Tim Mantoani has spent the last few years turning the 20×24 instant camera inward on itself, making photographs of photographers. Each subject posed with a print of the image that, more than any other, defines his or her career. Once Mantoani got his big Polaroid shots, the subjects inscribed every one with a little story, anecdote, or history of how the original photograph came to be. Steve McCurry, who shot that legendary Afghan teenage girl for the cover of National Geographic, is here; so is Harry Benson, with an impossibly energetic black-and-white portrait of the young Beatles as they engaged in a hotel-room pillow fight.
Mantoani has just collected more than 200 of these in Behind Photographs, a big, impeccably produced volume that is available at three price points (basic, slipcased, and deluxe; frankly, even the basic one is far better made than most books). If you order through his Website, he’ll sign your copy. HuffPo has a slideshow from the book here.
What I like about this project is not just the VH1 Storytellers aspect, although that’s nice. No, what interests me is that many of his subjects are at the ends of their careers, looking back, and have been documented on a camera (and for that matter an entire medium) that until recently seemed to be itself living on borrowed time. These men and women spent their entire lives thinking about film: its grain, its speed, its tonal characteristics, whether the processing lab was open late on Saturdays. That’s not quite a lost art, but it certainly feels like horsemanship in the age of the automobile: something that, pretty soon, will be knowledge maintained by a self-selecting few. Mantoani used an extraordinary and endangered art material to document some of the finest practitioners of that art, and that, to me, is what makes this project something special.
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