Stephen C. Mahan III

CitizenshipUnited States
Cultural HeritageEuropean-American
Light Work RelationshipLight Work Grant, 1989
Light Work Gallery, 1998
Light Work Gallery, 2005
Lecturer, 2005
Light Work Gallery, 2006
Other, 2010 – 2018 (Light Work Board Member)
Light Work PublicationsContact Sheet 65
Contact Sheet 102




Mahan's striking black and white photographs are created in the darkroom where negatives are combined to make a multiple image. Mahan works with mannequins and photographs of women and fashion advertisements that are projected as slides onto live models and photographed. The process of layering expresses the merging of time present and past and the collage of media image and live portrait reflects the overlapping of reality and fantasy.

Gina Murtagh (c)1989

In the summer of 1998, while on an expedition along the Yangtze River in Tibet, Stephen Mahan began work on a photojournalistic essay for which National Geographic Magazine had expressed an interest. This particular region, near the source of the Yangtze River, was chosen because it remains relatively free of influence from the Chinese government due to its inaccessibility. Tibet has lived under Mongol and Chinese control since the thirteenth century. It had maintained a great deal of autonomy until the 1950s when the government of Communist China invaded, which eventually lead to the exile of Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. The struggle for Tibet to reassert its independence has gained a great deal of public support and sympathy in recent years; however, little has been done to alter China's treatment of the Tibetan people who desperately strive to preserve their culture, religion, and way of life that has existed for almost 2000 years.
In his spare moments Mahan began an additional photographic exploration of Tibet using a crude plastic toy camera, commonly referred to as a Diana camera. No stranger to unusual cameras, Mahan uses them specifically for their inherent defects-unpredictable light leaks, shallow depth of field, and soft focus. For Mahan using this type of camera for his images is liberating in that it is not bound by the same conventions of photographic 'truth,' relying more on feeling and emotion, rather than the detached documentary realism expected in National Geographic Magazine.
In Mahan's artist statement regarding these photographs he writes,

With this body of work it is important to create photographs that evoke a feeling more than explain. For to explain one must know-and there is so very little about Tibet and its people that I know. The images are more about personal interior reality than an exterior appearance of things in time and space, although they function as that as well.
The photographs are autobiographical vignettes that show a place, but show it in a mood that is reminiscent of the space between awake and sleep. They show a brief description of place as a rough drawing, as a tentative draft, as a sketch.

The optical defects of the plastic camera create an illusion of timelessness in Mahan's images and remind one of the earliest photographic depictions of China and Tibet from the first National Geographic expeditions. Mahan's photographs offer an alternative view of this endangered culture and present us with a more ethereal representation of Tibet-one suspended outside of time and Tibet's current political state. Mahan's images read as more of a dream than reality, a dream perhaps shared by Tibetans living in exile and those under Chinese government authority.

Gary Hesse

Sketches from the Roof of the World by Stephen Mahan was curated by John Freyer and was exhibited in the Light Work Gallery from October 12 to November 18,1998.

Learning through the Lens: Collaborations with Children at the Edward Smith Elementary School is part of an ongoing effort begun years ago by a rowdy, impassioned group of educators, artists, art historians, community activists, and administrators who gathered at Light Work to talk about the work of artists like Wendy Ewald and Zana Briski, and what we could do in our community to participate in what has become a national movement to promote literacy through art.  What Ewald, Briski, and others have shown us is that art making empowers children, and that they often intuitively understand the language of art. In writing and talking about their own photographs and their own identity, they are often articulate, thoughtful, visually and verbally literate, profoundly honest, and direct. For children who have been told that they are inadequate in the classroom, that they don’t have the “right” answer, that they don’t have what it takes to succeed, image making offers an opportunity not to be right or wrong but simply to show us who they are. 

The Edward Smith Elementary School is located a few blocks from Light Work. For the past four years, rain or shine, their art teacher Mary Lynn Mahan has marched twenty-five fifth grade students at a time over to our darkrooms to print in the black-and-white lab.  Thanks to support from the Partners for Art Education’s Art$tart grant, Mahan has invited several visiting artists into her classroom to teach photography, including her husband Stephen. Basing their projects on Ewald’s book I Wanna Take me a Picture, the Mahans continue to refine their curriculum and incorporate new ideas about literacy and creative writing. In talking about their long term commitment to photography they describe how this project enables children to “come out of the shadows,” especially those struggling to learn, and who tend to spend their time disrupting the school day. 

The Learning Through the Lens project and exhibition added another dimension to the model already in place at Ed Smith. Professors Doug Dubois and Judith Meighan designed a course called Literacy, Community, and Photography, which trained a group of Syracuse University students to work as visiting artists in Mahan’s classroom. After training in Visual Thinking Strategies and Literacy Through Photography each SU student began working with a small group of four or five children at Ed Smith. As they all created and shared their images, writing, and journals they listened to each other and grew in their understanding and respect for each other.  The collaborative nature of the process blurs the boundaries of authorship and creates an opportunity for an open exchange of ideas and energy with the children. Many of the SU participants remarked they were learning more from the children than they ever imagined they would, and they all expressed a desire to spend as much time as possible at the school. 

At the end of the project as the exhibition came together, and we installed work by both the SU students and the Ed Smith students in the Robert B. Menschel Photography Gallery we all knew that something special had happened. Adrianna Hayes’ photograph P is for Perfect conveys the tone of the exhibition. As Mary Lynn Mahan stated in the wall text for the gallery, “The truth of what transpired during the weeks of collaboration extends far beyond the edges of the frames.  This collaboration has left tiny whispers, and words said and unsaid, in the hearts and minds of all the students involved. It has allowed all of us an opportunity to discover something ‘perfect’ in someone else.” 

Syracuse University now offers two courses called Literacy, Community, and Photography with more than thirty SU students working as visiting artists in the Syracuse City School District.  We especially want to thank Fine Arts Professor Mary Lou Marien, Jim Spencer of the Soling Program, Kandice Salomone of the Syracuse Symposium, and Wendy Ewald for their support, inspiration, and enthusiasm.  We also wish to thank the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, Edward Smith Elementary School, Light Work/ Community Darkrooms, Syracuse University College of Visual and Performing Arts, and the Division of Student Affairs. 


Mary Lee Hodgens

The exhibition was on view in the Robert B. Menschel Photography Gallery from May 9 to December 31, 2006. 

Adrianna Hayes is a student at Edward Smith Elementary School in Syracuse, NY.  She participated in Light Work’s Learning Through the Lens project in 2006.


Light Work Grants

Each year for the last 15 years Light Work has awarded 3 to 5 grants of $500 each to photograhers, critics and photo-historians who live in Central New York. The aim of the Light Work Grant Program is to provide support, encouragement and congratulations to the artists selected, and to foster the appreciation and understanding of the photographic arts in Central New York. The work submitted by this year’s recipients was on exhibit in the Light Work Gallery through July, 1989. 

The four recipients for 1989-90 are:

Thirza Devlin, Rome, NY – The color photographs in Devlin’s portfolio make multiple references to construction. Fabric, sewing patterns and paper dolls interface with media images from magazines and television. The stereotype of woman as homemaker is fragmented with the collaged elements that Devlin uses to challenge the notions of fashion determining gender and economic class. The piecing together of public self is built up with a steady media diet and selection of outfits of which even the color has special meaning. 

Devlin’s work has been in several exhibits and she has won local awards for her photography. Her Light Work Grant award will be applied toward the purchase of equipment to increase the size and format of her work. 

Stephen Mahan III, Syracuse, NY – Mahan’s striking black and white photographs are created in his camera where exposures are combined to make a multiple image. Mahan works with fashion advertisements that are also projected as slides onto live models and mannequins and photographed. The layering of object and projection expresses the merging of present and past and his collage of appropriated media with personal portraits reflects the complexity of reality overlapping fantasy. 

Mahan is employed as a river guide in the Grand Canyon during the summer and works with photography in the off season. His award will help finance his plans to photo-document the Spanish mission churches in the southwest. 

Mary Warner Marien, Lafayette, NY – Marien submitted a partial manuscript entitled, Photographic Studies in the 1990’s, that is earmarked as the introductory chapter to the book she is writing, Cultural History and Photography. In this comprehensive undertaking Marien examines the historical development of photography in the U.S., Great Britain and Europe and delineates the preconditions and social contexts from which photography has grown and influenced modern thought. 

Marien has served as Assistant Professor in the Fine Arts Department at Syracuse University since 1979. She writes regular reviews of art and photography books and exhibits as well as contributing editorial essays on cultural affairs to The Christian Science Monitor. Her reviews appear in numerous publications and she lectures about photography and art history on campuses around the U.S. Marien’s award will go toward completing her book. 

Adrienne Salinger, Syracuse, NY – The 20 x 20 inch color prints by Salinger combine elements of sculpture, drawing and narrative form. Salinger works in her studio where she cuts out shapes from such prosaic materials as paper, corrugated cardboard, and foam rubber. The flat cartoon like characters are then animated by drawing with spray paint, acrylics, chalk and string. The scenarios are riddles of dimension where depth is not fixed but implied and framed by the photographic act. 

Salinger is a Professor of Art Media Studies at Syracuse University. She has an M.F.A. from the Art Institute of Chicago. Her work has been widely exhibited and published.