Local film photographer Mandy-Lyn is probably best known for her rock n’ roll attitude and for her empowering and timeless nude portraits of young women, a selection of which were recently compiled into the hardcover book, “PLAY”. The artist possesses a rare combination of talent, vision, confidence, self-awareness and opinion. It’s an array of traits that has cut the young woman a niche in an unlikely industry. But in a recent conversation we found out that film is her real passion; a fact made less surprising when you consider the narrative quality of her photographs. It makes her future all the more intriguing. If the photographer’s past repertoire and resume are any indication, the motion picture industry is about to get a real shake-up…
Tell me a bit about your upbringing. My parents were pretty much teenagers. When I was born my Dad was in a hair metal band and my Mom was an exotic dancer. She graduated into adult movies and then founded a BDSM & Fetishist magazine (before the internet was doing that for people). My Mom lost custody of me early, mostly because of her profession – so I was raised pretty much by my Dad and my Grandpa. They’re both real great men. My Grandpa is very stoic and serious and hard working, and he is a crazy Maths genius. My Dad is a Maths genius too but he loves drinking beer and playing rock and roll and he’s the most romantic and sentimental person I’ve ever met, so they have their differences. My parents both partied a lot and fought a lot. I was lucky to grow up in an environment with lots of really wild, creative weirdos who all imparted a little bit of their rock n roll knowledge to me. I was a pretty lonely little kid mostly and I didn’t have any friends my age – I never learned how to talk like a kid or think like a kid. And we were pretty much broke all the time. Which isn’t to say my Dad wasn’t a great Dad because he was, and he really did everything he could, especially when I was little, to be both parents to me. I made life long friends with my records and VHS tapes. That sounds kind of sorry, but it really had it’s perks. Though, I have had to work hard to develop my interpersonal skills. Both my parents where crazy teenage dreamers, by no means the standard image of parental support… but I think the things they taught me to value have been the things that have set me apart. The way I was raised put me in a very unique position to be myself.
What is your first memory of being behind a camera? There was a big overgrown lot between my Grandpa’s house and the neighborhood church, and some of the boys cut secret pathways through these giant blackberry monster bushes to a hide out where you could light off fire crackers and stuff, without adult detection. Most of my early memories taking photos are back there, setting off a lot of roman candles and shooting off a lot of BB’s. Pretending I was Tony Montana. Lucky I didn’t shoot my eye out.
How has your creative process evolved since you started taking portraits? When I started I don’t think I did anything technically – all emotion or instinct. With film that especially lends you to a big ol’ learning curve, ’cause there are these steps and considerations with film that completely dictate how the photo’s gonna turn out. For a while it felt like I forgot how to take photographs emotionally because I wanted so badly to master the craft of it, the technical side – to get the photos I wanted, you know? After more than ten years of serious practice, I’m able to shoot things instinctively and I can pretty much depend on something working out; because of all the practice, the technical stuff is more like second nature now. But that said, if I walk into a camera store looking for just about anything, I’m stumbling around in the dark cause I can’t barely speak any of that lingo. The button, the glass eye guy, the winder dealie that rolls up the film, the peeky hole that you look through… you catch my drift. Layman’s terms, big time.
“When I connect with my subject, trust them and they trust me, our light reflects one another and that’s how a really special image happens.”
What quality/qualities do you seek out in your subjects? Genuine and authentic are the first words that come to mind. Brave and kind. Like real internal goodness is so beautiful to me; there’s nothing more beautiful. It glows. Someone with kindness in their heart, who can step outside of themselves – I think that a real confidence in a subject is what I seek, an energy exchange, this is what makes for an intense, rewarding creative process. I can shoot a woman who I have nothing in common with, and see her beauty and you will see it too – but the photo is flat; it’s just resonating style and that signifies nothing. It doesn’t do anything for me. When I connect with my subject, trust them and they trust me, our light reflects one another and that’s how a really special image happens. Then it’s more of a moment than an image, a memory more than a construction.
What is a quality that you most admire in others, that you wished you possessed? I’m not sure that it’s a “quality” specifically, but I admire people that have close, active relationships with their parents. That’s not something I know about. I wonder how it effects the way you feel about the world. How different it is to walk down life’s road knowing there’s people out there who made you and really actively love what they made. Does it make a person more confident? Gentle? Trusting? I wonder.
Something that you haven’t yet been able to capture on camera, that you’d like to? That feeling when you’re on a road trip and you lean your head out the window and let the wind blow your hair all around and you breath in the adventure air deeply and feel totally unlimited and free. I got close to that picture a couple times, but I think I need a real free bird to catch it – and a 72 Mustang. And probably a stunt driver, who’ll let me surf on the roof and knows how to break without rocketing me into the asphalt. I’d take a hard bail for that photo, though. It’d be worth a couple missing teeth.
What is the appeal of nudity to you? What does the lack of clothing on your subjects add to the context? I don’t know, I feel like clothing is usually a trick. It’s a sales pitch for an assumed identity. There’s nothing about it that’s definitely true. Selling something is the opposite of what I am doing; even a nice pair of jeans can sway a picture in a cheap direction (“Wow, this should be a Wrangler ad!”). It also dates things a lot, horribly. I’ve seen a cute pair of panties concrete a perfect photo into 2011, just like that. I like something more ambiguous and dreamy, and unrestricted. Of course there’s also a real direct message in the kind of nudity I shoot. All women have been raised and educated on female sexuality as portrayed by horny guys for ever. And it’s taught us all to interact with female sexuality in a certain way; it is like, a consumable, a product we’re disassociated from, something our eyes gobble up and throw away. But female sexuality is the source of all life – it’s the ultimate power – and I think – let’s say, “The Man” turning it into a circus performance (by making our sexuality a vehicle to sell everything) – is really how He keeps a hold on things. I just want to see images of Women expressing their sexuality for themselves – for their enjoyment and empowerment – and I want that to be something everyone can feel. We are more than art, you know, we’re everything – and we have the freedom to indulge in and experience that without throwing our ‘audience’ a submissive gaze and contorting ourselves into some kooky position in $2000 lingiere.
Name the three strongest people that you know. Single parents; emergency response worker;s and every woman who’s ever worked in the sex industry.
Are you a “feminist”? I believe in the power of Womankind more than anything else in the world, and I believe in love.
Where do you get your confidence from? I wish I knew the location of that well, sometimes I’m wet, sometimes I’m thirsty as hell.
What is your biggest weakness? I’m real sensitive. It’s a strength sometimes, but it hurts me a lot too.
What’s your “cry song”? What do you listen to when you need a mood-lifter? Cry song would be “Phantom 309” by Red Sovine or “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” by the Del McCourey Band. “Ramblin’ Fever” by Merle Haggard really does it for me. If I’m heartbroken or mad as hell, I can put that song on and it kind of realigns me. He’s just a great guy, Merle. That song makes me feel OK about me. It’s a real free, positive song from a truly cool, enduring, good hearted tough guy. It’s inspirational. Haha!
What sparks a mixtape for you? A lot of feelings! Total misery or fiery desire or hunger. (And loneliness, of course)
What’s your favourite body part? My heart.
From your experience, do you think that there’s an advantage to being a female photographer? I wouldn’t say so. I have powers that men don’t – that will always set my work apart from men trying to do the ’same thing’ – but that’s because I’m not trying to mount the Panther on my wall, if you feel me. I just want to admire the Panther and immortalize her in her natural habitat, and discuss her majesty like I’m David Attenborough on Planet Earth. You feel me? It’s a real tough situation we’re in here, as ladies. We’ve got to revolt on almost everything we got taught, all the paradigms we’re fed as little girls about “being Women” – in order to get to acting right – to ourselves, and to each other. It’s tough enough that we’re not set up to have an equal shake between the sexes; but we’ve got a whole other mountain to climb when it comes to the way we treat, regard and think about our Sisters – especially when they’re doing something radical or controversial. If you have no enemies, I guess you’ve got no character… and taking a stand always creates opposition. But Men, historically, haven’t been taken to town for being Men the way Women get taken to town for being Women. I can’t say it is ever easier to be a Woman – in any roll except Motherhood. But more rewarding? Hopefully. If we keep fighting, and working hard, our daughters and their daughters might see the day… where opportunities are really reserved for the fairer sex.
How often do you experience rejection when you approach a potential subject? I don’t reach out to women very much because I really prefer that a model comes to me. That is more appropriate and right, energetically. I’ve found I’m just not comfortable asking a Woman to assert her sexuality like I do (which is in a sense, what my work does) — this needs to be something that the model identifies with independently. From there I need to feel that that lady, she resonates with me for the right reasons, whatever that means. Recently I’ve been working on a new series called “Heks” where I’m specifically calling to strangers, women of all ages and body types, to come and be involved in my nude photography, if they feel comfortable and empowered to do so – which has been great and amazing but also intense and sometimes painful. I’ve had a lot of women reach out, without any experience in front of a camera, and it is my work to honor them and make them feel and also look comfortable and powerful. That’s no small thing. And then you know there have been moments where a volunteer doesn’t make it in on the next shoot, or I forget to message one of many in a list, and that lady ends up feeling I’ve intentionally excluded them, which leads to real hurt feelings. And of course I am not intentionally excluding anyone ever; just that I work a lot and I do my best but I forget things, make mistakes, lose numbers, forget names. The last thing I would ever want is for my work to end up making a woman feel she is somehow less. In fact, I work hard to create what I hope is the opposite effect. As I’ve tried to open up my work as wide as I could hope to, I’ve found it is uniquely difficult to navigate things elegantly – as one human person with very limited resources. Our world seems so screwed up sometimes – it can be so difficult for us to trust each other.
“I’ve had darkness crowd around me and blot out the sun. I know what that darkness does to pure things that aren’t protected. If I don’t vent this anger and express my romanticism, if I’m not fighting in my way, and working toward a difference, I’ll drown in that darkness.”
If you could be photographed by any photographer, living or dead, who would you choose? Bunny Yeager for sure. She’s actionable proof that if anyone should be trusted to legitimately portray the magic of female sexuality, it’s a woman.
Why stick to analog photography? What is its biggest challenge and biggest reward? A digital photograph is a bunch of microchip sensors reading a situation and duplicating it. An analog photograph is a little strip of clear plastic, painted on one side with a gelatin emulsion holding zillions of microscopically small light-sensitive silver halide crystals. When you press the shutter-button, the world’s most sensitive eye opens for fractions of seconds and light makes an explosion of those crystals, like a burn or the mark of a lightning strike, creating an invisible image in the emulsion. And then, after a series of ingenious chemical baths, a visible photograph. Everything that light touched, glowing and living and enduring. A moment seared into every following reality because of light and energy and chaos. Like actual magic. Nothing beats it, it’s alchemy. It’s very romantic.
How much of yourself goes into your portraits? So much that I’m not sure I’ve come to terms with it. It’s a weird thing. To be intensely private, and then also to be compulsively expressing myself with my sexuality, as it is, at 11.
If you had to dole out just one piece of advice to young/new portrait photographers, what is your golden rule? Just be yourself. God damn please, I swear to god, do yourself a fucking humungous favor. Save yourself years of heartache. Just be yourself. Rather than working hard to recreate other people’s magic, discover the path to your own. It makes sense to try and emulate the things you’ve fantasized about and admire in other people, but you’ve got to dig deeply to the core of yourself and express something genuine and authentic. You have to say what you really feel. That vulnerability and authenticity is what people will resonate with. That’s how people will fall in love with your work. That is how your work can do good in the world. That is how your work will last. Those who have done the dirty work and forged real talent and character can always immediately see through those who are just wearing the uniform. And then you’ll have this big red “Poser” painted on your forehead – by the people you admire, no less. Dig deep and discover yourself. No one will ever be able to beat that.
If you were no longer able to do what you were doing, what career would you be pursuing? All the photos for me are just practice for the big gig – making movies. That’s my true dream.
What is the worst piece of advice that you’ve ever received? Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard – “but I say OH BONDAGE! Up yours!!!”
Who are your three favourite female filmmakers of all time? That’s tough. I don’t think that female directors get enough of a chance to track and make multiple films, which is kind of how I imagine listing a favorite director – multiple faves from one visionary type of deal. There’s a couple exceptions but nothing like you get with the boys. Sophia Coppola makes beautiful films of course but she’s the only I can think of who really gets to (in a contemporary art director sense) shake and shake again – and you gotta wonder if her last name helps out there. But you’d probably be shocked at how many amazing films there are out there that I bet you had no idea were directed by a lady. Fast Times at Ridgemont High was directed by Amy Heckerling, who also directed Clueless. American Psycho and I Shot Andy Warhol, Mary Harron. She’s Canadian, she wrote them both(!!!), and she was the first music journalist to interview the Sex Pistols (so WCW Mary Harron). Wayne’s World, Penelope Spheeris – who also directed each of the Decline of Western Civilization films, which probably means she’s on the top of my list. Point Break, Katheryn Bigelow. Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi. Boy’s Don’t Cry, Kimberly Peirce. Monster was beyond, just so beautiful and heartbreaking and great – that was directed by Patty Jenkins… although I don’t know about Wonder Woman (she directed that too). Mi Vida Loca was directed by a woman, Allison Anders – though it’s a story about born ‘n raised East LA Chicana’s that’s written and directed by a white girl from Kentucky. Gina Prince-Bythewood wrote and directed Love & Basketball and Lonveleen Tandan directed Slumdog Millionaire… those are the only women of colour I can think of who got a real let in for a success. Just two. Which is absolutely insane.
The movie heroine you would most like to hang out with? Without a doubt, Pam Grier’s Coffy.
How important is it to you to remain relevant? It’s funny to think of my work as relevant. I think sometimes I am either ahead of the times or way, way behind them. Maybe both of those statements can be true. At any rate, nothing matters to me more than having the freedom to express myself. That’s all I’m doing. I’m very romantic and also, deep inside me I’m very angry. It feels like I have thousands of years of anger in the deepest part of my heart – because I’ve seen some of the darkness in this world. I’ve had darkness crowd around me and blot out the sun. I know what that darkness does to pure things that aren’t protected. If I don’t vent this anger and express my romanticism, if I’m not fighting in my way, and working toward a difference, I’ll drown in that darkness.
What song do you want to have played at your funeral? “I’m Set Free” by the Velvet Underground.
What do you hope to accomplish by the end of the year? My biggest goals are all about video, moving pictures, telling stories – more deeply and intimately than before. I can’t wait to share some of my stories with you. I hope I get the opportunity to.