A couple of weeks ago, I encountered a photographer who occupies a unique niche in the digital era. Louis Mendes uses a vintage Graflex Speed Graphic, instant film (now Fuji since Polaroid has left the marketplace), and electronic flash (although he’d gladly use flashbulbs if they were still readily available) to take pictures of individuals and families at locations around Manhattan.
You may have seen him outside B&H Photo, or in Rockefeller Center during the Christmas season… Mr. Mendes gets around, and was even the subject of a feature in The New York Times back in January. It seems there are enough willing customers to keep him busy. Mr. Mendes spoke disparagingly in The Times piece of the digital photo hustlers who work the tourist areas, saying “…They don’t know aperture priority from shutter priority. This, this is me priority. All manual. I set it.”
I love it – ‘me priority.’ I had a Speed Graphic myself, inherited in the late ’60s from an Associated Press assignment editor named Dan Grassi, himself a former AP shooter. That camera has gone to its final reward, but David Burnett, one of my oldest pals, and one of the finest photojournalists of the past few decades (and still working hard) has himself used his 4×5 Speed Graphic (with film) to photograph recent presidential campaigns and the Olympic Games. It’s all about the discipline of getting it right in one (maybe two) carefully composed frame. And that ethic applies just as much today.
I used to think nothing of traveling on big international shoots with many cameras and even more lenses, but came to understand that the real creative challenge is to make great pictures with one camera, one lens. What I just wrote, “make pictures” I learned originally from the AP’s Dan Grassi. Until he taught me just what those two words mean, I always said “take pictures.” There is a difference.