Guy Mendes: Unframed Play

If you know Guy Mendes, you may know some of the things I am about to share. If you are familiar with one of his three publications – Local Light: an anthology of 100 years of photographs made in Kentucky, (1976), Light at Hand (1986), or 40/40  40 Years, 40 Portraits (2010), the same might be true.

You also may have run across reference to the man’s genius in Yale University Press’ new catalog that accompanies an exhibition of the same name at the Cincinnati Art Museum: Kentucky Renaissance: The Lexington Camera Club and Its Community: 1954-1974 (2016). Guy Mendes’ life’s work is being framed in many ways.

But the life of a creative person is never static and we who publish stories about them are always limited by the confines of our medium. Whether it be an essay, a book, a catalog, a video, or even an exhibition, we know too well that singular frames often cut short the contributions of artists who work in multiple disciplines as did Guy and many of his colleagues while working as members of the Lexington Camera Club.

When that frame is broken, when no preconceived notions are placed around creative thought and experimentation is encouraged, that’s when things start to happen. Guy Mendes admits that he learned this from his mentors, particularly Ralph Eugene Meatyard, in the Lexington Camera Club. Play. Search. Make something new.

This free-wheeling mindset was a far cry from Guy’s work as a journalist for both the Kentucky Kernel and later the underground paper known as the blue-tail fly (1969-71). Both publications were deeply immersed in the issues surrounding the Civil Rights Movement and covering campus protests against the Vietnam War. The deaths of student protestors at Kent State in Ohio occurred during this period. Not playful stuff.

Guy Mendes has had work published in The New York Times, Mother Jones, Playboy, Smithsonian Magazine, Aperture, and Newsweek. His photographs are in collections that include The International Center for Photography, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the High Museum, and Aperture Gallery, the Cincinnati Art Museum, the University of Kentucky Art Museum, and many other local institutions. His career includes the production of numerous documentaries while working for nearly thirty-five years at KET. His life’s work needs nothing more than a straightening on the nail every now and then. Right?

Wrong. He still loves hours of play in the dark room. So, within the confines of this frame and along with Part I: For Guy Mendes, It’s What You See, it is our hope that UnderMain is able to introduce a little something new, then ‘get it souped, get it dried, and print it’ – a phrase Guy uses for the reportorial mode of production. We have invited Guy to play with us and send along a couple of new images before the end of the show at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Something that we can add here for your enjoyment.

Kentucky Renaissance, The Lexington Camera Club and Its Community: 1954-1974 is on view through the end of December.  If you have not seen this show, we encourage you to go. Also, see Hunter Kissel’s new narrative titled, Kentucky Insurgence.

What intrigues me most about the exhibition and catalog – both authored by Brian Sholis, then Curator of Photography at the Cincinnati Art Museum – is Brian’s observation about what happens when creatives work closely together as they did during the years of The Lexington Camera Club. Brian calls it genius that emerged in that time. Not only did photographers encourage and challenge one another, but they also played with new ideas, ideas that came often from writers in the region such as Wendell Berry, Guy Davenport, Thomas Merton, and James Baker Hall.

Such collaboration was of particular interest to Guy Mendes as a very young photographer and writer. Falling into the soup that birthed the Camera Club altered his vision forever – the talent and ideology of not only photographers and writers, but of sculptors, printmakers and multiple small presses like Gravesend Press, Gnomon Press, and The Jargon Society. Numerous contributions merged ‘words with pictures’ in a way that jelled for Mendes as a young photographer and writer.

Here are a couple of clips with Guy discussing what he refers to as the ‘cross-pollination,’ particularly with writers in the region, what was going on between members of the Lexington Camera Club.

Guy Mendes learned a great deal from his mentors, beginning with his introduction to Wendell Berry (see Part I) while he was working as a journalist for the Kentucky Kernel. Later, in 1971, Guy served as an apprentice to James Baker Hall and was thereby connected to writers like Gurney Norman, Ed McClanahan, and Bobbie Ann Mason, all of whom benefitted from a strong literary presence in Lexington, Kentucky at the time.

A keen awareness of what was taking place on the national level in photography grew, much of which was learned by attending lectures and visiting national exhibitions in New York and Chicago. According to Guy, photography was just coming into its own with movement in earlier decades prompted by Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and Ruth Bernhard.

Mendes also recalls the influence of Jonathan Williams, who had attended Black Mountain College and studied with Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind –  ‘a hotbed of modern art in the hills of North Carolina.’ Williams was highly influential in connecting club members to this national scene in photography.

Today, with all the years of experience behind him, Guy Mendes recalls with great fondness the years of 1968-70 when he drove the countryside with Meatyard and Bob May – it was a time when he learned the value of play. He learned to search, but never with preconceived notions and while that play may have revealed the ‘uncanny’ or things that for some may even seem ‘dark’, that play was freeing. His recollection of that time is here:

UnderMain would like to thank Guy and KET for assisting us with presentation of a special insight into those times. In 1974, Guy Mendes, Martha Chute, and Stanley Maya created this film on Ralph Eugene Meatyard 1925-1972. The voices are those of Guy Davenport, Bob May, and Minor White.

Guy currently shows with: The Ann Tower Gallery and Institute 193 in Lexington, and POEM 88 in Atlanta and his website is: www.guymendes.com.

[ssba]