As photographers ourselves we are naturally fascinated by great imagery and each and every one of us will have a number of iconic images imprinted into our minds that we'll know almost like old friends. In the same way that there are songs from the past and present that just stick somehow, so too there are photographs that are just classics and which will end up being shown and appreciated over and over again.
While we might know the images, however, do we know as much about the person behind the picture, the man or woman whose vision it was that created that shot and who actually pressed the shutter? The chances are that we don't, and in many ways that's tantamount to missing some of the story. Bring the photographer and their picture together and suddenly there's a relationship established and a chance to understand a little more about how that shot came together. Introduce a third element, in the shape of what is probably the world's quirkiest camera, to immortalise the moment and you have the premise for the landmark project that San Diego-based photographer Tim Mantoani has just completed.
Tim's Behind Photographs idea started almost by accident after he decided to rent out Polaroid's mammoth 20x24in instant camera for a half-day shoot in San Francisco towards the end of 2006 and he then needed to come up with some idea of what he could shoot. "The camera was not cheap to rent in the first place," he says, "plus each exposure was another $75. I knew photographers Jim Marshall and Michael Zagaris lived locally so I decided to call them up and I asked them to come in for a portrait with one of their favourite shots. The whole thing just took off from there."
With the bit between his teeth, Tim decided to look around at some of the images that he considered were iconic and where he knew the photographer might still be alive and willing to turn up for a sitting. One of the first things he encountered was the perennial problem that many photographers are behind the camera for the simple reason that they hate the thought of being the subject of the picture themselves. Some felt awkward being set up and posed while others simply refused altogether to contemplate venturing into the spotlight. Little by little word of Tim's ongoing project spread, however, and steadily it started to take on a life of its own and to start to grow into what was to become a truly formidable body of work.
"It really was a progression in terms of who sat for the project," he says. "Every time I did a shoot the photographer I was working with made suggestions of others I might talk to and, in many cases, they called them up for me. I really didn't have a defined set of parameters; I just let things unfold and followed the road that presented itself."
Because of the nature of the project and the fact that it had to fit in around both Tim's busy career as a photographer shooting for the likes of Sports Illustrated and Newsweek and the availability of sitters who often were just as busy, the collection is charmingly eclectic, but it was always intended to be that way. There was no committee sitting to pontificate on who should be in there, no conscious decision to exclude any sector of photography and the time frame of pictures stretches way back to the fifties and up to virtually the present day.
Images featured include Neil Leifer's image of Muhammad Ali standing over a knocked-out Sonny Liston, Harry Benson's epic photo of The Beatles having a pillow fight and Steve McCurry's famed portrait of the Afghan girl from the cover of National Geographic. At the bottom of each Polaroid, the photographer was asked to write out a short story about their image to add a final touch and, in many cases, these words were as revealing about the photographer as the image itself. In all more than 150 photographers from a variety of specialities were photographed over a five-year period and Tim travelled across the US to produce the work, shooting in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Boston.
Every project needs a framework and Tim decided to stick with the 20x24in instant format, plus the huge Polaroid camera where possible, even though he knew from the outset that doing this would involve restrictions regarding where he could take pictures, huge origination costs and the 'time bomb' issue of Polaroid's film stock slowly running out.
"Yes, the format has been challenging," Tim agrees. "I found I had to get the camera to the sitter or the sitter to the camera, and sometimes that was difficult. I purchased a Wisner 20x24in with a Polaroid back in 2007 so that I could travel to some of the older photographers. Also, the camera has almost no depth-of-field with this type of composition, so you had to have the print and eyes close together if you wanted them both to be sharp.
"You find that you work differently with this format because it's so expensive that you really have to think about every exposure. Ultimately I probably only shot two to three frames of each photographer and sometimes only one, but I started my career shooting tons of 4x5in so this wasn't something I hadn't tackled before. It was, however, very different from the commercial work I shoot on digital formats where you can shoot a ton of images and then figure it all out after the fact.
"I made suggestions to each photographer about the picture they brought with them and in some cases they brought something completely different! This was frustrating at first, but in time I came to embrace the fact that this was a study about them and their work, not about me and which specific image I thought should be in the picture."
So, what now for the future as Tim finally shuts the door on his marathon picture shoot? "My hope is that this project will become a way for future generations to not only appreciate the photography of our time, but the photographers as well," says Tim. "Cameras did not make these photographs, the photographers did. Without the dedication of photographers, like these passionate men and women, history would not have been recorded through their eyes and these moments they hold would not exist for our observation. Some of these photographers have not only documented but also defined their generation."
With the recent publication of a book of the work providing a logical end for the project, will Tim be tempted at some point in the future to start shooting yet more images for this series? "Due to the cost and time involved, I have to see what I can do with the images I already have," he says. "Ideally I want to get the full-sized 20x24in prints into a museum so that the public can see them. Beyond there maybe I'll see if I can get a sponsor involved to help fund future shoots, but I've a feeling that my wife might kill me if I set up another session!"
Tim Mantoani and his amazing wall of instant Polaroid 20x24in prints. Each time he pressed the shutter it cost $75 and it helped to ensure that only a handful of pictures were produced of each subject. The book Behind Pictures can be ordered by calling Marston Book Services on 01235 465500 and quoting the ISBN number, which is 9780982613795.
Taken from the May 2012 issue of Photo Professional magazine