Sharing Unspoken Stories: Mona Layne
Known for their experimental style of capturing movement, color, and illustration, Mona Layne is a visual artist reminding us of “the people who get lost in the day-to-day crowd.” Working between Cambridge and NYC, she began her career at streetwear boutique Bodega, where she shot and directed campaigns for brands like Nike & Reebok. Now, as an independent artist working within the realms of photo and video, she is cementing her practice and exploring new ways to capture her subjects — from FaceTime to analog to digital. As Mona Layne continues to grow as an artist, she always wants to embrace the fun aspects of her work and avoid succumbing to the austerity of the commercial world.
What was your path to becoming a photographer?
When I was a kid, I watched a lot of movies and really wanted to make movies — I still do. I always wanted to create visual media, but I didn’t have the money or understanding of different platforms to make it. I guess photography and visual arts is a way to approach that and create a narrative with characters. I do video stuff now, so it’s a full-circle moment.
L & R: Images courtesy of the artist (2020)
Over time, your style has changed to be more experimental, with your portraits being turned into canvases to showcase abrasive textures, oversaturated colors, and harsh lights. What led to this new approach of image-making?
It’s really natural. I was doing really colorful, expressive photo stuff a few years ago, then I got really sad, so I was doing a lot of black and white. I guess I’m back to color now, but it all exists in one big container of things. It’s not like I leave everything I did before behind — it’s a very nonlinear thing. I’m doing traditional photo stuff that I haven’t put out, and I’m doing video. There’s not a good rhyme or reason to it, so it’s nonlinear in that regard. Lately, I’ve been antisocial, and I’ve wanted to find a way to make things without traveling, meeting people all the time, and getting to know their entire lives.
Can you describe your creative process when you’re preparing for and actively working through a shoot?
My process is that I don’t prepare for anything. I don’t make a mood board, and there’s no planning whatsoever — unless it’s a commercial thing. If it’s personal work, I don’t care. Lately, I’ve been doing stuff with my phone or whatever I can get my hands on, which also informs the work. A lot of the work I’ve been doing has been on my phone and FaceTime, which is low resolution from the beginning, then it becomes a different thing later. While shooting, I like to hear what people are going through and what they’re feeling to see if it overlaps with how I’ve been feeling. I try to find common ground that I can make something from. When I do photo stuff, there’s more physicality and movement involved, but lately, it’s been a lot more graphic stuff, so it’s been less important to move and pose. Instead, it’s more important to get interesting angles and subtle things I can turn into something later.
Image courtesy of the artist (2021)
I first stumbled upon your work when you were a photographer for the Boston streetwear company Bodega. Since then, you’ve shot for brands like Reebok, Nike and Arc’teryx. How is it different shooting commercial work vs. personal work?
It’s fun, but I hate it during the moment. It’s a fun challenge, and I like to challenge myself. A lot of the stuff I’ve been making over FaceTime is just challenging myself to make something pretty out of as little as possible. With the more commercial stuff, I think of how I can make work that feels true to who I am as an artist and my ethos while matching someone else’s ethos. If you can be proud of that work, that’s cool, and I’ve had a mixed bag of being proud of it and not.
Do you have a favorite commercial job that you’ve worked on?
I did something with this brand called Maharishi, this techy brand from the UK with a cool history from the early 2000s. They kind of fell off during the 2010s like a lot of older brands did, but they stayed alive long enough to be cool again now. I did an editorial for them in 2018 or 2019, and they loved it, and I loved it! I still love it, and I remember that day as being magical. I had the opportunity to shoot photos for the editorial and direct a short fashion film for them. I got to work with some good friends, and that felt good. I think it was just a moment of my life where I was pretty insecure, and I felt very safe and proud of myself, so that sticks out to me. Maharishi is what connects everything big that I do now. I ask myself, does this feel like that as a way to keep my emotions in check. I think to myself, I’ve done a great job with this kind of scale before, so just keep it up and don’t feel like you can’t do it because you did it.
If you could choose one person or brand to shoot with now, who would it be and why?
I’d like to spend a day with River Phoenix and make some work with them and hear about their life. He passed away a long time ago, but if he were here now at that age, and I saw him on IG, he’d be someone I’d DM. For a brand, I think if I shot something for Balenciaga that’d be really funny.
L: Image courtesy of the artist (2020), R: Image courtesy of the artist (2021)
Because that brand is going in a wacky direction! I like their stuff, especially their satirical stuff. I think it would be fun to do some silly, dumb-looking stuff for them. Also, old Margiela! There’s a great S/S 1990 runway show where he went to this predominantly Black and brown neighborhood in Europe and had all the kids from the neighborhood in the show. I would love to do something like that with him and shoot a short that doubles down on the kids. That would be cool to explore, especially now.
When we met, we discussed our opinions around higher education, specifically for creative fields. Can you share your thoughts around this and why you opted out of going to art school?
I’m always learning. I learned something new that I’ve never heard of a week ago on Photoshop, and I’ve been using Photoshop since I was 11. I think education has many forms, and to be educated is to hold knowledge within you and to be open to obtaining knowledge from others. It’s not about being stuck in your ways and thinking you’ve “got it” — I never want to be in a place where I’ve “got it” because what is that? When I graduated high school, I went to college for a semester to build prerequisites to transfer to an art school, and I was discouraged because I was paying money to learn math again for two years. I didn’t want to do that. I felt that the work I was making then wasn’t good, but it was something I knew how to do because of myself. I taught myself everything I made before college, and I got a lot better from when I started that. I thought, why can’t that trend continue if I work hard at it? I talked to my parents about it, and they said whatever.
I thought I could get along better without school and have my own dynamic, nonlinear means of education. It’s worked out for me because I’ve gotten cool jobs and made career progress. I don’t think it works for everyone — some people value academia and the community there. I think part of the modern era is acknowledging differences and being a dynamic learner and teacher. We can’t all do one thing the same way — I don’t know why people think that! There’s no one way to teach everyone. My favorite educators that I’ve spoken to say the same thing. School is a form. It’s not the form.
Image courtesy of the artist (2021)
Going back to that, many people go down that traditional route because they need someone or an institution to hold them accountable. If many people didn’t have that structure, they probably wouldn’t have the motivation to complete things independently. How do you keep yourself accountable and motivated in your practice?
The motivation comes involuntarily — it’s an itch. I want to make something right now. I want to make something in an hour. I always want to make things. I’ll think of someone’s face, FaceTime them for two minutes and screenshot their face, and then I’m done. The rest of it is me working on my screen. Three hours of glowing in the dark, and it works! I’m so self-motivated, but the work ethic bit was hard for me. I learned a lot of that when I was at Bodega. In that regard, it did take an institution to work that into me. I didn’t just entirely get to the point where I could do big jobs and have leadership positions on my own. I had to intern and do nothing, then build up to being in charge of bigger things. I’m no longer at Bodega, but now, larger companies want me to do producing roles for them. Now, I’m in charge of teams, and it’s daunting to be in charge of so many people at once. It’s just a responsibility, and you bite your tongue.
Everybody wants to get thrown into the fire and do big, exciting stuff, but if they get half of that, many people would be overwhelmed. I get overwhelmed sometimes, and I’ve been working at this for a while. I’m speaking about commercial work now, but the scary thing is that you’re responsible for products that could be domestic or global. A lot of ppl will have eyes on it, and there will be different perspectives. I didn’t learn this because I didn’t have art critique because I didn’t go to school for it. It was scary to think that other people didn’t like what I made when I thought it looked cool. It’s not about art — you’re making work for a company. Yes, there’s art, but there’s also commercial bullshit, and you have to find a way to make that cool.
Long answer short, the motivation to make stuff is in me perpetually and will always be there till I die. I’m hungry constantly to make things, but it took an institution for me to learn responsibility and craft.
Images courtesy of the artist (2021)
When working on personal projects, how do you go about choosing subjects? Do you look for anything specific?
I’m obsessed with people’s faces and bodies. Sometimes I actually have an idea I want to accomplish before I do it, and I have to find someone that fits in that world. But that’s very, very rare. Usually, I build a world around the people. I love the unspoken stories. I think that’s what makes my work interesting. There are a lot of layers, and it’s colorful and weird, but I’m also finding interesting-looking people. Who doesn’t want to look at interesting people? Think of someone you locked eyes with on the train, and they get off, and you think who was that? I’m trying to remind you of those people and show you the people who get lost in the day-to-day crowd. How are they moving in the crowd? Where are they going and why? I think so much about everything surrounding what I’m making.
Where do you see yourself and your practice in the future?
If it could be more of what I do now — making stuff for fun and maybe a small brand and one big brand will fly by like a shooting star — that would feel good. I’m mostly doing silly stuff for myself, and sometimes I work with other people to make things for them. If I could have that times two, that would make me happy. I’m not expecting too much. I think the idea of being popular on the internet has completely left my interest. There was a period where I was craving reactions, responses, attention, and wanting to be coddled by people I didn’t know, but now, there’s a little less of that. I have so much fun, and I have to do it because it’s fun. I don’t want to forget about the fun of it and start thinking about the business of it too much.
L: Image courtesy of the artist (2021), R: Image courtesy of the artist (2020)
Can you leave a piece of advice for other young artists?
Something I’ve been learning a lot this year is that your indecision is a decision. Pushing things off because you find yourself to be complacent or lazy, the things you close the tab on online that you should be filling out, the opportunities you want that you feel you can’t pursue because you’re not there yet, and you just let it sit there…that’s all it’s doing. It will just sit there forever.
There’s a great quote by someone I don’t remember, but the idea of the quote is a thing that can’t decay just takes up space for other things that can be thriving. Your inactivity is taking up space for something, and it might be failure, or it might be a good thing, but you just won’t know! The best thing is to choose something. If you fail, you can hurt and cry about it and try it again. Or maybe it goes well, but if you do nothing, neither happens. I think it’s the worst place to be. The worst I’ve felt in my life is to do nothing. I’d say try something! Do something! Whoever is reading this knows what they’re not doing or avoiding.