There are a number of photographs you can conjure up in your mind at the mere mention of their subject: the Afghan Girl, Johnny Cash performing in San Quentin, the astonishing photograph of the assassination of Robert Kennedy. But what about the photographers and the stories behind them? San Diego-based photographer Tim Mantoani's project Behind Photographs is a rare chance to see some of the world's most admired and revered photographers holding the actual images that made them so.
"At the end of 2006 I had not shot a single image on large format, everything had become 35mm digital," Mantoani a commercial photographer who's worked on ad campaigns for EA Sports and Oakley tells Phaidon. "I really missed the tactile nature of shooting large format and wanted to try a 20x24 Polaroid camera for fun and get back to something old school." Old school is one word for the mammoth 20x24, a large and bulky machine made by Polaroid founder Edwin Land in the 1970s to take pictures of his shareholders.
The five-year-long project started with music photographer Jim Marshall and sports photographer Michael Zagaris in San Francisco, December 2006. "I had met Jim on assignment at the Indy 500 and gave him a call to tell him I was renting a 20x24 and wanted to shoot a portrait of him with one of his most iconic or favourite shots; he is good friends with Zagaris so he brought him along too."
"Jim came in, took one look at the camera and told me I was "fucking nuts"!" says Montoani. But by the end of the project he had come round to it: "Jim and Michael loved these photos, they even came back another time when I was shooting the 20x24 just to hang out and see the camera again," says Mantoani. "Jim and I became friends after that, he even gave me the print of Johnny Cash!"
After the first shoot, Mantoani knew he had something special. "I was hooked," he says and immediately set about getting other photographers involved with the project. With people dispersed all over America and his camera of choice so bulky it was sometimes difficult to get the shots he wanted. "It was just not possible to get a few people I really wanted to photograph and the camera together. I tried to get Platon, but we could never connect"
Some photographers were no problem: "There are definitely a few of these people who like to see themselves big!" Mantoani tells Phaidon. And what use is it to meet all these masters if not to pick up some advice along the way? Steve McCurry apparently looked at his first portrait and commented on the amount of space that Mantoani left between his head and the top of the frame. Happy to take his advice, (who wouldn't be?) Mantoani made a second attempt. In the end, over 150 photographers had their portraits taken.
But these images are not just about getting a portrait of famous photographers, they're about matching the iconic photograph they hold with the story so rarely heard behind them. So on the bottom of each Polaroid, Mantoani asked the photographers to tell the stories.
David Doubilet tells of the magical moment that a circle of barracuda formed around a diver in Papua New Guinea. "A perfect circle is a rare thing, but these barracudas do this as a defence," the American underwater photographer writes.
Ron Haviv, who features in Questions Without Answers: The World in Pictures by the Photographers of VII, describes the scene of his photograph taken in Darfur, 2005. "Every morning these three girls go out in search of firewood. They often encounter Janjaweed Arab militias and Sudanese forces. The trips so dangerous their fathers can't do them because they will be killed."
Magnum's Steve McCurry recounts going back to find the Afghan girl, the subject of his 1984 National Geographic cover. And just to prove that an iconic photograph can be found right under your nose, Elliott Erwitt tells how he came across his photo of two dogs and their owner. "The picture I am holding was snapped in 1974 just across the street from my apartment in New York's Central Park," Erwitt writes. "It has been 38 years since that event and sadly I have lost track of the participants."
For Mantoani though, the story which struck him most was hearing Bill Eppridge talk about his photograph of Bobby Kennedy's assassination in 1968. "It was amazing," Mantoani tells Phaidon. "I'm getting chills just thinking about it now."