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.
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.