Taking a Portrait of the Portrait Master: Louis Mendes and His Graflex

Taking a Portrait of the Portrait Master: Louis Mendes and His Graflex

If you’ve ever been to a photo event in New York City or taken a pilgrimage to B&H Photo, chances are you’ve noticed the man in the trench coat with the old news photographer’s camera – bellows, big flash, and all.

That camera is a Graflex and that man is Louis Mendes, an NYC street photography icon. Adorama documented the rise in popularity of Graflex cameras directly attributed to the man himself. Mendes has been at it for almost half a century, toting the same style of camera all along the way. “I’m the only one with this camera,” he told the New York Times in a 2009 story.

He is often be seen toting a Speed Graphic or Crown Graphic camera, and he takes photos of passers-by on Polaroid film, sometimes doing in-camera double exposures and handing out a print on the spot – for some cash, of course.

I had my first encounter with the Mendes in 2008. He looked like a walking anachronism with his Graflex camera, standing around Rockefeller Center, offering photos with the tree. He was charging only $10 at the time, and he made me a double exposure of me and the tree.

Fast forward to a few years later, and I ran into him again outside B&H Photo. This time, he was charging $20 for a photo. He’d doubled his price, which was probably a savvy business move. Everyone paid it. I paid it to get this photo of my friend and I. Not high art, but a Louis Mendes original, something with a story.

A Polaroid shot from NYC Street Photographer Louis Mendes.

A Polaroid shot from NYC Street Photographer Louis Mendes.

One of Mendes’ qualities is that he himself has no shortage of stories. He talks to anyone about his hobby of restoring these classic cameras. He’ll wax poetic about analog photography. One of Mendes’ qualities is his ability to talk to anyone as if he knows them – I’m pretty sure he never remembered who I was, but he sure made me feel like he did.

I last ran into him at Photoville in Brooklyn a couple of years ago – and he was up to charging $50. A sign of the times, but perhaps worth it to get a Louis Mendes original as opposed to a photo from one of his clones. I had a borrowed Leica Q, and once again chatted with him as if we were old friends. Finally, after years of asking him to take my photo, I turned the question around on him – could I take his photo? And so I did, capturing the image at the top of this post – a portrait of the portrait master.

Do you have a Louis Mendes story or photo? Feel free to share it in the comments below.

[via Adorama]

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25 Comments

"One of Mendes’ qualities is his ability to talk to anyone as if he knows them"

As a New Yorker myself I would say that's a typical New Yorker trait. In fact, that's a typical American trait, to the annoyance of some other nationalities, such as some from Europe that will get you a dirty look instead.

I had never heard of him. I will have to look for him the next time I go to NYC. Should be easy to spot.

Vincent Alongi's picture

He's seen outside the store on 34th, not far from their trade-in entrance.

Thanks Vincent; I'll look out for him.

Vincent Alongi's picture

I ran into Louis a couple of months back, roughly. I was coming out of B&H (with a bag in hand), along with my own camera in my bag. Came upon him sitting on a stool if I remember, he was chatting with someone. I didn't know him from Adam, but his outfit and the camera rig was a sight, so I asked if he could pose for a portrait... he obliged. Then he asked me if he could take my portrait. I asked how much, he said fifty bucks. Ahhhh... no. I said thank you and sorry, then handed him my own card.

Only been into photography for just under two years- Ironically, I work in the city and relish my street photography. Never heard of him before. Then I put my portrait of his up on facebook, instagram and 500px. Got a ton of love for it (and the photo that's gotten the most 'reach' so far). Maybe an hour or so after I put it up, someone commented on Louis, so I looked him up. lol. I believe I have his portrait on my own website... I underexposed his face.

Nice guy, obviously a history behind him. As a semi-jaded skeptical NYer, I don't quite understand the fixation with him specifically, but it exists nonetheless- so I'm not throwing shade. In a city with more photographers than pigeons, and over the course of the history of photography, I'm just not appreciating something that everyone else does- which is my issue, not his.

Anyhow, Louis seems decent to me and he's part of the fabric of NYC street portraiture / tourist capturing. Good on him, I hope he's healthy and happy...

Vincent Alongi's picture

And as I read the article, then my own comments, I can only shake my head at sounding like a real ass. One big point about Louis is his friendliness and approachability, and here I go pooh-poohing him. Duh.

I never appreciated a lot of things about NYC until I moved away.

Just curious Vincent, but are are you a native New Yorker?

Vincent Alongi's picture

Born in Queens, parents moved to LI when I was very young. I still live out here, but work in the city and/or Jersey City. NYC is the center of the universe for me. I come in on spare weekends to shoot. I can't fathom life away from this zoo.

I'm also from Queens, though today I stick to the technical and also rightly consider myself an "Islander." The exclusion of Brooklyn and Queens from the Long Island vernacular never bothered me when I was young but it does today. Perhaps it's due to listening to too many Islanders hockey fans complaining about the team no longer being on Long Island.

I miss a lot about NYC but I could never live there again. I am considering though somewhere upstate, perhaps no more than a few hours away so I can get my occasional fix of the zoo.

Vincent Alongi's picture

I rip apart the "chic" new Brooklynites. They look down their millennial noses at LI, and then I remind them I don't need a bridge or tunnel to get there. Ironically, most of those in question are from.... Queens. lol.

I love Queens still. It's diversity is fantastic, and it's understated in the buzz factor. Long Island City is the next big thing apparently, I don't know if you've been back lately.

Ah yes, the geographically challenged. 😊
I've heard over the years about those hipsters that have taken over Brooklyn. I didn't get to experience that part of the city the last couple of times I went back. The worst ones appear to be the transplants. They come from other parts of the country, or world even. No problem with that but I've run into quite a few online that then go on to pretend they know the heart of the city when all they have done is adopt a pretentious faux NYC persona that only makes the natives and the city look bad.

I spent my teen years hanging out in Kew Gardens and Forest Hills and so much time out at Jones Beach and Fire Island every summer. Such good times. The block I lived on in Kew Gardens now looks poorly taken care of. There used to be 32 mature trees on our street and nice gardens in front of each home. Most have been cut away and never replaced. Looked really sad. It used to look like a garden forest.

I was planning to go back this fall but health reasons kept me put. I so love New York and the entire NE in the fall. I'm retired so I can go whenever I want so I may wake up one morning soon and just catch whatever flight is available and go. I would like to catch up with old friends.

Peter Mebli's picture

Thanks for sharing. He can also be found in the bowels of Penn Station (why anyone would volunteer to be there I have no clue!). He certainly stands out as almost an anachronism amid all the bustle down there. He's very happy to talk about photography and his own history.

Recently I've seen him with a much younger guy with a Graphlex. Maybe a protege, or just a hanger-on? He may very well be thinking about retiring in the near future.

I agree $50 would be too much for me too. That said, I would be interested in talking to him because he's an old man and an old photographer. Sadly most people never really give thought to the huge amount of knowledge, wisdom and life experience of the elderly around us until they are old themselves, or perhaps simply retired, or perhaps only after they lose their parents. So much untapped knowledge and wisdom is lost every time an elderly person passes away.

Vincent Alongi's picture

I'm guilty as charged. Then I reflect on the mileage people put on in life and all the accrued wisdom. I wonder how many exposures he's taken, it may be absurd. And that's with film. And then there's the yo-yo's like myself that snap away with reckless abandon at times.

I picked up a film camera right around the time I ran into Louis. I can stand to use that more than I do already, as the real art behind photography can get lost with the digital format. Patience, composing, lighting, etc. You get one shot with film and you're left to hope that it comes out as you intended it.

Peter Mebli's picture

As someone who uses both film and digital (and only on an amatuer level) I understand your desire to use film. That being said, there's nothing wrong with a little reckless abandon aided by digital photography every now and then!

I've found that turning off the automatic preview and keeping my digital camera in full manual can replicate that experience of shooting film well. I've got a Fuji X100 series, so it has the added benefit of setting the shutter, aperture, and ISO manually when the camera is off. It also has a rangefinder-esque experience too, which is fun.

Sometimes I'll bring both types of cameras out on a walk, and let my mood, subject, and desired outcome dictate which one I use at any given moment. I recommend it; sorta best of both worlds.

Don't sweat it Vincent; I was just remarking in general about society. I'm one of those retirees and older persons I spoke of that appreciates more now, in that regard, than five years ago when I retired.

I have to honestly say that I shoot little differently than when I did with a film camera. A very similar number of exposures. In fact, I hate all the menus and functions available in digital cameras. It's just overload. Too much.

Vincent Alongi's picture

I shoot manual and would always suggest people to just play around and learn that way too. The camera is the tool, master it to achieve the look you want, right?

The discipline in not chimping is an art itself. I justify it to myself that I'm trying to nail the shot in-camera, and the review process helps me slow down. I dunno, it's all fun.

Matthew Odom's picture

3 weeks ago he overheard my southern accent while I was asking about great places to eat and asked where I was from. Told him I was from GAWGA and I asked if I could snap a pic...he told me I had one shot

This what I walked away with :)

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Nice job on one shot!

Waw i am shocked to see you folks so a feature on a black photographer, its usually about white folks who are full of themselves... BRAVO. One a year is a start

Mendes is a very Interesting character and a nice person. Here's my portrait of him.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

This one's nice too!

Paul Adshead's picture

Awesome portrait and story!

Mike Ledford's picture

He's one of my favorite people. Couldn't find a friendlier face in NYC. Here's my portrait of him shortly after getting my own taken. https://www.instagram.com/p/BQvww3fjDHT/

Adam Gronne's picture

I met Louis at the Photo+ convention in NYC in october 2017. It is hard to find a person so nice and easy to talk to the second you start the conversation with him. He took my picture on the deal that I could take his as well and I got this fine portrait of him with my Fuji :-). I'm looking forward to getting to NYC again one day and bump in to him around B&H. A truly fine man in so many aspects. Adam Grønne, Denmark

David Stuckey's picture

Last year I took my first trip to NY with my newly purchased D750 along with just starting into photography walking the streets I caught him randomly without knowing his story! Still my favorite picture from that trip.