By Lily Kane
Photographer Mandy Stoller’s job is to create fantasy through her sumptuous luxury shoots for such high-profile fashion and beauty clients as Hourglass, Dose of Colors, Dr. Lancer Skincare, Kate Somerville, Pravana, and others. Painterly close-ups of make-up brushed across flawless skin. Exquisitely designed products in sculptural, glamorous compositions. Images designed to incite desire.
But it’s her refreshingly real, unmasked approach to art, business, and the business of art that got her to where she is today.
“I’ll be honest, L.A. is a tough city to live in,” the Nashville native admits right off the bat. “The first two years I really struggled to stay here.” But Stoller embodies such an alchemy of creativity, discipline, and focus that she has been able to forge her own path, building off her conceptual art foundation from Watkins to uniquely position herself in the field of commercial photography.
Just how did she go from selling “space cat artwork” to being flown to Vancouver to shoot a high-profile ad you’ll see in Vogue next spring? It begins, as these things so often do, with a brave decision.
After managing to save up enough money—“as well as get the courage, since I had lived in Tennessee my whole life,” she emphasizes—Stoller moved to California in 2013. When she landed, Stoller began by selling her “space cat artwork,” which started as a sort of a lark a few years earlier in professor Brady Haston’s printmaking class. “I made some lithographs of cats floating in outer space. Some people thought they were funny and asked to buy them,” Stoller explains. “Then I experimented with printing on clothing and sold those.” Through her own online store and retailers like ModCloth and Zumiez, Stoller managed to parlay the cat prints into a full-time job. While it helped her get a foothold out west, she quickly realized she was going to need something more lucrative. Also, after five years, she laughs, “it was a really long joke and I was over it.”
With a Canon 5D Mark III she had purchased to experiment with filmmaking, Stoller enlisted friends to pose for her. She thought about how she could integrate the inspirations she learned about at Watkins and found in “the paint strokes of great artists like Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline,” and “the moody lighting of Pieter Claesz and bright sunlit style of Wayne Thiebaud’s still life studies.” She found aspiring models via Facebook groups and practiced her burgeoning portrait skills, when a job through Craigslist photographing product for an Etsy shop came through. It wasn’t high-end, but it was affirmation for Stoller on her path.
Three years, and much work, later, Stoller was offered a job with Wet n Wild beauty and then with Hourglass Cosmetics. While beauty photography hadn’t initially been in her plan, Stoller started developing an impressive portfolio in the medium.
As she did, her client base kept growing. She developed a website and Instagram account, which attracted the attention of Farimah Milani, a New York agent who now represents her work. In September, barely more than five years after committing to her new discipline, a new state, and a new body of work, Stoller was making a living from it. Enter Vogue, where this September, Stoller was flown to Vancouver to shoot an ad for Secret Deodorant featuring actress Camila Mendes and slated for a spring issue.
On set, Stoller balances directing her team and the talent while communicating with the client, advertising agency, producer, and PR team to, she says, “ensure I was capturing what they envisioned.” The Vogue shoot was a significant milestone for Stoller, both professionally and personally. She says, “It was high pressure, and seeing that I was able to do what needed to be done made me feel more confident about future shoots.”
Stoller’s story is inspiring precisely because it demonstrates the rewards of both talent and perseverance, as well as the power of the entrepreneurial artist—one who benefits deeply from a holistic education. Indeed, Stoller’s journey offers a master class in using the foundations of a background in fine art—fluency in composition, lighting and textures—to develop a career that allows one to live exactly the life one wants to lead. Lately, this means shooting a few days a month, keeping up with taxes and paperwork, and leaving plenty of time for her lifelong passion for videogames like her current favorite, Overwatch.
“I’ve learned to like beauty photography,” she says. “I enjoy all the technical details that go into advertising photography. I am a perfectionist, so it is a good fit for me. And it is a way for me to be very creative while also making good money.”
When Stoller thinks back on her own trajectory, she has this advice for the next generation seeking to make a living in art:
“Think about different jobs that would allow you to be creative that you would have an interest in. This could be commercial photography like what I do or graphic design, art direction for advertising, set design for TV, etc. Consider now how you can start preparing for that [in your work as a student].”