Talking Passion and Personal Projects with Tim Mantoani

Talking Passion and Personal Projects with Tim Mantoani

We caught up with San Diego based commercial photographer Tim Mantoani a few weeks ago when he was in town. Since we’ve got a live event coming up in Kansas City on shooting what you’re passionate about, we thought we’d
take the opportunity to ask Tim’s opinion on the subject.

Tim knows a little something about this. He’s spent the past 4 years working on a personal project: Behind Photographs a series of large format portraits of photographers holding one of their iconic prints. While this project has become a big commitment of time and energy, it has paid off with both personal and professional dividends.

Who better to help photographers leverage their passion into a career
win, than someone who’s done it already?

Q: How’d you get started in Photography?

Tim: I started out as the high school yearbook photographer. I bought a camera off my friend’s grand dad for $50. The first time I looked through a zoom lens I was hooked. In my senior year of high school, I looked into going to Brooks Institute, but I really had no idea about commercial photography. I decided to go to UC Santa Cruz and after a year of engineering classes, I said “This Sucks!” So, I went to visit Brooks and it was all over. When I realized that I could live in Santa Barbara and study photography for 3 years….what is there not to like?

Halfway through Brooks I interned with Dean Collins in San Diego. He was an amazing mentor and educator. He not only taught me about photography, but about life and thinking outside the box.

Marki_Sanchez Combo3.jpg       photo by Tim Mantoani

Q: What got you started shooting portraits?

Tim: Dean Collins was the beginning of my real on-your-feet training. I worked as his studio manager. He was traveling a lot, working with Kodak. At Brooks, I had shot a bunch of large format product work, so when I got the chance to shoot as an associate for Dean, that is what I felt comfortable using.  When I was 21, I got the chance to shoot a few athletes and I found that by shooting 4×5, I was forced to take total control of the set. I had to tell the subject exactly what to do. Even now when I shoot 35mm digital, the experience for both myself and the subject is different. I am not saying one is better than the other, just that the process dictates a different approach. The camera itself becomes much more of a presence. You’re not shooting from behind it, you’re really more on top of it and out in front. It changes the dynamic.

But large format is also expensive. Because of that, you only shoot a few frames during the entire shoot. It’s nothing like digital, you have to be more aware of the choices you make for each frame. As digital capture came about, the industry has changed and I really don’t shoot large format for jobs. Clients just don’t want to take that risk. Sometimes I shoot a few frames for myself on jobs, but clients need the security of options and the immediacy of digital.

Q: So how did you get started shooting this project?

Tim: Well I had been kicking the idea around in my head for awhile. I think as technology advances we are becoming an image hungry society. We consume images at such a fast rate we have lost the concept of the photographer behind the image.

People used to have much more intimate relationships with images. If you bought an album for example, the cover image was the only visual element provided with the experience of listening to that record.  And if you listened to that record in your room for hours, chances were you spent a good amount of time staring at that cover art.

So people really forged strong connections with single images. For them, when they see the photographer behind that iconic album cover it means something very profound to them.  I wanted to preserve that, to document these great photographers and the images they had made, to introduce people to the person behind the lens.

I knew I wanted to photograph photographers and their images and I also knew I wanted to capture the prints at close to actual size. I had heard about the 20×24 Polaroid and it seemed like a unique format to test out.  There are only 2 of these cameras readily accessible in the U.S, one in San Francisco and one in New York. So I took a trip up to see my parents in San Francisco and booked some time with the camera. I called Jim Marshall and Michael Zagaris in December of 2006, two shooters I had met on prior assignments. I asked them each to bring in a couple of signature prints that I could photograph them with. The process is really magical and I was hooked. I also found that Jim and Michael loved the experience as well.

At the end of the shoot I asked each of them to sign the bottom of their print and to write a short story about the image. There was something special in the resulting images, the photographer, their image and their story in one place. I felt like each image was a time capsule and that these images would be a way for future generations to be able to see these photographers and every detail in their face and eyes.


photos by Tim Mantoani

Q: You actually shot Nick Vedros, the KC based photographer who’s leading the live shoot at our Kansas City event, in your series. How do you decide who you are going to shoot?

Tim: It has kind of taken off on it’s own. I would shoot one photographer, then they would refer me to the next. They’d come and do it then tell another photographer about it and the doors just started to open. It really snowballed on it’s own.

Jim Marshall’s last book is titled “Trust”. Jim said that he got the access he did because people trusted him. I feel like I have gained the trust of these photographers and they appreciate that I am trying to preserve a piece of our industry through these photographs.
There are plenty of others that I would love to include, it is simply an factor of time and money.

Q: On a lot of the photos there is writing at the bottom of the print, how did that evolve?

Tim: We’d be in the room and the giant print would be lying there and the photographer would be talking about the story behind the image. And so I just asked them to jot down a few thoughts about the story. I think it works because the writing is another piece of information about who that photographer is, if you notice there are a lot of mis-spellings, crossed out words etc… Photography has become so process heavy and so perfect, I like that these images are not.

While I was in the process of shooting this project, Polaroid announced that it would stop making film. As time has progressed and the remaining chemistry aged, I get more streaks in the backgrounds. I hated it at first and then came to realize that it was part of the story.
Since Polaroid stopped making film, a few people have started to pick up the pieces and make fresh chemistry and few films. The current state for this format is that there is old film and new chemistry to support it. It is unclear however when the film that Polaroid made is gone, what will happen and if they can find someone to make new film in this size. I hope they can, it would be a shame for this medium to be lost.

Mark Seliger - Kurt Cobain.jpgphoto by Tim Mantoani

Q: How much does each frame cost?

Tim: When I started each exposure was $75.00, now it is close to $200.00

Q: And when you were shooting these photographers, and hearing their stories, did they have a sense that these images would be important?

Tim: The stories are different, but there is a common thread that I hear over and over again “I was out shooting what I loved.”  These photographers live and breathe their subjects. Whether it’s music or sports, they are passionate about what they shoot. I have sat next to Brad Mangin, a legendary baseball photographer, at games and while I’m busy capturing the play at 2nd he’s got his camera pointing at something I didn’t even realize was happening (or about to). He understands something about the rhythm, the dynamics, where the next drama is going to play out on the field. He’s not watching a game, he is part of the game. He loves baseball and it shows in his images. I always tell young photographers to go shoot what you love, your images will be better and your career more fulfilled.

Same thing with Grant Brittain, a skateboarding photographer or Leroy Grannis in surfing. They have lived that lifestyle, they understand something about the mentality of the people and the culture, because they are part of it, not just simply observing it. Their photos are honest and passionate because of this. As a result their images really changed the way a lot of people viewed those sports. When you are that involved in the world you are photographing it just changes the caliber of the images you are able to get. You are not there because you have to be, but because you want to be.

That passion is something that can get lost easily in all the equipment and the technique of photography. Lots of people fall in love with photography itself but they don’t know what to shoot because they aren’t being driven by a passion for a specific subject. You have to find that passion for what you shoot, otherwise you’ll never be able to really become part of it and shoot it from the inside rather than as an observer.
Bob Gruen - John Lennon -.jpgphoto by Tim Mantoani

Q: So what are you passionate about?

Tim: I’m passionate about these people, sharing their stories and their photos.  I’m also passionate about this format of photography. I have always loved old things and there is something special about the nostalgia of Polaroid. Even when I am on a shoot for a client sometimes I actually set up another camera on the side and at the very end of the day grab a couple of shots for myself. Sometimes it’s film or Polaroid, sometimes it’s digital, but always a shot I want for myself. It’s something you have to be very careful about, you don’t want to use their time to shoot your work. But if it only takes a minute, and I discuss it with them upfront, they are fine and often times end up wanting to use those images in place of the shot they thought they wanted.

Nick_UtF.jpgphoto by Tim Mantoani

Q: Did  you expect to get the kind of response you received from this project?
Tim: Not really. I have been amazed with the support I have received and it has been key to keeping me going.

Q: The project was featured in quite a few magazines, did managing those press inquiries ever become overwhelming?

Tim: I have been happy to make the extra time. I have had calls coming in from China, Thailand, Greece, France. The content of the photos is really universal, so many people have relationships with those images around the world, so the response was great. Since I am working on a book, I don’t want to over saturate the press on it, but I shot these photos so I could share them. The point is to expose people to these photographers.

Q: Do you think you’ve won any new work or gained new clients from doing this project?

Tim: Without a doubt. I am a commercial shooter and as the project has grown, I knew there was a commercial viability to this project. But it didn’t start that way. I made the photos because I felt compassionate to do so. Find what drives you and in time you will see that it will lead to work that you can get paid for and enjoy shooting.

Neil_Leifer_Ali.jpgphoto by Tim Mantoani

Q: You mentioned that you had been thinking about the project for awhile. What made you finally decide to do it?

Tim: My motivation was driven by a forced and renewed perspective on life. At 30 I was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer. I did radiation, had ½ my femur and knee replaced and did months and months of chemotherapy. I realized through that process that life is short and you need to live now. It forced me to take the risk, and finally I just got off my ass and I did it.

Everyone has a project they want to do. Everyone has lots of reasons (some of them good) why they can’t. At some point you just have to decide you are going to overcome whatever the obstacles are and do it. There will always be a reason why you can’t, but trust me when you do, your work will change and you will grow as a person.

Q: Is this project done?

Tim: Not yet, I am still shooting photographer portraits and I plan on getting a book out in 2011.  But as the saying goes, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Want to know more about shooting the things you’re passionate about, and how they can become valuable marketing tools to promote your photo business?

Join Tim and PhotoShelter’s Allen Murabayashi for a live webinar July 13 and get even more insight and inspiration on making your own projects count.

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There are 3 comments for this article
  1. Data Recovery Software at 2:19 am

    well,I just started using Photo Shelter a week ago and I was wondering how it’s working for other people. Specifically, do you find that people are finding your photos through searches from the main site,or perhaps through links you specifically send the client?

  2. Michelle Seekamp at 11:04 am

    Yes you can. You are the copyright holder of your images. Unless you have signed an agreement that gives i Stock exclusive rights to sell your images you may have them listed for sale wherever you’d like.

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