Back in a Flash
Words: Dean Lamanna
History is both a record and a touchstone of our lives. And San Diego lensman Tim Mantoani has found his own artfully unique way to double-expose it in his new book Behind Photographs: Archiving Photographic Legends (Channel Photographics; mantoani.com).
A landmark not just of photography but of cultural iconography, the oversized volume showcases 158 well- and lesser-known photographers posing with their most famous or serendipitous images.
Characterizing the book’s making as a “monstrous task,” Mantoani, a successful commercial photographer known especially for his portraits of professional athletes, conceived the project ?ve years ago partly in response to the medium’s by-then entrenched digital revolution
“At the end of 2006, I realized I had not shot a single piece of ?lm that year,” says Mantoani, 43, a graduate of the Brooks Institute of Photography in Sana Barbara. “I was like, Wow, there’s something missing here.”
Lamenting the loss of “magic” in photography, Mantoani did something impulsive that December when he visited his Bay Area childhood stomping grounds. “There were these rare Polaroid 20x24-inch large-format cameras available in New York and San Francisco, so I rented one before I even considered shooting something that would mean something to me.” At an added cost of $75 per print (the camera has a built-in ?lm processor that produces an instant poster-size print, accounting for part of its beastly bulk), using the equipment would be expensive.
Mantoani called two local photographers, legendary music lensman Jim Marshall and sports shooter Michael Zagaris, and invited them to a studio with their most iconic photos in tow. “Jim, a ?ery personality and a maverick in photography-he shot the famous Johnny Cash ?ipping-off-the-camera photo-walked in, saw the camera and said, ‘What’s this for?’ I said, ‘I want to do a portrait of you holding your best image.’ He said, ‘You’re fuckin’ nuts.’”
After photographing Marshall and Zagaris, Mantoani asked each of them to write a bit of back story about their featured photos at the bottom of their respective Polaroids. Seeing an “equal weight” between photographer and photograph within his images, he knew he was onto something.
“All of these ideas just really came ?ooding in,” he recalls. “What if I could call Steve McCurry and photograph him with his shot of the ‘Afghan Girl’ that appeared on the cover of National Geographic? And what if I could call Nick Ut and get him with his [Associated Press] photo of the Vietnamese girl burned by a napalm drop?”
Every photographer who responded positively to Mantoani’s emails and letters opened doors to others. By March 2007, when he traveled to New York for the ?rst time to photograph several subjects, a network of referrals- including highly in?uential fashion eye Walter Chin and pioneering San Diego skateboard photographer J. Grant Brittain-had given the project a life of its own. “I let the journey take me where it wanted to go,” he says.
There was a bump in the road when Polaroid announced it would cease making ?lm for the 20x24 camera, and the price of a single exposure shot up to $200. (Fortunately, a ?lm stockpile remained available.) To cut down on costs and trips to San Francisco and New York, Mantoani spent $15,000 on a Wisner 20x24-an “ugly stepchild” of the original Polaroid camera that uses the same technology and, at about 100 pounds, is more portable. Mantoani also developed a comfortable working relationship with the device.
“When you shoot with a large-format camera, you’re next to the lens engaging with your subject,” he explains. “The main difference is that you don’t have this barrier in front of your face like you do with a 35 millimeter camera. It allows you and your subject to converse. And when you decide, you push the plunger and-pop-the ?ash goes off.”
Apart from the creative challenges, the photographer, who lives with his wife Lynn and son Lucas, 11, in Point Loma, had personal motivations for completing Behind Photographs.
“When you realize life is short, you just go for it,” says Mantoani, a cancer survivor. “I learned from these photographers that the rewards of life are what you do every day. Long after I’m gone, somebody can go into a museum or an exhibit and walk up to these giant prints and not only see the photograph, but the faces that documented history in a way that will never be done again.”