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Polaroid In-Depth: James Tinnelly

By James Tinnelly Feb 18, 2018

We sat down with James Tinnelly, a talent mananger at Women Management. James takes Polaroid portraits of each of the models that he represents. The outcomes are absolutely stunning and show the depth of their working and creative relationship.

Amanda Googe

Tell us a little bit about you and what you do.

JT: I am a talent manager at Women Management. At Women, we specialize in high fashion modeling. The women that I work with inspire me so much. Their intelligence, character, and sense of humor make me passionate about my career. 

I was born in The Bronx, and raised out on the island, in Massapequa Park. Andy Warhol Superstar, Candy Darling, grew up a few blocks away from my childhood home. Candy Darling was a transgender pioneer who had her portrait taken by Richard Avedon, Francesco Scavullo, and Peter Hujar. Antony and The Johnsons used Peter Hujar's portrait of her for their "I Am A Bird Now" album cover. My favorite tv show growing up was David Lynch's "Twin Peaks." My obsession with this show extended to its star, Kyle MacLachlan. I had the biggest crush on him! Steven Meisel photographed him with Linda Evangelista for a Barney's campaign and they fell in love. I quickly became obsessed with Linda Evangelista and Steven Meisel’s work. This obsession led my high school guidance counselor, Ms. Bitel, to recommend I take a summer photography course for high school students ("Summer Live") at The Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan when I was 15. Being in FIT’s darkroom was magical. In high school, I took photography classes as well. I begged my teacher, Mr. Davis, to let me use the darkroom at lunch or after school, so I could work on my portfolio. He declined and told me I should give up photography as the only way I would have success was if my parents had family connections in the business. My father was a telephone lineman and my mother works at the Bar Harbor library, so that connections weren't in the cards for me. However, Mr. Davis' advice did not discourage me. It only made me cherish the precious time I did have in the darkroom even more. As a talent manager, I often work with young women who are the same age I was when Ms. Bitel encouraged me to get on the Long Island Rail Road and study photography. Her kindness lives on in me. I strive to motivate the women I work with to believe in themselves and to achieve their goals.

Polaroid cameras and film have been such a game changer for me. Making portraits with the models I represent has totally changed how I approach my job. The models I work with know me as their manager, but being able to collaborate with them in a creative way has made our working relationships much deeper. Each model has her own unique rhythm and it is fascinating to observe it through the lens of my Polaroid cameras. Because of our history, they trust that I will only make them look good, so we begin each session relaxed. But once they see the developed Polaroid pictures, showing them as I see them, the looks on their faces are magical. I created my Instagram account to share my analog photography portraits with others. The interaction with other Polaroid lovers has been one of the most rewarding elements of it. They direct message me questions about cameras and film. Using my knowledge of Polaroid cameras and film to help other people is the best feeling.  

Kristina Romanova / Daria Strokous

What are you currently working on?

JT: Currently I am working on an ongoing analog photography portrait project. The people in my work and personal life teach me so much. They come from all over the world and I learn something different from each of them. The goal of my project is to capture a little bit of truth about these people on film. I keep two sets Polaroid 660 cameras and SX-70 cameras at home and at work so I am always prepared when opportunities to make a portrait come up. At Women, we have a room that faces the south of Manhattan specifically designed to take digitals and video of models. This room has become my studio, it is a great place to take Polaroid portraits because of its light. The sun moves from the East to the West during the day. The mid-day sun gives a dramatic high contrast from the shadows. Sunset on a sunny day gives a warm amber light to portraits. Sometimes models use that room to get their hair and makeup done for events in the evening. Those evenings I use the Polaroid 680 with its built-in flash for portraits.  

Fei Fei Sun / Yana Bovenistier

What projects are you most excited about coming up?

JT: My good friend Hugh Lippe lent me a seamless backdrop and key light, so I have turned my living room into a photo studio. My living room faces Central Park, facing the Eastern sunrise. This access to abundant ambient daylight means I can shoot with Polaroid 600 film in the daytime and use the key light to shoot after dark. This past summer and fall, I would have portrait sessions every Saturday in Central Park, Fort Tryon Park, or Governor's Island. One of the best memories was with Sarah Berger at The Cloisters Museum. We were having a heat wave, but it was cool and serene inside the museum. I used my Polaroid SX-70 camera to take portraits. The guards were mostly kind older people who grew up using Polaroid SX-70 cameras.  My own Polaroid SX-70 made them sentimental and curious about the rebirth of the film. Besides puppies, Polaroid cameras are the ultimate conversational icebreaker in NYC! Everyone wants to know how it works and what the pictures will look like. Now that we are in the middle of winter, I am looking forward to portrait sessions indoors at home.

Sarah Berger / Frida Aasen

How do you use your Polaroid camera?

JT: Photography is all about capturing how light illuminates the subject on film. Polaroid cameras add an extra psychological element to the portrait process. At my sister Jennifer's wedding last September, so many people remembered wedding celebrations from their past when I took their portrait with a Polaroid SX-70. The Polaroid SX-70 camera reminded them of good times in their past and they let down their guard, becoming more comfortable to have their picture taken. Younger people are not as familiar with instant cameras with collapsible bellows made of leather and metal and often think its something from the future. This wonder also helps them let down their guard and relax for their portrait. Everyone is excited to see what develops. It’s incredible that a camera can be a nostalgic instrument and a piece of futuristic equipment all at the same time, pending the perspective of the subject.

Most models I work with are not used to being shot on film. Usually, I start the portrait session by letting them look thru the lens and seeing thru the camera. This shows them that the format is a square and that the more they fill up the square with their limbs, the more dynamic the Polaroid picture will be. Usually, I take a couple of shots and let them develop, then have a conversation with the model. Once the Polaroid pictures are fully developed, we both review it together. Models who began working in the digital era are used to performing for a monitor and getting that instant feedback. The lack of a monitor and a full team makes the portrait session more intimate, just the two of us.  My Polaroid SLR670-S, SX-70 & 680 cameras are all 'single lens reflex' cameras - so when the model is focused on the lens, she is literally looking me in the eye. This direct eye contact makes the portraits more personal. 

Valentina Zelyaeva / Sarah Berger

What does it add to your shoots?

JT: Without Polaroid cameras and film, I wouldn't be able to take portraits. The way they capture sunlight is magically sublime. The colors are so vivid and better than real life. The black and white tones are so dreamy. Polaroid 600 and SX-70 film is so flattering, creating an idealized version of the subject. My intention is always to portray a more attractive representation of my subjects and Polaroid always comes through for me.

Instagram has revolutionized the business I am in. At first, I was unsure of how it works, and what I had to contribute to it. I started with a private account and followed my friends and sisters. Mostly I posted Whitney Houston shots or Golden Girls memes. There are incredible accounts that celebrate historical pop culture, they make me long for the past. Like the character of Iona in John Hughes’ “Pretty In Pink’ (played by Annie Potts), I was in danger of overdosing on nostalgia. I was worried if spending too much time thinking of 1998 in 2018 would mean I was missing out on what was going on around me. Polaroid photography is liberating for me – I feel fully engaged in the moment I am actually living in, by using technology from the 1970’s/1980’s. At home, I invested in an Epson scanner to scan my Polaroid prints. Digitizing them and uploading them to Instagram feels like getting the ghost back into the machine!  

Luma Grothe / Amanda Googe

When did you start using a Polaroid camera? 

JT: As a child, my mom had a Polaroid 660 camera for special occasions, like when my sisters were born and my First Holy Communion. My first boss (and mentor), Paul Rowland, used a Polaroid SX-70 camera to shoot models Polaroid portraits. My responsibilities included sourcing vintage Polaroid SX-70 cameras for him on eBay and purchasing Polaroid Time Zero film for him in bulk. Actually, I bought the last case of Times Zero from Adorama for him. This summer, I started my portrait project with a Polaroid SX-70 camera and every paycheck I indulge in another camera, flash bar, scanner, etc. (and film!) Currently I use a Polaroid SLR670S, 660, 680, SX-70, and OneStep 2. 

How has instant photography affected you as an artist?

JT: Instant photography has changed my life. The look on people’s faces when they see their portraits gives me so much joy. The ability to make someone else feel good about themselves means so much to me. 

Frida Aasen / Meghan Roche

What is an instant moment recently that has left an impact on you?

JT: My sister, Jennifer, got married last September. Taking portraits of my parents, friends, and my sister and her husband, made the biggest impact on me. Showing my loved ones how much I love them in a picture was my gift to her. 

Anything else you would like to add?

JT: This Polaroid project was started just for my own enjoyment. To be recognized by Polaroid means the world to me. It’s a lesson to anyone reading this to never ever let anyone tell you what you can’t do. If you love something and it makes you happy, follow your passion as far as you can. Focus your energy and time on people in your life who love and support you and if you achieve success, pay it forward by encouraging others to live their dream. 

John Swiatek, Hanne Gaby, and their puppy Jeffrey Lorenzo Snooztek

Check out more of James' work at @James.Tinnelly on Instagram.