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 Kickstarter.com, 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.
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