Thursday, March 26, 2015

Behind “Behind Photographs”

Some photographs still strike us, years after they were taken. The photograph called “Afghan Girl,” published in National Geographic in 1985, is considered the magazine’s most famous image. The photos taken by John Lennon’s personal photographer, including the iconic image of the Beatle wearing a New York City t-shirt, “present a kaleidoscope of John Lennon's New York Period” that is “beautiful, clear and truthful,” according to Yoko Ono.

But how often does the layperson think about the photographer rather than the person in some of these famous photos?
Steve McCurry holds his photograph, "Afghan Girl."
"I looked for this girl for 17 years and finally found her in 2002. Her name is Sharbat Gula."
Bob Gruen holds his iconic photograph of John Lennon against the NYC skyline.
"John Lennon asked me to come to his penthouse apt [sic] on the east side of New York to take pictures for the cover of his 'Walls + Bridges' album. After we took a series of portraits for the record cover we took some informal shots to use for publicity. I asked him if he still had the New York City t-shirt I had given him a year earlier and he went and put it on and we made this photo."
Photographer Tim Mantoani’s mission is to give a voice to “each face, in each place,” including those normally behind the lens. From 2006 to 2011, Mantoani traveled across the United States to capture images of photographers. He rented a rare 20x24 Polaroid camera and a 20x24 Wisner camera with a Polaroid back to take the photographs. In each Polaroid, the photographer is holding his or her most famous or favorite image. Over 5 years, Mantoani took pictures of more than 150 photographers, published in the book “Behind Photographs” in 2012.

At the bottom of each Polaroid, Mantoani had the photographer write a short paragraph about the image he or she chose. Some photographers wrote simple descriptions, such as Douglas Kirkland’s “This is from my evening with Marilyn.”

Others, like Mary Ellen Mark, wrote more detailed paragraphs:

I am holding my photograph of Ram Prakash Singh with his beloved elephant Shyama—taken in 1990. Ram Prakash Singh was the ringmaster of the “The Great Golden Circus”—The photograph was done in Ahmedabad India—This was part of my Indian Circus Project—I love India and I love the circus so photographing eighteen circuses all around India was an incredible experience—Unfortunately Shyama died a few months after this photograph was taken—supposedly he succumbed to a poisoned chapatti—Ram Prakash Singh was heartbroken—me also.

With these Polaroids, Mantoani has managed to preserve the stories behind these images. The photographers cannot live forever, but their work can. Life magazine photographer John Dominis died in December 2013. Thanks to Mantoani’s project, the story behind his photograph of two resting lions will remain for generations to come.
John Dominis holds his photograph of two resting lions.

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