'There’s just a magic that happens with animals'

'There’s just a magic that happens with animals' »Play Video
Model Lana Finley poses with Muffin the American alligator, as reptile handler Nate McClain monitors the shoot. (Photo by Helen Torney)

EUGENE, Ore. —It’s a Sunday afternoon at Paper Moon Photo Studio and Gallery in the Whiteaker neighborhood, and photographer Melissa Mankins is preparing for one of her more unusual shoots. Her vision is to place American alligators into a white, vintage bed with friend and model Lana Finley, and see what happens.

While the combination of a rough alligator against smooth skin might seem cringe-worthy to some, this is the type of textural moment Mankins dreams of capturing on film.

“There’s just a magic that happens with animals,” she says. “They’re just so pure.”

Much like her photography, Mankins’ studio, shared with business partner Claire Flint, emanates a turn-of-the-century feel. Painted murals and wooden props decorate the room, while antique armchairs and velvet sofas recall a Georges Méliès film.

“The way she put her studio together—I feel like it’s just such an expression of her,” notes Finley.

Muffin and Tinkerbell, a pair of docile gators from local Zany Zoo Pets, are acting as live props for the day. Occasionally the gators croak to each other, as Mankins snaps photos of Finley.

This isn’t Mankins’ first time working with reptiles on the set. In the past, she has shot striking images of boa constrictors, pythons and more. Black and white prints of a model with different patterned snakes coiled artfully around her arms, head, and neck hang on the walls. These moments of natural beauty contrasted with soft femininity are themes often revealed in Mankins’ work.

Her best shots are unscripted. Rather than trying to control each aspect of the pose or scene, she attempts to tell stories through the instinctive movements of the model and her surroundings. “There’s a composition that happens between what I’m seeing and what the model is doing,” she says. “I like capturing how people are.”

One of her favorite photos was captured during an informal shoot with Finley in Mankins’ backyard. Surrounded by grass and green leaves, Finley’s pale tattooed skin blends beautifully with a piece of white organza fabric that she clutches to her chest. Surrounding her is an ethereal blue-tinted smoke that conceals her serene expression. “She looks like the Virgin Mary,” Mankins says, “and it had nothing to do with me.”

Melissa Mankins says that photography and mixed media art have allowed her to overcome a shyness she feels in everyday life. While studying at the University of Oregon, she initially pursued a pre-nursing degree, but through art and photography classes, she soon realized that medicine was not her passion. “I felt like I could express myself visually so much easier than through writing or speaking,” she says. “I just felt complete doing it.”

Lana Finley has known Mankins for nearly 15 years and watched her develop a style and process. “I feel like she just allows things to happen and sees what feels good and just flows,” Finley says. “I think her work is just really feminine . . . she just really tries to get the model to express herself.”

For one of the last shots of the day, Finley sits, legs straight out, on a black stage at Paper Moon. Tinkerbell is placidly splayed in her lap. She looks down, concealing all but her platinum blond hair. Mankins snaps a picture.

“Everywhere I look,” she says, “there’s something beautiful and a camera is the easiest way to capture it.” 



The JAM Workshop — Journalism Arts Multimedia — is a brand new class taught at the University of Oregon’s School Of Journalism and Communication. Conceived by Prof. Tom Wheeler, the JAM Workshop brings together student writers, photographers and videographers to profile local artists — musicians, painters, dancers, sculptors, art photographers, and more.

Watch for Oregon JAM features at 7:30 p.m. PDT weeknights in July on KVAL.com