Guy Mendes: Photography Purist

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Saraya Brewer

A self portrait of Mendes and his two dogs outside his Chevy Chase home.

A self-described “old school, black & white, wet darkroom photographer,” Guy Mendes primarily sticks to those guns, processing his own (actual) film, creating archival prints on silver gelatin paper, and using a digital camera only for “note-taking,” family pictures and portrait commissions. But in recent years, Mendes’ artistic career has benefitted from a handful of modern conveniences: a new website, a Facebook account, and a 2010 Kickstarter campaign that funded his most comprehensive photography publication to date, “40/40: 40 Years 40 Portraits,” published by local gallery Institute 193.

Known for his striking portraits and landscape photography, Mendes was born in New Orleans, but in many ways his life as an artist was born out of the protest- and riot-laden, draft-fearing years on the University of Kentucky campus in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Mendes became involved with the Kentucky Kernel, which was considered a radical paper at the time, and once student protests against the war led to a re-staffing of the newspaper, he became part of a small staff that formed an alternative paper called the Blue Tail Fly.

It was also during that time that Mendes met many of the folks who would go on to foster his interest in writing and photography, including Kentucky author and essayist Wendell Berry and late photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard.

“One changed the way I thought about words, the other changed how I thought about photography,” Mendes said. He developed a close friendship with Berry and Meatyard, the latter from whom he learned mostly by “watching him, seeing what he was looking at and seeing what came out of it.”

“He didn’t show me darkroom stuff – he just showed me photographs and talked about it. And he really wasn’t very verbal,” Mendes said of Meatyard, whose offbeat photographs have drawn national attention since his death in 1972. “When he would be looking through his camera at something, I’d often wonder, ‘What the hell’s he seeing?’ And that taught me to look harder and longer.”

Through Berry, Mendes also met James Baker Hall, eventually moving to Connecticut for a year to live as Hall’s apprentice in a former veterinary hospital that he had converted to a darkroom. Mendes credits Hall with showing him the more technical aspects of archival printing and view cameras, as well as exposing him to the art scene in New York City where photography was just starting to “elbow its way in as an art form.”

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