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Spartan Profiles: J.R. Mankoff

  • Author:
    Mike Jenkins
  • Published:
    Winter 2015

            J.R. Mankoff divides his time between Los Angeles and New York City. In 2005, he earned a bachelor's degree from MSU's College of Arts and Letters, majoring in fine art. Last fall, he visited campus and conducted a workshop on professional photo-shoot techniques.

Mankoff Captures the Stars, Shares Creative Inspirations

            MSU had some tough acts to follow to impress noted New York City portrait photographer and alumnus John Ross “J.R.” Mankoff, who's been shooting the likes of Ben Affleck, Don Cheadle, Jessica Chastain, Elisabeth Moss, Zooey Deschanel, Bryan Cranston, Fred Armisen, Forest Whitaker, Will Arnett, Kerry Washington, Andy Samberg, Tim Burton, Helena Bonham Carter and the inimitable Dame Judy Dench.

            Mankoff,’05, made an October visit back to his home state and his alma mater to deliver a visiting artist’s lecture and lead a weekend-long student workshop on professional photography techniques.

            “Honestly, I’ve been smiling the whole time,” Mankoff said between classes one day. “It feels really good. The trees are changing and leaves are turning color. It’s been really wonderful; I have a lot of great memories here.”

            But, then, Mankoff’s path to graduation had something to do with that. Originally astrophysics major, he switched to psychology, and was taking courses in other unrelated fields during his first three years at MSU.

            “Then, all of a sudden, I found the Art Department and it clicked,” he said. “I even enjoyed the homework; going home and drawing and painting and sculpting. Everything finally made sense.”

            After beginning a fine art degree in graphic design, Mankoff said he took a photography class with MSU Professor Peter Glendinning and became mesmerized by the craft.

            “In later years, I’ve come to realize that it’s extremely important to study everything,” Mankoff added. “If you only focus on photography’s technical aspects and don’t use all of your resources, you limit your creativity.”

            Mankoff began his career in New York City assisting prominent photographers such as Norman Jean Roy, David LaChapelle and Max Vadukul. Initially, he thought creativity required a plan—like sketching out a concept and working from there. Now, “improvised creativity” works best for him.

            “Sometimes, it’s OK if you don’t know what you’re doing when you start out,” he explained. “Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of great artists and worked and studied under a lot of great photographers, and I was often surprised to see how much they didn’t know when beginning a project.

            “Of course, you need to have the education and the background, but leaving a lot of room for not having any idea of what’s going to happen, I think, is very good for creativity.”

            His advice for today’s graduates: “Focus on being present with an idea of what you want in your future, and be open to a lot of possibilities you’ve never thought of before.”

            College of Arts and Letters:

            J.R. Mankoff: