Interview with Tim Mantoani

When did you open a studio in San Diego and what brought you here?

I first came to San Diego in 1990 to work as an intern for photographer Dean Collins while I was still a student at Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara. When I graduated from Brooks in 1991, I moved here permanently to work with Dean as an assistant. I started my own studio a few years after that.


We hear stories about photographers who undertake extended photo projects, such as your work with Behind Photographs. How did you get started with this project?

In 2006, after I had made the switch from film to digital, it occurred to me that the medium of film was probably going to start going away. In December of 2006, while in the Bay area for the Christmas holiday, I decided to rent the Polaroid 20x24 camera that was in San Francisco and make a few portraits. I knew that it was a rare opportunity because there were only two 20x24 cameras available for rent in the entire United States – one in New York and the other in San Francisco. I called two photographer friends, longtime San Francisco shooters Michael Zagaris and Jim Marshall, and asked them to come to the studio where the camera was housed and to bring with them a print of one of their most iconic images. That was the first time I had ever used the 20x24 and I photographed them both on that day.


Behind Photographs is is a multi-faceted project, combining your role as an artist, a colleague, and a fan of other photographers’ work. Was it hard to see something of this scope come to an end?

It was bittersweet when the project came to an end. Over the course of 5 years, I photographed more than 150 photographers on 20x24 Polaroid. Eventually, the cost became too great – when I started, it was $75 per exposure and on my last session the cost was close to $200 per exposure, and that doesn’t include the camera rental. It was becoming a real challenge to schedule photographers to shoot because of the difficulty in getting such a large camera to the photographers’ locations, and also, very few photographers were available to travel to the camera’s location. I knew that a project like this had the potential to go on forever as new photographers emerge on the scene. I also knew that I wanted to publish a book, so I decided to stop the photography part of the project and turn my attention to the “book” part of the project -- finding a publisher and designing the book.



Behind Photographs helps others put a face to some remarkable work in photography. Have you yourself become a participant in this process, sharing your successes with a new generation of photographers?

I’m very grateful that the publishing of the book and the worldwide exhibition of these photos have allowed me to share my work with others and at the same time call attention to the work of these great photographers. My goal was to archive not only the work of these photographers, but the photographers themselves; to make sure that future generations know who is responsible for these important images. To that extent, I am a very willing participant in this process.


You’re among a select group of artists who have worked with the Polaroid 20"x24" camera, in fact, you now own a 20"x24" camera. Can you describe the experience of working with such an unusual machine?

I find shooting with the 20x24 not only unique because of its size, but also magical because of the “peel apart – instant” Polaroid process. It requires an exacting degree of precision throughout the entire session. It’s easy to miss the focus or get the exposure wrong if you’re not careful; and the chemical process can vary from print to print depending on the age of the chemical pods and the way they break open during the processing, all of which affect the edges of the print and create the unique border around the image. If all goes well – and there’s no guarantee that it will – you end up with a huge instant print with a look and feel that is unlike anything else in photography.


What is your advice for balancing the demands of commercial work while maintaining the energy to pursue creative projects?

For me, commercial work and personal work go hand in hand. I always try to have at least a couple of personal projects going to push me creatively and to create new imagery for updating my website and portfolio. The longer I’m in business, the more I realize just how important personal projects are. In commercial photography, you usually get hired to shoot the same kind of work that you show in your portfolio. If you want to be a sports shooter, you have to show sports in your portfolio; the same goes for food, travel or portraiture. In this way, personal projects can be used to help steer your commercial career in the direction you want it to go.


What is the most rewarding part of working in San Diego?

Living in a beautiful city on the ocean, my studio is close to my home, and I don’t have to deal with crazy traffic all the time; all of which make it easier for me to spend valuable time with my friends and family.