Beyond Passion: Tim Mantoani's 20 X 24" Polaroid Portraits
July 19, 2010
The question I am most asked by young photographers is, "What words of advice do you have for us?" Or, "Is it still possible to succeed in this economic environment?" The short, acerbic answer might be "No." Yet every time, I repeat the same mantra: "Find a subject you are passionate about and photograph it like it's never been seen before."
Tim Mantoani's self-assigned project, titled "Behind Photographs," is a testament to just how far one photographer can take that dictum. In 2006, Tim made his first exposure, of the late, great Jim Marshall, holding his famous portrait of Johnny Cash "flippin' the bird."
The premise was simple: Use the Polaroid 20 X 24" camera to make portraits of many of the world's greatest photographers, holding one of their own favorite photographs they have made. One hundred and fifty photographers later, I interviewed Tim about his project—why he started it, what it means to him, and how far he's willing to take it. So far, he's had to refinance his house, and no one has given him a dime. I thought his passion might be instructive for those who raise their hands and ask me "What advice can you give us?"
- Who was the first photographer you photographed for the project and on when ?
TM:Jim Marshall and Michael Zagaris in San Francisco on Dec 27, 2006. As digital cameras came into my day to day commercial work, I had been forced away from shooting large format portrait work. Clients just didn't want to take the risk or spend the money. I missed shooting large format and had seen the 20x24 Polaroid for rent. The writing was on the wall that Polaroid film was going to be "fading away", so I rented the camera for a 1/2 day and asked Jim and Michael to come in for a portrait. I wanted to shoot something that was important to me. I asked each of them to bring a print to hold, it all started there.
- Do you collect photographs? You have a pretty good sense of the modern "classics."
TM: I really feel like this project is me collecting images. Honestly, I feel like every photographer is a collector, we collect pictures that we take. Several of the photographers that I have photographed have been kind enough to give me a print. Jim Marshall and I spoke often after I photographed him and just a month prior to his death he sent me the Johnny Cash photo that he held for his portrait session.
- Is a book in the works?
TM: I have seen this project as a book from the beginning. It is a difficult time to find a publisher, and I have had conversions with a few houses. My problem is that I want the book to be big enough so the images will read well and most publishers don't see profit in that model. I have also been researching self-publishing. I hope to have a book out in the fall of 2011.
Note: Behind Photographs: Archiving Photographic Legends was published in 2012
- Will there be a 20x24 self-portrait?
TM: No plans at the moment.
- What exhibits have there been?
TM: I have had a few partial shows of this work. I showed most of the California shooters in a show at MOPLA in 2009 and also had a show at Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, The Farmani Gallery in Brooklyn and a few of the images are currently at Ogilvy. By doing shows at ad agencies, I am hoping to generate some advertising work to help with the cost of the project. I also had a show in New York for the opening of a clothing store, "7 For All Mankind." It was during fashion week and was a unique way to show some of the images. Since the originals are so large, it will take a huge space to show them all.
- Did you try to get funding ?
TM: Been trying hard for the past couple of years. It has not been easy to find someone to support it. In the photo industry, it isn't digital and it isn't output, so the direct tie to product sales is not something that works for most companies.
- The project seems to me to be a lot more than answering your own need to shoot large format—for me it's part "homage," photographing the people who made the images that "spoke" to you as you grew up wanting to become a photographer. Is there some of that in there?
TM: For sure—I have been inspired by so many great photographers over the years and this was a way to honor them. As photographers we get assignments shooting athletes or musicians or poets, etc....but rarely is an assignment handed out where a photographer gets to photograph other photographers. I found a unique balance in the simplicity of these portraits with a balance between the photographer and their image. Both are of equal importance. I feel that people need to be reminded that photographers took these images, not cameras. Many of these images have helped shape history and I hope this project will be a way for future generations to appreciate these dedicated individuals.