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.”
On a Holiday trip up to his native Bay area, Mantoani rented the camera, despite each exposure costing $75 in addition to the rental fee. He took pictures of Jim Marshall and Michael Zagaris, photographer for the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland A’s. Soon Mantoani was thinking this was a project that could be expanded.
Most photographers contacted by Mantoani are happy to pose for a picture, although some have declined. “It’s been interesting to see the personalities of the photographers come through the portrait experience because you can tell the photographers that are very Type A super perfectionist,” says Mantoani, who to date has documented 160 photographers. “They come in, they’ve got to comb their hair, they’re dressed perfectly, they got out the tape and made sure they didn’t have any lint on them, everything’s got to be straight, the print has to be dusted, all lines are straight. And then when they write on the Polaroid it’s got to be perfect. And other people, their work is not about that at all. It’s kind of sloppy, happenstance, and just what happens, happens. They kind of just come in here with what they woke up and decided to wear and grabbed out of a top drawer… so it’s been kind of fun to see that process and see what people write on these Polaroids and make mistakes and spell things wrong and cross them out. I love that, because we’ve become so refined with what we see from spell check and Photoshop and everything else, we sometimes forget we’re human. We make mistakes. We have warts.”
The proliferation of cell phone and video cameras have generated a great interest in photography among the general public, Mantoani says, which in turn has created interest in his project. Also, the sheer number of genres covered in the Behind Photos project, from journalism to sports to architecture, means that different photographs resonate for different individuals.
“What I have found with this project is because it’s such a diverse amount of subject matter, it doesn’t matter how old you are or what your interests are, there’s something that you relate to,” says Mantoani. “People come up to me when they see this exhibit, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, my God, that picture of Mother Theresa made me cry because when I was in San Francisco I had a chance to meet Mother Theresa and it was a life-changing experience.’ And then someone else will come up and say, ‘Dan Kramer’s picture of Bob Dylan was my favorite. It was the first LP I ever owned, and I remember when I was sitting in my room for hours playing that thing.’”
One particularly memorable subject was the famed Los Angeles architecture photographer Julius Schulman. Before going to Schulman’s house, Mantoani had been warned not to shoot where there was a lot of daylight: because the Polaroid was not light tight, light leaks would result. “I figured worst-case scenario we’ll try and shoot it in his garage,” says Mantoani. Unfortunately, the back of Schulman’s garage was made entirely of glass. Schulman invited Mantoani into his studio adjacent to the house, which was also made primarily of glass.
“The first thing he said was, ‘Don’t make a production of this, kid, I don’t have a lot of time,’” says Mantoani of Schulman, who was in his late nineties. When the photograph was developed, Mantoani’s fears had come true: there was a huge light leak coming out of the top of the frame. However, Schulman loved the photo. “Things like that are just incredible situations where you say, ‘Technically, this is not what it’s supposed to be,’” says Mantoani. “But I think those are the things that with this kind of process are the special things that come out of it that you could never repeat again.”
However, the project doesn’t come cheap: it costs two hundred dollars per shoot, plus the camera rental fee, all of which comes out of Mantoani’s pocket. At times he has had to stop work on the project, and he’s even had to refinance his house.
Mantoani will soon be publishing an approximate 200-page book on his Behind Photos project from Channel Publishing. However, don’t take that to mean that Mantoani is putting an end to his project. “I don’t necessarily see myself stopping, if I can do it, if I can afford to do it and the medium is still available to shoot,” says Mantoani. “Come a time where I can’t do it, I hope someone else does…because I think it’s important people know who these people are.”