Updated: Jan 29, 2020
Guy Mendes takes a seat in front of his iMac on the second floor of his photography studio and guest house in the backyard of his Lexington, Kentucky, home. Born and raised in New Orleans but a Kentucky resident since moving to Lexington to attend UK in 1966, Mendes is now a Kentucky guy at heart. The letters KET are stitched across the pocket on his denim work shirt, a token from his years as a writer, producer and director for public television.
“The New Yorker magazine wanted some pictures,” he says, “but my internet has been down for weeks.”
He explains how he had to sponge off the Wi-Fi in the UK SA/VS building--where he teaches Arts and Sciences 380 Black and White Darkroom Photography-- and points to the router just outside of his window. He and his wife chose a local internet provider, just as he has formed local connections throughout his life-- although he has had better luck with the latter.
Mendes is known as a successful photographer, but his roots link him back to his time at UK, as a journalist for the Kentucky Kernel, and with his mentors whom he met on assignment as a student: bestselling Kentucky author Wendell Berry and Lexington-native photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard.
“In one day I [got] to know the two men who would change how I thought about words and pictures,” Mendes said. “Wendell Berry changed the way I thought about words and Gene Meatyard changed the way I thought about photography.”
Above where he is seated in his studio, photos of Meatyard and Berry are pinned to the wall. Prints of his earliest work, a photo of him on the basketball court when he played as a walk-on during his freshman year of college, a portrait of him at age 22 in a custom-made astronaut shirt and newspaper clippings fill out the board. The structure is a personalized space, and Mendes has been frequenting it daily since he retired from KET 11 years ago.
He and his wife had the studio built 25 years ago because Mendes kept hitting his head on both the basement and attic ceilings -- two failed attempted locations for the studio. UK architecture professor Richard Levine designed the space with brickwork patterns inspired by his time in Northern Italy. The place suits Mendes; he loves to travel.
“I like to make photographs of things I haven’t seen before,” Mendes said.
Once he takes these photos, he develops and prints negatives in his wet sink darkroom. He also uses Adobe Lightroom.
“One thing about photography is that it’s all an abstraction even if it’s based on the real-world image, it’s smaller than the real world,” Mendes said. “Even color is not like the real world because of the way you can jack with it and push your sliders and exaggerate your reds or your yellows or your greens.”
He’s even open to iPhone photography and notes that some photographers have created beautiful work using iPhones. A few days prior, Mendes snapped a picture on a dog walk of a muddy footprint because it resembled a footprint on the moon.
“I’m not opposed to any method of image capturing. I don’t care how you capture the image; it’s the image that matters,” Mendes said.
But before the age of the desktop downloadable Adobe Suite and the Instagram filter, Mendes was a Kernel reporter.
“I started working for the Kernel my first semester at UK, and it was a pretty radical newspaper back then with very bright, smart and passionate people who were involved, who were very impressive to me, and they were running this daily paper,” Mendes said. “Being given assignments and having to call people and go visit them to interview them… got me out into the college community and opened my eyes to a lot of things.”
New Orleans had just integrated the first and second grades when Mendes packed up and headed to move into his freshman dorm at UK, so this was the first time he experienced an integrated school environment. For the Kernel, Mendes covered Black Student Union meetings, and he started to make friends through this interaction.
“One of [my new friends] took me back to his apartment, put on a record by Hugh Masekela, an African musician, and he started talking about Africa and it was like the scales fell from my eyes and I suddenly realized,” Mendes said. “We weren’t taught civil rights, we weren’t taught black history in Louisiana schools when I was growing up. I didn’t know anything about the black experience and here was this wonderful, handsome, smart man telling me about it, and, wow.”
During his time on staff, Mendes also moved up to sports editor the same year that black football players were first allowed to play on UK's team. Nate Northington, Greg Page, Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg were among the first black players in the SEC, and Mendes remembers covering their journey and their struggles quite vividly.
“They were threatened," he said. "Their lives were threatened. They persevered.”
Journalism took Mendes to Houston, where he worked as an intern at Newsweek, “back when interns got paid,” for two consecutive summers. He was tasked with assignments such as flying up to the headquarters in New York City to deliver 25 photos from the moon landing so they could go into print the next day.
Although he was dedicated to his work and beginning to earn bylines, he recognized early on that journalistic-style writing wasn’t enough for him.
“One thing I learned was that I wanted something more than the who, what, where, when, why and how,” Mendes said.
So he switched his major to literature, although he stayed on as a stringer for Newsweek because he “got paid for it.” He incorporates writing into his career now by creating paragraphs to accompany his photos in his books, for example. His book, 40/40, is a collection of 40 portraits taken in 40 years of friends and family, and he summarizes their lives and accomplishments beside each photo.
Mendes doesn’t need to keep up his stringer gig anymore. He’s been published in magazines such as the New Yorker (they received the photos despite the Wi-Fi issue), exhibited in art shows in museums across the country and featured in books of poetry by other artists. Making opportunities for yourself and being open to collaborations with other artists is one of Mendes’ greatest pieces of advice.
“I would recommend to young photographers that they seek out other artists and have a wide world view and be open and receptive,” Mendes said. “It’s all about paying attention and bringing in all this info and all that we hear and see every day. That all goes into our visual databank and our databank of words and how words fit together.”
Mendes pays attention, and he brings all his tools of the trade with him just in case an opportunity, like that muddy moon footprint, arises.
“Sometimes I don’t know what’s going to be the best format to use, what color, small negative, large negative, so it’s just a bigger world when you’ve got more options,” Mendes said. “And my wife always says how many cameras do you have to be carrying today? Well just three, you know, as many as my knees will hold up under.”