Guy Mendes: 40/40 40 Years 40 Portraits

Guy Mendes began his photographic career almost by accident. A young transplant from New Orleans, Mendes arrived at the University of Kentucky in 1966, hoping to become a journalist. The following year, he attended a rally to hear Wendell Berry speaking out against the Vietnam War. The two struck up a friendship that would eventually lead him to Eyeglasses of Kentucky, Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s optical shop and gallery. There, Mendes saw photographs by the likes of Emmet Gowin and Bill Burke and was afforded the privilege of snooping through stacks of prints, dolls, and masks that Meatyard kept in the back.

Mendes and Meatyard would strike out of town on the weekend, wandering back roads shooting pictures and swapping tales, student and teacher. Mendes was able to translate his penchant for the road and story-telling into a full-time career, working as a producer for Kentucky Educational Television for thirty-six years. Like Meatyard, Mendes has never been financially dependent upon his work as a photographer, freeing him from the normal demands and constraints of the commercial world. Unfettered by finicky clients and fickle editors, Mendes’ photography, especially his portraiture, was able to develop according to his own vision.

All portraits, by definition, convey the likeness of their subject, but only great portraits impart their subjects’ mood, personality, and essence. The photographer and subject engage themselves in a delicate dance of give and take- a momentary affair immortalized. Mendes’ greatest talent is perhaps his ability to entice portraits out of his subjects. Jim Hall, one of Mendes’ teachers, used to tell him, “A portrait is given as much as it is taken." That line has worked its way into the rotation of stories, anecdotes, asides, and full-on performances that Mendes can recite at a moment’s notice, and has been a guiding mantra for him as he has waded through years of work to choose portraits that are the most revelatory.

40/40 is a whirlwind studio tour disguised as a book. Its pages are filled with portraits, verbal and visual, guiding the viewer through moments in the lives of forty people who have crossed paths with the artist along his own meandering course. From the streets of New Orleans to the hills of Kentucky, Guy Mendes has spent the past forty years rambling around the South, twisting and pulling light through his lens and giving us the people and places we all recognize but were never able to see.

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