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On Photography: Tim Mantoani, 1969-2016

“A camera, like a guitar, is just a box with a hole in it. Until it is placed in the hands of a true artist, it will not make music, only noise.” -Tim Mantoani

Tim Mantoani was a commercial photographer. He made photographs for advertisements by Epson, Oakley, Delta Airlines, Ford and Coke. He was a portrait maker too. He shot athletes for magazines including Sports Illustrated. His photographs were featured on Madden NFL and many other video game packages.

Engineer? Nope, photographer

Tim Mantoani began his education as an engineer but after a year of math at UC Santa Cruz, he decamped to Santa Barbara and the Brooks Institute of Photography. He interned with commercial photographer and renowned lighting instructor Dean Collins.


Tim Mantoani’s grandfather, Pal, was a carpenter. He built his own home, office buildings, restaurants, a dollhouse for Tim’s sister and even a doghouse for his beloved black lab Jet. When he died, he left his hammer to Tim. Tim realized that Pal’s hammer was just like Tim’s camera. Both were used to create art.

“A few years ago, I began purchasing hammers at swap meets, garage sales and online,” Tim said. “…each of them has a unique story to tell. As you view these hammers, look closely, listen to them speak and let them tell you the story of their life.”

Real people

Tim Mantoani, a commercial advertising photographer also created many personal projects. One of his bodies of work on his website is titled “Real People.” He photographed on the beach, in Cuba, on the road and in exotic places.


Tim Mantoani was active. One evening in 2000, he was playing soccer. Later that night he felt a sharp pain that lasted until morning. He went to the emergency room. X-rays revealed a tumor in his left femur. Five weeks of radiation therapy and months of chemo then surgery that replaced his bones and knee with titanium.

After recovering from the surgery, he kept up the pace of his business and his personal projects. Once he hit a creative wall, he and a friend from Brooks took a five-day trip to Cuba.

“There were many reasons not to go, time away from my family, the cost, etc. But, there were far more reasons to go,” Tim said. “The trip pushed me out of my comfort zone, forced me to look at a new place in a new way and got the creative juices flowing.”

“Behind Photographs”

On Photography: Tim Mantoani, 1969-2016
Tim Mantoani on the ground glass of the 20 by 24-inch Polaroid camera.

Tim Mantoani began his “Behind Photographs” project in 2006. He wanted to make portraits of photographers holding their work.

“I had always wanted to try shooting with the 20×24 Polaroid camera, so I rented it for an afternoon,” Tim recalled. “It was expensive to rent and I knew I wanted to shoot something that was important to me. So, I called Jim Marshall and Michael Zagaris. Both legendary photographers, I asked them if I could make a portrait of each of them holding one of their iconic images. Jim told me I was “f***ing crazy.” It was intimidating, expensive and challenging, but it was also exhilarating, priceless and contagious.”

The 20 by 24-inch Polaroid camera weighs 235 pounds. Each sheet of film costs $200.00. He had each photographer write a description of their photo under the Polaroid print. Tim Mantoani spent 5 years on the project. He photographed over 150 photographers holding one of their iconic photographs.

Opening photo bottom row l to r: Jim Marshall, Mary Ellen Mark, Neil Leifer, Nick Ut and Ron Galella.

Rollercoaster or merry-go-round?

Tim Manoani said, “It has been the most rewarding project I have shot to date. I do not have a trust fund; I am not independently wealthy. I refinanced my home to do this. (Did I mention I have the greatest wife in the world?) Believe in yourself. Remember, the rollercoaster is more fun than the merry-go-round.

Behind Photographs video

This 2-minute video tells more about Behind Photographs.

Sources: Tim Mantoani, The San Diego Union-Tribune, feeldesain, Scott Kelby.

Read On Photography for stories about other inspirational photographers.

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