We’ve all seen iconic photographs of our times: Steve McCurry’s portrait of the ‘Afghan Girl,’ the shootings at Kent State, the lone man standing in front of a tank at Tiananmen Square. But do we know about the photographers who captured these images? For San Diegan Tim Mantoani, it has become a personal mission to give credit to these unknowns with his Behind Photos project, which uses the art of large-format Polaroid photography to document photographers alongside their famous works.
Mantoani first became interested in photography in high school on a school trip his freshman year to Philadelphia. Upon graduating, he initially pursued an engineering degree, but transferred his sophomore year to the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara. Several years later, one of Mantoani’s mentors, Dean Collins, died prematurely from esophageal cancer. Then Mantoani was diagnosed with a rare tumor in his leg at age 30.
“Really through both of those experiences I realized life is short and precious, and I decided when I had ideas I was just going to go for it,” says Mantoani. “And I had seen the 20×24 Polaroid camera that was for rent up in San Francisco, and I was like, ‘Okay, this is a really cool format to try to shoot.’” Having seen the photography world convert to digital, Mantoani was intrigued by the possibility of working with older technology.
“I found that as digital evolved it was easier to be sloppier,” says Mantoani. “Shoot a bunch of stuff, shoot here and try this, try that. And there’s some discovery that comes out of that that’s incredible, but you’re never going to be able to do that with large format, because you never get to that point because you don’t shoot that much. But there’s also a refinement in that process with large format because you have to be accountable for every inch of the frame and really think about what you’re shooting, especially because it’s expensive.”