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.

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]

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Wasim Ahmad is an assistant teaching professor teaching journalism at Quinnipiac University. He's worked at newspapers in Minnesota, Florida and upstate New York, and has previously taught multimedia journalism at Stony Brook University and Syracuse University. He's also worked as a technical specialist at Canon USA for Still/Cinema EOS cameras.

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

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...

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.

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 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.

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'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.

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.

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.

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 :)

Nice job on one shot!

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

This one's nice too!

Awesome portrait and story!

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/

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

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.