Kentucky Through the Lens

Image: Guy Mendes, Tobacco Hanging, 1991. Silver gelatin print, 12 x 10 in.

By Stephanie Hamilton, KMAC Intern

Guy Mendes is one of the most well known and respected photographers of the region. He was born in New Orleans, but in 1966 attended the University of Kentucky to study journalism. The following year he attended a rally where Kentucky writer Wendell Berry spoke out against the Vietnam War and the two young artists became friends instantly. This friendship eventually led to Mendes  meeting photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard.

Meatyard, whose work was featured in our previous exhibit Storytelling as Craft, Chapter One, was an optician and photographer living in Lexington, KY. The eyeglass company he worked for also sold photography equipment leading Meatyard to become a member of The Lexington Camera Club. He shot photos of people wearing masks to skew their individual identities creating bizarre and haunting images. Meatyard’s photographic style sparked Mendes’ interest and he became an unofficial student of Meatyard’s during the 60’s and early 70’s. He  learned mostly by watching him, trying to truly see through Meatyard’s eyes.

Mendes shoots his photographs on black and white film, holding true to traditions of photography. He uses a darkroom to develop his photographs on silver gelatin paper. Mendes’ interest in travel and story-telling, things he often did with his mentor Meatyard, led him to a full-time career as a writer, director and producer for Kentucky Educational Television for 35 years. A career in television meant he didn’t have to rely on his photographs for income, which gave him the freedom to photograph the subject matter that he wanted and without restrictions.

Guy Mendes is famous for his portraits and landscapes, most of which focus on the people and places of Kentucky. Of the eight pieces currently in The 7 Borders exhibit at KMAC, four of them are portraits of Kentucky natives. This is just a small portion of the work Mendes has done in capturing Kentucky history. More can be found in his books 40/40: Forty Years Forty Portraits, which are a collection of portraits taken over the last four decades and Light at Hand, which is the first book collection of portraits and landscapes from 1970 though 1985. Both can be purchased online or in person at the KMAC Museum Shop.

Much of Mendes’ work has been widely published in books and magazines and his prints are in many public and private collections. Mendes has also won several Emmy Awards as a documentary writer, director and producer for Kentucky Educational Television. He lives in Lexington, KY with his wife and two sons.

Bradley Pickelsheimer with Princess 1984 600

Bradley Harrison Picklesimer, with Princess
Lexington, KY
Silver Gelatin Print, 1986

Bradley Harrison Picklesimer was born in Lexington. Here he is pictured with the eldest of his three pit bulls, Princess. His dogs were very important to him, and very sweet. He began decorating parties at the age of 14, and later went on to decorate parties for Kentucky Educational Television, where Guy Mendes worked. Picklesimer also started several night clubs in Lexington, including Cafe LMNOP, where he said anyone could feel at home. He felt he was doing a public service, bring people together from all walks of life. Mendes says of Picklesimer in the book 40/40: “Bradley was always a real man’s kind of drag queen: he didn’t do fake tits and he didn’t have a stage name, but he sure cut a striking figure carrying in a keg of beer wearing six-inch heels.”

Guy Mendes, JonathanWilliams

Jonathan Williams
Shakertown, Pleasant Hill, KY
Silver Gelatin Print, 1988

 Jonathan Williams and Guy Mendes were very close friends, writing letters to one another and traveling together along with Williams’ partner, Tom Meyer. Although Williams lived in North Carolina and England, he was anointed Kentucky Colonel in 1974 for service to the arts. Williams came to Kentucky in search of his contemporaries, including Gene Meatyard and Wendell Berry. Mendes says “Jonathan was the straw that stirred the drink.” Willaims was a poet, publisher, essayist, and photographer. He, along with David Ruff, founded the Jargon Society in 1951, wanting to publish obscure poets. His poetry uses “found language”. He spent much of his time listening to people and gathering their words, much in the same way avant-garde filmmakers use “found footage.” Williams died of pneumonia in 2008. He is survived by his partner of 40 years, Tom Meyer.

Guy Mendes, Martha Nelson Thomas

 Martha Nelson Thomas with her Doll Babies
Louisville, KY
Silver Gelatin Print, 1987

 Martha Nelson Thomas created her Doll Babies as a source of income so she could concentrate on her paintings. Each Doll Baby was unique, and came with adoption papers and an introductory letter. At the Guild Gallery in Lexington, the parents had family reunions. There was even a waiting list for those wanting to adopt. In 1978, a man in Georgia that had inflated the price on Martha’s Doll Babies, causing her to take back her dolls, claimed to have invented his own kind of doll.

In a letter he wrote to Nelson Thomas he said “If I can’t sell your dolls, I’ll sell some just like them.” He then created the popular Cabbage Patch Kids. She took the man to court, and after five years, she won a settlement and tightened copyright laws for artists in doing so. This photograph Mendes took of her could now serve as proof of copyright, whereas before, she was denied copyright because she hadn’t signed her dolls. Martha responded, “I wanted them to be as real as possible, and there’s no place to sign a baby.” Martha spent much of her life working with children in workshops and schools. She died in May of this year at the age of 62.

Guy Mendes, Captain Kentucky

Captain Kentucky, a.k.a. Ed McClanahan
Lexington, KY
Silver Gelatin Print, 1972

Ed McClanahan, also known as Captain Kentucky, is a novelist, essayist, and professor at University of Kentucky in Lexington. He is best known for his novel The Natural Man, but is also famous for the people he surrounded himself with in the ’60s and ’70s. He was part of Ken Kesey’s “merry pranksters.” The group took trips around the country in the 1960s in a painted bus, while Tom Wolfe documented their experiences with psychedelic drugs.

Mendes has taken many photos of Ed McClanahan throughout the years. This photograph in particular is now the cover of McClanahan’s latest book, I Just Hitched in From The Coast.

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