The Tank Man of Tienanmen Square. Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston in victory. The portrait of the Afghan Girl on the cover of National Geographic. Many of us can automatically recall these photos in our heads, but far fewer can name the photographers who took them. Even fewer know what those photographers look like.
Tim Mantoani hopes to change that by taking portraits of famous photographers holding their most iconic or favorite photos in his new book Behind Photographs: Archiving Photographic Legends. Mantoani has shot over 150 of these portraits in the last five years, most of which are contained in the book.
"I felt like there was kind of this void," says Mantoani. "There were all these anonymous photographers out there who have not been given enough credit."
At a time when everyone has a camera in their pocket and millions, if not billions of photos are flying around the internet each day, Mantoani wants to help people understand that iconic photos don't just happen. They are the product of people who devote their entire lives to photography. Giving these people a face, he says, helps do that.
"It was important to step back and understand that cameras didn't make these photos, photographers made these photos," he says. "Without these people and their understanding of photography, these moments would not be there for us to understand and appreciate over the course of time."
Mantoani, a San Diego-based commercial and editorial photographer who is well known for his portrait work, decided to challenge his own craftsmanship by shooting the portraits on the enormous 20×24 Polaroid format. Only a few 20×24 Polaroid cameras still exist, and the film can be prohibitively expensive — about $200 per shot.
Over the course of the project, some of the photographers who participated passed away. Polaroid went belly up, making 20×24 film that much harder to come by. The weight of each photo's importance as a historic document became more apparent with each loss.
"We have come to a point in history where we are losing both photographic recording mediums and iconic photographers," Mantoani says.
Scarcity and history also increased the pressure to produce a quality image. "Digital has allowed you to hold the hammer down and work it out later," he says. "This process really forced me to go back to my roots and try to get everything perfect before I even made the exposure."
Some portraits Mantoani nailed on the first shot, others took three or four tries. The process often became a collaboration between Mantoani and his subjects, who offered their own advice.
Steve McCurry, for example, looked at his own first portrait and commented on the amount of space that Mantoani left between his head and the top of the frame. McCurry insisted that Mantoani could do what he wanted, but Mantoani was happy to take the advice — especially considering the source.
"The shoots sometimes became little mini workshops," Mantoani says.
Some of the photographers not only lent their advice, but also their rolodex. The first few photographers Mantoani worked with were instrumental in getting him access to the larger community. Some photographers still said no, even with the referral. Others, such as Herman Leonard, took a long time to come around.
"When people realized that I wasn't out to take advantage of them but instead wanted celebrate this group of photographers, they wrapped their arms around the project," Mantoani said.
The book is the first step in preserving and broadcasting the archive. Mantoani eventually wants the original prints to become part of an exhibition.
"I wanted to create this archive so that some day when the photographers are all gone, my grandkids can not only appreciate their photos, but also know who they were and what they looked like."
To find out more or purchase a copy of the book, please visit the Behind Photographs website.