Workshop has documented small towns, trained photojournalists for four decades

October 26, 2015

Frankfort: A Kentucky Welcome from on Vimeo.


FRANKFORT — When I was a freshman at Western Kentucky University in 1976, two professors took several photojournalism students I knew to the Eastern Kentucky mountains for a week to document the state’s last one-room schoolhouses.

The following fall, they turned their lenses on a scruffy neighborhood at the end of Bowling Green’s Main Street. That led to trips the next two years to Land Between the Lakes and a remote town in the Tennessee mountains.

I was impressed by the pictures my friends returned with, and how much they learned while making them. But that annual field trip grew into more than any of us could have imagined.

Each October, the Mountain Workshops convenes in a different small town in Kentucky or Tennessee to teach visual storytelling through an intense week of documenting the stories of average people in photos, video, sound and writing.

“We have one goal: to become better storytellers,” said James Kenney, the workshops director and head of WKU’s photojournalism program. “We want to change the way they see.”

The program celebrated its 40th anniversary last week in Frankfort. As always, it was a major production.

About 40 WKU staff members and students arrived at a vacant call center building on the edge of town last weekend and unloaded a truck filled with audio-visual equipment, tables and chairs.

With 89 new Apple iMac computers loaned by a sponsor and several miles of network cable, they created temporary multimedia labs for photographers, videographers, picture editors, graphic artists and writers.

On Monday, an all-volunteer corps of 56 faculty and staff members arrived from across the country. They included some of the nation’s best visual journalists from places such as The New York Times, Washington Post, Time magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle.

The workshop’s 73 participants arrived Tuesday to literally reach into a hat and pull out the name of a subject whose story they would spend the next four days figuring out and learning how to tell.

Most of the participants were WKU students, but others were from universities across the nation, including Harvard and the Rochester Institute of Technology. Others were working professionals, who came to learn new skills and rediscover their passion.

Over the next few days, they would spend hours making photographs, shooting and editing video, conducting interviews and writing.

In addition to workshops in documentary photography and video, there were smaller ones in photo editing, time-lapse photography and “data visualization” — translating numbers into understandable print and interactive online graphics.

By the time everyone leaves for home Sunday morning, they will have created a website ( with dozens of word, picture and video stories, a book of more than 100 pages and a framed gallery show.

Nobody will have gotten much sleep.

“The point of the workshop is not to make the best images you’ve ever made, but to prepare you to make the best images you’ll ever make,” said Rick Loomis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer at the Los Angeles Times.

Loomis began his career as a WKU student at the workshop and returns almost every year as a photo coach.

I joined the faculty in 1995 as a writing and story coach. I have helped with 16 workshops, and I have seen how it has changed participants’ lives and careers.

Leslye Davis is a good example. I met her in 2009 when she was a shy WKU sophomore from Greensburg in the photo editing class. She returned the next two years as a video and photo student.

Davis, 25, is now an outstanding videographer at The New York Times. She was back at the workshop last week as a confident, insightful video coach.

Davis said the workshop was pivotal in her career development. It taught her a range of skills by doing them on deadline in real-life situations.

“It teaches you that you can work longer and harder than you ever thought,” she said. “People keep coming back because they know how good it is for the future of the profession.”


Frankfort: Finding Time from on Vimeo.


Western Kentucky University junior Katie Roberts photographed A Little Bit of Heaven Riding Stables in Frankfort last week. She was a participant in the 40th annual Mountain Workshops, a documentary photography workshop. Photo by Nina Greipel

Western Kentucky University junior Katie Roberts photographed A Little Bit of Heaven Riding Stables in Frankfort last week. She was a participant in the 40th annual Mountain Workshops, a documentary photography workshop. Photo by Nina Greipel

Richard Jones and his 1-year-old grandson, August, represent the fourth and sixth generations to live at Happy Jack's Pumpkin Farm east of Frankfort. Like August, Jones' sons grew up playing and working on the farm, which has transitioned away from tobacco to vegetables and livestock to keep it going strong. The Jones were a story subject during the 40th annual Mountain Workshops last week. Photo by Maura Friedman

Richard Jones and his 1-year-old grandson, August, represent the fourth and sixth generations to live at Happy Jack’s Pumpkin Farm east of Frankfort. Like August, Jones’ sons grew up playing and working on the farm, which has transitioned away from tobacco to vegetables and livestock to keep it going strong. The Jones were a story subject during the 40th annual Mountain Workshops last week. Photo by Maura Friedman


Polly Wilson, 7, lies in the family hammock with her favorite Americana breed chicken, also named Polly. The Wilsons have more than 70 chickens that produce eggs the family sells at the Frankfort Farmers Market three times a week. The family was a story subject last week during the 40th annual Mountain Workshops in Frankfort. Photo by Laura McClintock

Polly Wilson, 7, lies in the family hammock with her favorite Americana breed chicken, also named Polly. The Wilsons have more than 70 chickens that produce eggs the family sells at the Frankfort Farmers Market three times a week. The family was a story subject last week during the 40th annual Mountain Workshops in Frankfort. Photo by Laura McClintock


Photo fun with buildings, fading light, the moon and a flock of birds

January 5, 2015

While trying to come up with a good photograph to go with today’s column, I spent some time walking around Cheapside on a cold New Year’s Eve. I thought there might be a good shot with fading light, the old Fayette County Courthouse and the 21C Museum Hotel construction site, which is now lit up inside every night. While there, I discovered a few bonus elements: a flock of birds that kept circling the area, a rising moon just over the old Courthouse dome, the statue of John C. Breckinridge and the CentrePointe tower cranes. I only needed one photo for the paper (which, unfortunately, cropped out the moon) but I thought I would share some others, too. Happy New Year.






NY photographer explores historic Bluegrass homes in new book

May 24, 2014

140525KyBook0009The walled garden and orchard at Gainesway Farm was added by owner Antony Beck, a longtime friend of photographer Pieter Estersohn.  Beck suggested that Estersohn do the book, Kentucky: Historic Houses and Horse Farms of Bluegrass Country, which has just been published.  Photo by Pieter Estersohn / Courtesy of Monacelli Press


Central Kentucky’s grand mansions and horse farms have been fodder for pretty picture books for more than a century, at least since Thomas A. Knight’s Country Estates of the Bluegrass came out in 1904.

Of the many books I have seen, the best has just been published: Pieter Estersohn’s Kentucky: Historic Houses and Horse Farms of Bluegrass Country (Monacelli Press, $60).

The photographs are stunning, as they should be. Estersohn, 53, is one of America’s top “shelter” magazine photographers. He has shot covers for Architectural Digest, Elle Décor, Southern Accents, Metropolitan Home and many other big magazines. This is his 23rd book.

140525KyBook0008What makes this book especially interesting and authentic are the places Estersohn chose to photograph. There are only a few of the usual suspects, too important to omit: Waveland, Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, and Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate.

Many of the other 15 properties are not well-known, even to many Kentuckians, but they are some of the most precious architectural gems of the Bluegrass. That didn’t happen by accident. Estersohn had inside help.

In a telephone interview, Estersohn said he and Antony Beck, owner of Gainesway Farm, have been best friends since they were 19. The New York-based photographer said he and his son, Elio, 10, have been visiting the farm regularly for years.

“It’s sort of like our home away from home,” he said. “It’s just such a magical environment to be on that farm. Antony’s landscaping is amazing.”

Beck suggested the book, and Estersohn quickly agreed. For more than a year, the photographer made quick trips to Kentucky between other jobs, scouting locations and making pictures. The initial focus was on equine culture, but the emphasis soon shifted to the much-loved examples of historic preservation Estersohn found.

“I wanted to find a balance,” Estersohn said, “between some things that were more humble and some things that were more extravagant and some things that were really over the top.”

Beck opened doors for Estersohn, and his key local contact was antiques dealer Gay Reading, owner of The Greentree Tea Room. Reading, who wrote the book’s well-informed introduction, has a curator’s eye and extensive local connections.

“He wanted a variety of styles and periods, and I chose places I thought were special and different,” Reading said. “Unless you’re a friend, you don’t get to see many of these gems. They are places where people are really living.”

140525KyBook0006Estersohn said he was charmed by the houses he photographed, their owners and the houses’ varied stages of restoration. He was especially impressed by Ward Hall in Georgetown, one of the nation’s largest and finest Greek Revival mansions.

Other highlights were Walnut Hall, where Margaret Jewett has preserved the ornate Victorian decorations her grandfather put there in the 1890s, and Elley Villa, an elegant Gothic Revival mansion near the University of Kentucky campus that was condemned before being lovingly restored by James and Martha Birchfield.

“I loved Mary Lou’s place,” Estersohn said of the 1792 farmhouse restored in the 1960s by horsewoman and socialite Mary Lou Whitney. “It’s sort of like a time piece. It’s a very specific expression of decoration, which I think is amazing.”

Other featured properties include Gainesway Farm; the Simpson Farm in Bourbon County, built in 1785 as a pioneer station; Welcome Hall near Versailles; Clay Lancaster’s Warwick estate in Mercer County; Overbrook Farm; the Alexander Moore and Thomas January houses downtown; and Liberty Hall in Frankfort.

Estersohn photographed Botherum as its new owners, garden designer Jon Carloftis and Dale Fisher, were beginning their restoration. And he was moved by the much- damaged Pope Villa, the most significant house designed by America’s first great architect, Benjamin Latrobe.

“For Pope Villa, I hope we can elicit some financial attention so that it can be further renovated,” Estersohn said. “It is a very, very, very important piece of American architecture.”

Estersohn said he photographed the houses with a large-format digital camera. He used mirrors to even out natural light and illuminate dark corners and cavernous rooms.

Each chapter is accompanied by text that is well-researched and tightly written. Inexplicably, though, there is no text with the final chapter to explain the Iroquois Hunt Club.

“I thought the biggest challenge was going to be enrolling people to have their private residence shot, which is oftentimes the issue shooting for magazines in New York,” Estersohn said. “But I think there was such a regional pride and appreciation. Every single person was enthusiastic and wanted to contribute to the book.”

The photographer said what he enjoyed most about this project was “developing a very intimate experience” with the Bluegrass.

“I really feel like I know the area,” he said. “I can get around there very easily now. I know all the pikes. I know how to say Versailles.”

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Lecture highlights camera club that produced photography stars

March 13, 2014

Coke1Van Deren Coke (1921-2004) made this photo in 1952 in Lexington’s old Union Station, which was on Main Street where the Helix garage, Lexington Police Department and Fayette County Clerk’s office are now located. Photo: UK Special Collections.


Before there were pixels and iPhones, back when photography required film, darkrooms and chemicals, almost every American city had a camera club. Most members were hobbyists who wanted to learn how to make pretty pictures.

The Lexington Camera Club was different.

From its founding in 1936, Lexington Camera Club members, who included doctors, lawyers and businessmen, were unusually serious about developing their craft and exploring artistic expression.

By the time the club disbanded in 1972, it had produced two major figures in the art photography world and many more accomplished photographers.

James Birchfield, the retired special collections curator of rare books at the University of Kentucky, will give a free lecture about this remarkable camera club at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Presidents Room of UK’s Singletary Center for the Arts.

“It was not a provincial outlook,” Birchfield said of the club. “It was a big vision of the history of photography and what contemporary photography was doing. This particular cluster of people seemed to generate an extraordinary flowering of fine photography.”

Birchfield’s lecture is in conjunction with an exhibit at the university’s Art Museum of prints from an impressive photography collection it has assembled since the 1990s, thanks to one of the camera club’s members.

When Robert C. May died in 1993, he left the museum 1,200 of his own photographs and his collection of original prints from some of photography’s greatest names. He also left a substantial bequest so the museum could purchase more photography and create an annual lecture series that brings major photographers to UK’s campus. Eugene Richards, the noted documentary photographer, speaks at 4 p.m. Friday in Worsham Theater in the UK Student Center.

The museum exhibit, Wide Angle: American Photographs, continues through April 27 and features prints by famous photographers including Ansel Adams, Elliott Erwitt, Edward Weston, Lewis Hine, Walker Evans, Harry Callahan, Russell Lee, Doris Ulmann, Robert Frank, Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman.

The exhibit also includes nine photographs by Lexington Camera Club members, including its two biggest stars: Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925-1972) and Van Deren Coke (1921-2004).

140316CameraClub-a2The club began in 1936 with monthly meetings that included formal critiques of each member’s prints. Guest speakers included Ansel Adams, America’s most celebrated landscape photographer.

Many early club members were interested in landscape and travel photography, while others focused on historical and documentary pictures. Among the documentarians was lawyer and historian J. Winston Coleman, who photographed throughout Kentucky and collected nearly 6,300 historic images that are now at Transylvania University.

The club took an artistic turn under the leadership of Van Deren Coke, who was then president of his family’s Van Deren Hardware Co. on Main Street. Coke’s early photographs of Lexington scenes soon gave way to abstract, artistic images.

Coke got to know many celebrated photographers and became one himself. After graduate school, he went on to be photography curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and director of the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.  He taught for many years at the University of New Mexico and started its art museum.

Meatyard was an optician who joined the club in 1954. He became famous for his unusual photographs, which often involved people wearing masks or posing in abandoned Central Kentucky farmhouses.

Over the years, his images were acclaimed for their unique expression. He also was a major influence on other club members who became well-known photographers, including Robert May, James Baker Hall and Guy Mendes.

Meatyard was president of the club when he died of cancer at age 46 in 1972. The club disbanded within a few months.

“Meatyard fostered exploration and discovery within the Camera Club,” May wrote in a 1989 essay. “As photographers, the members did not look just for new things but for new ways of seeing.”

Meatyard’s photographs are still published frequently in books, and his prints command big prices at galleries and auctions. As recently as 2005, the International Center of Photography in New York mounted a major retrospective of his work.

Mendes was one of the club’s youngest members when he joined in 1968. A retired producer for Kentucky Educational Television, he remains an active photographer.

In an interview last week, he recalled that writer Wendell Berry introduced him to Meatyard. “Gene was something else,” Mendes said, adding that Berry’s young son told him: “He makes really strange pictures.”

Mendes accompanied Meatyard and May on weekend photography outings in the countryside around Lexington. He said they and other club members showed him how photography could do more than record reality; it could express feelings and be a medium for artistic experimentation.

“They taught me lessons I still use today,” Mendes said. “For all of the changes photography has gone through, the basics are still the same.”

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Could Eastern Kentucky’s coalfields learn from Eastern Germany?

January 25, 2014


An old mine in eastern Germany is used for a film screening.  The metal construction is the retooled front end of an overburden spreader that will function as a pier once the lake in the former mining pit has filled.  Photo by Frank Doering


Coal is still mined in this region, but the industry employs only a fraction of the people it did for more than a century. Huge tracts of damaged land must be reclaimed. Leaders struggle to build a new economy, create jobs and keep young people from leaving.

Eastern Kentucky? No, eastern Germany.

Frank Doering, a German-born freelance photographer who has lived in Lexington for nearly two decades, spent three years documenting the land and people of eastern Germany’s Lausitz region.

Except for the flat topography, this area the size of Rhode Island has much in common with the coal-rich mountains of Central Appalachia. And it could offer a few ideas for Kentucky leaders grappling with the same issues, Doering said.

Coalscapes, an exhibit of Doering’s compelling photographs, opened last Thursday at Institute 193, the small, nonprofit gallery at 193 N. Limestone. The free show continues through Feb. 26.

140123FrankDoering0006Doering, 55, grew up in western Germany and earned degrees in German literature, history and philosophy. He came to this country to earn a Ph.D. at Princeton University, where he met his wife, Wallis Miller, an architectural historian.

They lived for several years in Europe, where Doering worked as a cognitive science researcher at the École Polytechnique in Paris. Miller was hired in 1994 by the University of Kentucky, where she is an associate professor of architecture.

Doering taught philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Cincinnati before quitting in 2000 to pursue photography, a hobby since his youth. He now works on personal projects between commercial commissions.

The Coalscapes project grew out of a 2004 trip to Canada, where the couple visited a huge, open-pit asbestos mine.

“It was visually overwhelming,” Doering said. “I’ve always been interested in the industrial underpinnings of society and the scale on which it happens. This was a chilling landscape because it was all manmade.”

The experience made Doering want to photograph large surface mines in Eastern Kentucky, but the mountain topography and lack of access made that difficult.

When Miller made a research trip to Berlin, Doering discovered the Lausitz region, less than two hours away. It had been an industrial powerhouse of the former East Germany, but state-owned industries there all but collapsed after German reunification in 1990.

Only three of 17 former mines still operate there, he said, but they are vast. More than 136 villages have been obliterated by mining, and more are targeted by Germany’s decades-long mine-planning process.

The region has some of the world’s richest deposits of lignite coal, used primarily to fuel nearby electric power plants. Despite Germany’s ambitious commitments to solar and wind energy, it uses a lot of coal and will for decades.

Still, Lausitz is economically depressed. Since the Berlin Wall fell, many former miners have been employed by the government, which has spent billions to dismantle old industrial plants and reclaim former surface mines.

“Many people there feel they have gotten the short end of the stick since reunification,” Doering said, adding that the region has a stigma within Germany similar to what Appalachia has in this country. “There is a distrust of outsiders.”

But the more trips Doering made to Lausitz, where he rented an apartment, the more locals opened up to him and the better his pictures got. The project was supported by a grant from the Graham Foundation in Chicago.

Although initially attracted by the raw landscape, he said, “The project took on much more of a human side. The industrial history and the people’s life stories are unbelievably interesting.”

Doering’s photographs document efforts to restore old mine pits as lakes that will attract tourists. Former mines have even been used for concerts and film screenings, and even public art installations.

There is also a push for “industrial” tourism — with mining companies building observation platforms so visitors can watch the mining process, which Doering said is fascinating because it is done on such a super-human scale. For example, the conveyor assemblies that remove soil above the coal seams are twice as long as the Eiffel Tower is tall.

“People from different backgrounds come and look at stuff they wouldn’t normally look at,” he said. “It starts some unexpected conversations” about balancing energy needs and the environment — conversations that rarely happen in an Appalachia polarized by “war on coal” rhetoric.

One metal fabricating company, which used to make industrial buildings, now makes innovative housing for locals and vacation rentals. It reminds Doering of the UK College of Design’s efforts to retool idled houseboat factories near Somerset to make energy-efficient modular housing.

Doering said his photos have been used in Germany to both document and promote the sparsely populated region, where leaders realize they must rebuild to high standards. “It had better be cutting-edge stuff, because that’s the only way to attract outsiders who might pour some money into the area,” he said.

Doering said he doesn’t know enough about Eastern Kentucky to say what lessons its leaders might learn from Germany. But he said the keys to progress there have been locals and outsiders overcoming traditional fault lines to find creative solutions.

“They have forged some odd alliances,” he said. “They have found a way to work together and get stuff done.”


If you go

  • What: Coalscapes, a photography exhibit
  • Where: Institute 193, 193 N. Limestone.
  • When: Now until Feb. 26. The gallery is open 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, and by appointment. Admission is free.
  • More information:,,
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The gift of photography helps ease parents’ unimaginable loss

November 7, 2012

Michele Carlisle, a Georgetown portrait photographer who volunteers with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, took this photo of Amy Buckingham holding the hand of her infant son, Myles.

Amy and Tim Buckingham are the first to say that, at the time, it seemed awkward, even a little weird.

Their twin sons, Hagan and Myles, were born premature and spent nearly a month in the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center’s neonatal intensive care unit. Hagan finally grew strong enough to go home to be with his 3-year-old sister, Joleigh. But Myles just got worse.

“When a doctor tells you the strategy is hope, wait and pray, it doesn’t look good,” Tim said.

Myles’ lungs had not developed properly, and he could not survive off a ventilator. He died on Feb. 4, 2011 after 28 days of life. Only when he died did someone think to tell the Buckinghams about Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a non-profit organization that provides free professional portrait photography to the parents of infants who will never get the chance to grow up.

Within four hours of a nurse calling the organization, Georgetown photographer Michele Carlisle was at the hospital. Myles was cleaned and dressed, and his parents held him as Carlisle made photographs that have become some of the Buckinghams’ most cherished possessions.

“This was the only opportunity we had to photograph him without tubes and wires,” Tim said. “We felt kind of weird about it, but it gave us some closure.” “It was awkward, but it’s what felt right as a parent,” Amy added. “I can’t imagine not having those photographs.”

Tim and Amy Buckingham, with children Hagan, left, and Joleigh, in May. Photo by Tom Eblen

The Buckinghams asked to share their story because they want more people to know about Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep and the comfort it can provide to families in situations such as theirs.

Colorado-based Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep was created in 2005, soon after Maddux Haggard was born with a condition that prevented him from breathing or swallowing. Before he was taken off life support at 6 days old, his parents asked photographer Sandy Puc´ to come to the hospital.

Cheryl Haggard and Puc´ realized that such photographs could be comforting to other families, so they started the non-profit organization they named for the children’s bedtime prayer. The organization says it now has more than 11,000 professional photographers in the United States, Canada and 38 other countries who volunteer their time and services to families that are losing or have lost an infant.

Photographers typically donate a CD of 30-35 black-and-white photos, along with a DVD slide show of the images. Carlisle, who photographed the Buckinghams, is one of three Lexington-area photographers who volunteer. She also is the organization’s area coordinator.

Before she opened her Georgetown photography studio seven years ago, Carlisle said she worked as a hospital X-ray technician, so she had some understanding of what these families were going through. Over the past six years, she said she has photographed several hundred families for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.

“I know these images are powerful,” Carlisle said. “I know they can help when so little in that moment can.”

Usually, when Carlisle arrives at a hospital to take photographs, all but the parents and infant will leave the room. For some parents, it is the first time they have gotten to hold their child.

“It’s hard for everybody, and very emotional; just walking into that room and knowing what to say,” she said. “But if I can create that safe place for them to have that moment, it often can mean as much as the pictures.”

Although the organization provides training and support for volunteer photographers, the emotional nature of the work makes recruiting hard, Carlisle said. Still, it is such a rewarding form of service that she wishes more professional photographers would apply to volunteer (

With two active children and busy careers, the Buckinghams have a full life. Amy is a pediatric dental hygienist, and Tim is a staff member for Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and an active volunteer at Broke Spoke Community Bicycle Shop. Still, Tim said, “Sometimes the grief just creeps up out of nowhere.”

That is when they pull out Carlisle’s photographs, look through them and remember Myles.

“Although it was the hardest moment of our lives,” Tim said, “it has also been captured as one of the most beautiful and peaceful moments that we will remember forever.”

Goodbye Kodachrome, and thanks for the memories

December 7, 2010

The roll of Kodachrome had been in my desk for so long, I had forgotten what pictures I took with it, or when. The yellow-and-red cylinder became a symbol of mystery and procrastination.

I knew I needed to have that slide film developed, especially after Eastman Kodak announced in June 2009 that it would stop making Kodachrome because almost everyone now uses digital cameras.

Then I heard that the last Kodachrome lab in America — Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kan. — would stop processing it at the end of this year. If I wanted to relieve my guilt and solve this mystery, it was now or never.

What were these pictures? They must have been important; otherwise, I would have used a lesser, cheaper film.

When Kodachrome was introduced in the 1930s, it was the first widely available color film. It remained the gold standard for decades. “Mama don’t take my Kodachrome away!” Paul Simon begged in his 1973 hit song, which praised the film’s qualities:

You give us those nice bright colors.

You give us the greens of summers.

Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day, oh yeah.

By the 1970s, though, Kodak’s Ektachrome was almost as good, required less light and was cheaper and easier to process. Many professionals switched to Fujichrome Velvia in the 1990s. Color print film got better and better. But until advances in digital photography made 35mm film all but obsolete, many photographers still reached for Kodachrome.

I took Kodachrome on my first trip to London in 1992, where I made a picture of a Horse Guard so crisp you could count the stray strands of horse hair on his helmet. When I covered the 1994 Olympics, Kodak was a sponsor, so there was plenty of Kodachrome. It was perfect for capturing Norway’s breathtaking winter beauty.

Some photographers are nostalgic about film. Not me. I love digital photography: It is easier, cheaper, more versatile, makes better pictures with less light and is instantaneous. I would never want to go back to film.

As a roving reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the mid-1980s, I liked shooting photographs to accompany my stories, but it was a pain. I didn’t have a darkroom, so all I could do was put exposed film on a Greyhound bus to Atlanta and hope for the best.

Photojournalism was then done mostly in black and white. Even when I shot color, it was rarely Kodachrome. It was too fussy. Kodachrome required abundant daylight, precise exposure and special processing. If the film was not kept cool and developed promptly, the color quality suffered.

I saw that firsthand when Dwayne’s sent back my Kodachrome, which, it turns out, I had shot in early 1998, just before moving back to Lexington from Atlanta. The pictures were faded, which seemed appropriate given how much had changed in those dozen years.

There were several pictures from my older daughter Mollie’s 16th birthday party. She is now 28 and married, as are several of the giggly girlfriends who were with her that day.

Most of the pictures were from a going-away party my boss gave for me at her cabin in the north Georgia mountains. I had many good friends at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and they and their now-grown children came to send me home in style.

The digital revolution that made Kodachrome obsolete also radically changed the newspaper and advertising businesses. The Journal-Constitution has been hit especially hard. Its newsroom now has fewer than half the 500 journalists who were there when I left.

As I looked at my faded party pictures, I counted the friends who have since retired, taken buyouts or moved on to other careers. Like my Kodachrome, today’s Journal-Constitution is a pale reflection of what it was then. But times change, and we must change with them.

Thinking about those days prompted me to search for more memories. In one box of old photographs, I found several unprocessed rolls of less-fussy black-and-white film. At least I had taken the time to label most of them.

Some were pictures for newspaper stories I wrote in the 1980s. Somehow, they never made it to the bus station. Two rolls were labeled “Shannon 1987” — the year my younger daughter, now 23, was born.

I must get them developed. One of these days.

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New photo book focuses on Kentucky originals

December 5, 2010

Guy Mendes is a photographer, a writer, a producer of TV documentaries and a collector of interesting friends. Many of the latter, including some of Kentucky’s most interesting artists and characters, are the subjects of his new book, 40/40: 40 Years, 40 Portraits.

“All of the people in the book were friends, family, mentors and teachers,” Mendes said. “In their own way, they showed me the way.”

An exhibit of 25 of Mendes’ striking portraits opens Dec. 9 at the tiny North Limestone gallery of Institute 193, which published the book. The entire collection will be displayed next year at a new gallery in the University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital, and then go on a two-year tour of galleries around the South.

The book includes writers Wendell Berry, James Still and Ed McClanahan; artists Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Robert Tharsing, Edgar Tolson and Ann Tower; performers Ashley Judd and Ben Sollee; and characters Carlos “Little Enis” Toadvine and Bradley Picklesimer. Mendes wrote a short essay with each portrait, telling something about the subject and the circumstances of the photograph.

“Taken together, these photos give lie to the notion that Kentucky is a backward place without much culture,” Mendes said. “Kentucky has been home to some very creative thinkers and talented artists and musicians.”

The cover image isn’t of anyone famous — or even from Kentucky. It is a 1977 picture of Robert Bass, Mendes’ childhood friend and “adventurous alter ego,” standing on a beach wearing a scuba mask, flippers and his underwear, and holding a lobster. It was chosen, Mendes said, “because it lets you know fun is involved.”

In many ways, the book represents Mendes’ personal journey. Born and raised in New Orleans, where his grandmother had been the Queen of Mardi Gras in 1904, he came to the University of Kentucky in 1966 to study journalism. Except for a summer in Houston, where he was an intern for Newsweek, and a year in Connecticut, Mendes, 62, has lived in Central Kentucky ever since.

After studying under Berry, Mendes changed his major from journalism to English. He also quit UK’s student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel, to help publish one of the era’s best underground papers, The Blue-Tail Fly.

As a boy, Mendes had a Polaroid camera, “and I made some experimental pictures of my cat and my feet,” he said. Then, in college, he met Meatyard, a Lexington optician who, after his death from cancer a week before his 47th birthday in 1972, became an icon of 20th-century art photography.

Meatyard and Robert May — whose bequest to The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky launched its photography collection and lecture series — took Mendes along on weekend picture-taking excursions. With old houses and the Bluegrass landscape as backdrops, they used people, props and special effects to create art. The trips had a profound effect on Mendes.

“I began to see that photography could be a means of expression and not just a recording tool,” he said. “Wendell Berry and Gene Meatyard changed the way I thought about words and pictures.”

Another influence was the poet and photographer James Baker Hall. The longtime UK professor took Mendes into his Connecticut studio as an apprentice in 1971, when Hall was teaching photography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and literature at the University of Connecticut.

“Jim always said that a good portrait is not taken, but given; it is a collaboration between the subject and the photographer,” Mendes said. “The people in this book all had an energy I admired, and I wanted to get a little of that energy in the picture.”

Mendes joined Kentucky Educational Television in 1973 and became a writer and producer of award-winning documentaries before his retirement in 2008. “I was lucky to have a job where I could put words and pictures together,” he said.

But his passion was always black-and-white still photography, which he taught at UK for 14 years. “It was always the work I did for myself,” he said. “I’m still excited about the next picture and what it might look like.”

Mendes lived in a rented farmhouse in rural Woodford County from 1974 until 1990, soon after he married Page, a painter and Web designer. They and their two sons — Wilson, 16, and Jess, 14 — now live in Ashland Park, where Mendes works from a backyard studio designed by the pioneer solar architect Richard Levine.

Digital technology has revolutionized photography, but Mendes still prefers to shoot film and use an enlarger and chemicals to make high-quality prints, which he sells through Ann Tower Gallery.

Mendes published a book of his photographs in 1986, Light at Hand, an assortment of landscapes, portraits and figure studies. The idea for the new book came from Phillip March Jones, a young Lexington artist who started the non-profit organization Institute 193 last year to promote the region’s less-celebrated artists.

Jones said he was sitting in Mendes’ studio one day last year looking at portraits and listening to him tell stories about their subjects. He was struck both by the quality of Mendes’ work and the fact that nobody else had made such a visual record of this slice of Kentucky life.

Jones edited the book, which was designed by Carly Schnur. To raise money for printing, they turned to, a Web site that organizes backers for creative projects. Within two months, 150 backers had pledged $9,235. Most signed up to buy the book for $25. (Since the printing, nearly 400 more copies have sold at the $35 retail price, Jones said.) Some also pledged more money in return for special benefits.

“Now I must sing for my supper,” Mendes said with a smile. He will give private tours of his studio to 15 backers, take portraits of four others and teach two-hour photography workshops for three more. He also will make two special-edition books with hand-printed photographs.

“This book would not have happened without a little help from my friends,” Mendes said. Both the friends who helped produce the book and those who, over the past four decades, have given their portraits to his camera.

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:


Guy Mendes: ’40/40: 40 Years, 40 Portraits’

Exhibit: Dec. 9-Jan. 29 at Institute 193, 193 N. Limestone. Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and by appointment. For more information, visit

Gallery show opening reception: 6-9 p.m. Dec. 9 at Institute 193.

Book signing: Noon Dec. 11 at The Morris Book Shop, 408 Southland Dr. Call (859) 276-0494 or visit


The book 40/40: 40 Years, 40 Portraits is available in Lexington at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, The Morris Book Shop, Black Swan Books, Institute 193 and online at

Finding great small-town stories for 35 years

November 3, 2010

ELIZABETHTOWN — When people think of great photojournalism and compelling stories, they often think of big news, distant lands and exotic cultures.

But over the years that I have been volunteering as a writing and story coach at the Mountain Workshops, I have come to realize that some of the most compelling stories and photographs can be found right under a journalist’s nose.

The Mountain Workshops is an annual documentary photojournalism project run by Western Kentucky University. Each fall, participants spend a week documenting everyday life in a small town in Kentucky or Tennessee.

The workshop began when I was a WKU student. A few of my photographer friends and two of their professors went to the mountains to document the last one-room schoolhouses in Kentucky.

In the 35 years since then, the Mountain Workshops has grown into a major, nationally known training program in still and multimedia photo journalism and picture editing.

This year’s workshops came to Elizabethtown in late October. There were 70 “students” who had paid to brush up on their storytelling skills using photographs, video, words and audio. Some were students at WKU and other universities; others were working professionals at newspapers ranging in size from small weeklies to USA Today.

Their coaches and the support staff were an all- volunteer corps of photojournalists, writers and editors from across the country. This year’s faculty included Jahi Chikwendiu, a Lexington native who has photographed extensively in Africa and the Middle East for The Washington Post; Karen Kasmauski, who has photographed more than 25 stories for National Geographic magazine; and Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalists Rick Loomis of the Los Angeles Times and Mark Osler of the now- defunct Rocky Mountain News.

This was my 12th workshop during the past 18 years, and others have been coming even longer. Some regulars, including Loomis and me, are WKU grads. But others had no connection to Kentucky before they started coming to the workshop and fell in love with the experience. They include Mick Cochran, director of photography at USA Today, who teaches picture editing; and fellow writing coach Lynne Warren, a former National Geographic writer and editor.

Now that many of Kentucky’s small towns have been covered, the workshops have started going to larger towns. Besides, 150 people need a lot of motel rooms — not that anyone spends much time in them. With so much to do in a week, everyone works from early in the morning until early the next morning.

Three days before the workshops began, a volunteer technical crew turned a vacant industrial building into a state-of-the-art news-gathering and education center with dozens of borrowed computers and miles of Ethernet cable.

The workshop starts at noon Tuesday, when participants literally draw a story assignment out of a hat. The assignments are little more than leads, though, and participants spend the next four days getting to know their assigned subjects — figuring out what their stories are and how to tell them in pictures, words and sometimes audio and video.

By Saturday night, this around-the-clock learning experience has produced a Web site, about 70 picture and video stories, a framed gallery show and a book that will be published in a few months

The professional journeys that students make between the first and fifth days is amazing. And the faculty and staff always seem to learn as much as the students. The collective effort is a remarkable snapshot of a town.

I always come home from the workshops exhausted — and exhilarated. It is my annual reminder of the power of storytelling. And as digital technology advances, creative people find new and powerful ways to use it to tell stories.

“The Mountain Workshops reaffirms my belief in the value of age-old and priceless community journalism,” said Gordon “Mac” McKerral, a fellow writing coach and past national president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

“It’s not so much about the people the Mountain Workshop stories focus on — the barbers, the single father, the mother of an autistic child or the book mobile driver — but about how those people collectively tell a story about the world we live in,” McKerral said. “An inherently good world filled with people who do special things while not believing they are special at all.”

To see photo stories and videos from this and past Mountain Workshops, click here.

County attorney is local photographers’ patron

April 16, 2010

Fayette County Attorney Larry Roberts supports local art the old-fashioned way: he buys it.

Specifically, Roberts supports photographers by buying and displaying their work throughout the county attorney’s office, which recently expanded to include five floors of the First Federal Building at Vine and South Upper streets.

The office’s collection of about 200 framed prints will be on display from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday during Gallery Hop. At least eight of the 29 photographers will be there to discuss their work with the public.

The collection began in 2006, when Roberts got a $100,000 incentive from his landlord as part of a long-term lease. Because he got a great deal on some used office furniture, he had extra money for decorating.

Photographer Don Ament, right, shows Fayette County Attorney Larry Roberts a landscape photograph he has just delivered to his office. Photo by Tom Eblen

Photographer Don Ament, right, shows Fayette County Attorney Larry Roberts a landscape photograph he has just delivered to his office. Photo by Tom Eblen

“I like photography,” Roberts said. “And I thought it would be neat to support local artists.”

As the collection has grown, Roberts has used some revenue that the office generates — but no tax money — to buy and frame photographs.

This might be the best and most diverse large collection of Lexington photography on public display. Roberts has tried to include work from all of the area’s well-known photographers, among them James Archambeault, Dean Hill, John Snell, Doug Prather, Don Ament and the Lexington Herald-Leader’s staff photo journalists.

On Monday, as Roberts was preparing for Gallery Hop, he noticed a stunning photo on that Herald-Leader chief photographer Charles Bertram had taken that morning of the sun rising behind a tree on a farm off Walnut Hill Road. Before the sun set, Roberts had ordered a print to frame.

Several amateur photographers, including Fayette County Judge- Executive Sandra Varellas, have donated pictures so they could be included in the collection. “Once I put this up, a lot of people wanted to give us photos,” Roberts said.

The photos don’t have to show Kentucky — they just have to have been made by a Kentucky photographer. Selection criteria is simple, Roberts said: “It’s whatever I like.”

He uses different kinds of photos to help set the mood in various parts of the office: for example, there are warm and humorous photos in the area where family and children’s issues are dealt with, and photos of law-enforcement activities in the criminal law section. The majority of pictures show beautiful scenery, community activities and horses.

“I want this to look more like a law office than a government office,” said Roberts, adding that he gets many compliments from citizens who come to the office on business.

Roberts allows his staff to use some of the photos to decorate their own offices. “I think it’s a great recruiting tool for me with young lawyers,” he said.

Local photographers appreciate Roberts’ support. “I think it’s a really big deal,” said Ament, who like other artists has seen sales and income decline during the recession.

Ament hopes others will follow Roberts’ example and buy local art for their offices and facilities. “A lot of people say they want to give local artists exposure,” he said. “Exposure is nice, but money is better.”