coming out west. We would travel to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and stay at my aunt and uncle’s A-frame cabin every year, along with a budget trip out west. Two sisters, mom, and I would all pack it in to one tiny hotel room in Park City, Utah-before the resort and town was posh and expensive.
This one time in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, during the mid to late 80’s, I saw this guy on a snowboard. I knew without question I wanted to rip my skis off and put that board thing underneath my feet. I lived and breathed skateboarding and the minute I saw a snowboard I completely freaked out. I eventually moved to Colorado to attend college. From that point on, snowboarding and the mountains took over my life. That’s what eventually brought me to Utah.
I was a sponsored rider (prior to Utah) back in the day but I moved into new roles within the snowboard industry. There eventually came a point where I felt like I lost a sense of who I was. I was sort of defined by my professional roles within the industry. I got burned out and eventually quit my job.
I had a bunch of conceptual projects that had been manifesting for quite a while that didn’t directly relate to snowboarding. There was a bit of money in the bank and decided I was going to actually start creating my ideas. All that being said, I kept my base in Utah for the most part. I focused on the surrounding environment that I’d become so connected to. Snowboarding is at the root of my love for the mountains but my experiences and understanding of them has become much more well-rounded throughout the years.
I think it’s pretty crazy it has only been four and a half years that you’ve been a photographer, considering where your career is at today. I relate to your photos because I live on the west coast of British Columbia, ride Whistler, camp, and love the isolation that nature provides. You have this ability to not only capture the isolation, but the beauty, the starkness, and the free-spiritedness within your adventures without it seeming contrived or forced—which leads me to Winter’s Children.
Why did you choose to create it as your first project? How does it speak to you and others? Were you surprised by its success?
When I left the snowboarding world I was so incredibly over it and burned out. It wasn’t because I disliked the act of snowboarding. Winter’s Children was a way to come back full circle as to why I loved snowboarding so much, without all these other elements that were tainting the purity of it.
The nudity within the adventure is an overstatement and I say so in a good way. I think the reason it may have resonated with people is that it they can see that I’m connected to it and the friends who are in it are connected to it. But also, it speaks metaphorically to anyone who has become jaded or lost sight of what it really means to truly enjoy life. My hope is that it’s a subtle reminder to take a break from everything that might be dragging one down; to lose oneself in the moment with friends and with people that might allow this type of free-spirited community. The human connection is so important. Social media is not a true connection. I call it a half-connection. If you’re creative and resourceful you can easily have an escape or adventure without spending a bunch of money.
To answer your last question, being that it was my first project, I was surprised by the success it gained through being published by powerHouse Books, Vice and NOWNESS (premiered the short film) along with exhibiting in New York City and Athens, Greece. Just making the project and seeing the images for the first time was probably better than anything else that could of ever happened. Having people enjoy it was pretty cool too, though.
Winter’s Children, 2011
I’m as guilty as the next person on my digital device usage and fully agree we all need to shut off our cell phones and computers more often than we think necessary, which is why physical human interaction becomes even more important these days. Most of us can’t have a conversation without looking at our phones. It has almost become a skill to actually be in the moment with someone and not be distracted by some digital device. This seems to be, at least, part of the impetus for Color’d, which you made in the summer of 2010, the second story in your trilogy on the subject of rebirth, right?
Absolutely—a true connection to the mountains and the places that surround me. The people that I know here are very free spirited. We were able to do this project because we were all connected on this same level. It was mostly friends and I didn’t know what was gonna happen with the project. We were just out there doing it. We went out and challenged people’s beliefs and ideas as we were hiking next to them. There are a lot of Mormon’s up in those areas.It was so amazing to get people’s reactions and seeing how far we could take it. It was really about having fun with each other and having a sense of community.
The Color’d project was shot in August of 2010 and it didn’t come out until a year later as the cover of the Vice Photo Issue.
Do you ever shoot digital?
Almost everything I shoot is film, with the exception of my iPhone. All my personal projects, editorial work and commercial projects are shot on film. When I receive some sort of commission, the person who I’m working with wants my “look”and always opts for film once they find out that’s what I shoot with. Film has a tangible feel to it in a mystical sort of way. I’m not sure if digital can convey that type of look, but to each their own. Don’t get me wrong there are so many great digital images out there, I just prefer film.
I feel like every shot counts with film and you think it about each shot a little more than you might with digital. With digital you can just shoot away, upload your footage to whatever device, erase your card and start over again, without thinking about the cost of the film and processing. You also can’t see each shot you’re taking with film, which I think pushes you to think about each image you take just a bit more. My projects are conceptual and film adds to the storyline and narrative that exists within each one. I want the images to transport you out of reality, maybe something like when you’re reading and imaging yourself in Alice In Wonderland. Hell, I don’t know if that’s a good example, but I’ll go with that.
Why did you decide to transition to shooting more landscape projects from your earlier figurative ones?
I started shooting landscapes down in southern Utah a few years ago and really started to develop a connection to this one particular stretch of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. The landscape is so diverse in this area and every time I went I began to discover something new. I find it strange that this area is not designated a national park. At the same time, I’m happy it isn’t plagued with tourists. The subtleties of changing colours and contours within landscape make it so unique. Every time I visited I was seeing, experiencing, and shooting it in new ways until I finally felt as though it all clicked and made sense.
I discovered what I was looking for, which was initially an emphasis on the layers. That too eventually evolved. I also was partially motivated to focus on landscapes as a project because I was pretty much broke at that time and couldn’t really put a figurative project together. I loved the idea of keeping it simple and seeing what I could accomplish by shooting landscapes. The great thing about not having money was that it did push me in a different direction—to look at things with different perspective, become more resourceful. It was just me, my camera, some gas money, and my tent. I learned a lot about myself and my surroundings. You definitely get deep into your own mind. Scary shit, but rewarding at the same time. These landscapes all became part of my Bastard Child series.
Was this part of the inspiration for your Time of Nothing series?
Eventually, I wanted to shoot the same locations from Bastard Child from an aerial perspective and, again, had to be resourceful. I discovered a friend-of-a-friend who owns a Single Engine Cessna that he uses for flight instructing. We worked it out so that every time I went up, he would bring a student and only charged us the cost of gas, which the student and I split. It worked out to be around $25 an hour. I sat in the back seat, which is as wide as the plane itself. It was perfect for me to shoot from either side of it uninterrupted. When we went up in the plane for the first time, I asked the pilot to go around the Great Salt Lake.
As I was looking at the lake I was thinking about in the same sort of abstract way that I’d been starting to view the landscapes in southern Utah. I snapped off a few shots and felt as though this might be what I’ve been searching for all along. When I previewed the low-res shots they came out better than I expected. I knew I wanted to go back up in the plane to document the entire lake and its surroundings, which I did over the course of three months.
The Time of Nothing images were taken anywhere from five hundred to a thousand feetabove land. The images have not been manipulated and at first glance, it’s difficult to understand whether they are macro or micro.
What photographers have inspired you?
In college I was introduced to Edward Weston’s work and his photographs of Tina Modotti. I could tell immediately he was completely lost in the moment with her and she was one hundred percent comfortable with herself and him. The connection was so undeniable between the two of them. That made me feel connected as well. I thought about the “connection”a lot when I started thinking about shooting the initial figurative projects and how important it was to have that with my subjects.
My friend Gerhard took me to see Juergen Teller speak a few months prior to making Winter’s Children. I’d never heard of him before and was completely floored by his images that were being projected on the big screen. He mastered the idea of contradiction within his images in such a funny and beautiful way, while sort of romanticizing it all at the same time. These are three elements that I feel exist within most of my figurative projects. It was the reason I connected so quickly with his work.
There is so much to Robert Frank’s work but him shooting in the moment is probably what inspires me most when it comes to his images. I really experienced his work for the first time at the Met. (Metropolitan Museum of Art) back in 2009.
Without a doubt, Peter Sutherland has been an influence within my work not only artistically, but also as a participant. We’ve gone on so many adventures together and I’ve been with him when he’s taken much of his more recognized work. His connection to what he shoots and creates as an artist is real and you can see that in how it resonates with so many people.
So what are some of your next projects coming up?
My latest book published by Dashwood will be released Nov 19 along with the opening of my solo show for the same project at 205-A gallery.