Mandy Mohler shoots camping gear in her Kalispell Studio.

The View From Above

A Montana artist breathes new life into the things adventurers carry.

Sunset Magazine, August 2018. Photography by David Lauridsen

SIX YEARS AGO, ART PHOTOGRAPHER MANDY MOHLER SPENT A WEEK IN MONTANA’S BACKCOUNTRY AT A REMOTE CABIN JUST OUTSIDE GLACIER NATIONAL PARK. She was there to collaborate with two musicians on an album cover, but the 27-year-old couldn't keep her eyes off the well-worn objects strewn about the two-room log structure. There was an axe with a red blade, an old tin coffeepot, a first-aid kit from the 1950s, a pair of dusty brown-leather hiking boots. Where some might have seen random castoffs, Mohler saw intriguing clues about explorers who found respite there over the years.

Compelled, the Flathead Valley native lugged dozens of the most interesting artifacts to a bedsheet outside, photographing them in small groups. Later, she neatly assembled the individual shots into a complex photo collage, a 30- by 30-inch matte print she named The Forest Service Cabin. It's the kind of piece you'd stare at for 15 minutes if you ran into it at an art gallery, examining each thing and trying to imagine why someone packed it in. Does anyone still use that hand-cranked eggbeater? Why Jägermeister of all things? Are those rat traps? (They are.)

"The tools people have and use say almost more about them than their physical appearance," says Mohler, who has since documented nearly 100 (and counting) people's gear collections in her series Field Guide Designs. Each photo displays, with almost anthropological detail and a hint of whimsy, the taxonomy of Montanans and others who work and play in the open air. Taken as a whole, the series feels like a crucial document–an ode to objects and ways of life that define the West. The results of her deep appreciation for wilderness gadgets have earned her an audience that extends far beyond Kalispell, where she lives in a tidy sage-green ranch house with her husband and their 3-year-old son. If you've been to a Pottery Barn recently, it's possible that you've already seen her pieces–the retailer began selling her prints earlier this year.

"What I'm doing is really different from the traditional artwork here [in Montana]," Mohler observes. "Plein air painting, beaded jewelry, landscape photography. ...It took a little time for me to really believe people were interested in this style."

She noticed that her approach resonated particularly well with urbanites. Even so, she's found willing collaborators in her nature-obsessed hometown. "Montana is a hub for adventure and the outdoors," she says. ''And locals are really proud of their gear." Word of the project spread, and soon folks began reaching out to Mohler to capture their stuff. The Rockbound was created when a woman commissioned Mohler to help create an interactive birthday present for her father. (The daughter wanted to pay homage to his unique geology hobby and thought he might enjoy having someone take a genuine interest in the various picks, minerals, and tiny lenses that anchored his solitary obsession.) At first, when Mohler scheduled a time to show up at the house, things were touch and go. "He said: 'You want to do what?"' Mohler recalls. "People are sort of confused until they see me assembling their things." The hands-on ritual, she says, has a way of drawing someone out, especially introverted mountain types. And by the end of the session, he was enthusiastically explaining how a little magnet came in handy when panning for gold.

Lately, Mohler mostly shoots in her home studio, found at the bottom of some steep wooden steps and past open shelving holding her husband's neat buckets of sports gear. (He climbs, fishes, and skis–perhaps future fodder for another "portrait.") Mohler painted the big, windowless basement room flat white, creating a bright yet neutral production-friendly backdrop. Against one wall there's an old dresser that she pulled out of the garage, painted turquoise, and finished with snazzy new drawer pulls. The floor is warmed by a yellow, star-splashed rug. Nearby there's a shelf holding a retro camera collection, and a vintage Schwinn 10-speed with curved yellow handlebars that she's nicknamed Farrah Fawcett. "It's getting to be kind of Wes Anderson-y down here," she admits.

Anderson's films, in fact, are one of the influences that led Mohler down this path. The way movies like The Royal Tenenbaums use highly stylized, almost doll-like clothing and accessories to define the characters helped her see the personal significance of the objects people take with them into nature, she says. But it's the scientific illustrations of Charles Darwin's era that guided Mohler in arranging those objects. Where Victorian artists turned their pencils to seashells and finches, she focuses her camera on the shapes and materials that help classify humans.

Like Darwin, Mohler's mind is also on evolution, at least in terms of what's next for the series. "My upcoming botanical prints are going to have a lot of color," she says. She also plans to document North Flathead Yacht Club, where she crews during regattas. "I asked for buoys, life jackets, ropes, flags, boat shoes, hats, vintage sun-screen, old beer cans, radio stuff–that kind of old salty sailor-on-a-sun-bleached-dock look."

Piled in a corner of the basement, that boating ephemera is poised to capture a new image of Montana–not the alpine woods everyone expects, but a vibrant lake culture that embraces a wet, hot American summer. "I think a lot of times artists create what they need," Mohler says. "Whether it's organization or sunshine."

By Kim Brown Seely.  All rights reserved.