Louis Mendes has New York City in his blood, and symbiotically, the city wouldn’t be the same without him. Born in Queens in 1940, he has been roaming the streets of New York for over 40 years, camera in hand, searching for subjects in the ever-present sea of humanity. When he finds them, he delivers to them a moment captured on Fuji instant film with his 1940s Speed Graphic camera – for a small fee. It’s a hustle, to be sure, but to Louis it’s more than that; It is his passion more than the need to make a buck that keeps him hitting the streets every day to shoot. The man himself is a throwback to the era in which he was born, matching his wardrobe to his preferred technology.
He frequents tourist-heavy locales, like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and New York’s prominent parades, and some of his regular haunts are B&H and Adorama brick and mortar stores. Louis enjoys photographing photographers and they can be found in abundance in those locations.
One such photographer is Chloe Collyer.
As a kindred in analog appreciation, here is Chloe’s rendition of the encounter :
I met Louis outside of B&H with my Rolleiflex in my hand.
I knew his face from photos online. The analog community is only so big, but I was still star-struck when I saw him. Like a superhero, Louis wears a signature black duster jacket and hat to match. And like a superhero, he carries a shiny artifact and I assume he draws his power from it.
I approached him with my camera and asked if I could take his portrait. I asked, “Do you know that you’re famous?” “Am I?” He said, but his eyes told me this has happened before. “You can hashtag Louis Mendes,” he told me smiling.
When he asked me if I was going to use a light meter I laughed at him “I don’t need one.”
He seemed impressed with this and for a moment I felt on equal ground to one of my own personal heroes.
He told me he wanted to return the favor and take my portrait. I asked how much he charged, and he proceeded to tell me how he managed to fund his lifestyle using only his street-portrait business. I was impressed. “For you it’s free” he told me.
At this point, I saw his attraction to me in his eyes and I wondered if the free portrait was only because of this.
We talked about our respective cameras for maybe 5 minutes. His polaroid press camera is something I only dream about owning.
After this he asked me out to dinner and I found this slightly inappropriate, but not at all surprising. Men of a certain age do this to me all the time when I engage them in conversation.
I told him no thank you and he insisted he buy me dinner, I refused again and walked away.
The portrait I took of him that day remains my favorite of all time.
Meetings for the week were back-to-back, and I had no other time to go see him other than the last day, as the roar of the crowds began to fade, and the glitter began to settle. I wasn’t even sure he’d be there, but with fingers crossed I bolted out to find him.
I went right up to introduce myself and I can see, without hesitation, how he’s a charmer. He’s got that glimmer in his eye, so that he should’ve invited a girl out to dinner many a decade younger as happened with Chloe, I find unsurprising. A surprise would be to hear that he doesn’t most frequently get his way. He asked, as is his custom, if I wanted to pose with the camera, and when I declined he smirked, and said, “Good”.
He told me where to stand and decided I was too tall to get me properly, hence the pose I took in the picture. I’m notorious for how much I abhor being on camera, and I’m not that guy to like or look at pictures of myself, but this one…I can see this one being special to me 20 years from now. I’m glad I was able to meet him and chat for a bit. A bit of a dying breed.
[REWIND:] USING FLASH IN STREET PHOTOGRAPHY | HOW TO GET GREAT PHOTOS & POSSIBLY GET YOUR BUTT KICKED
Recently the New York Post created a great cameo of Louis, encapsulating his drive and his style. The quote, “Why do I take pictures every day? It’s like, why do I breathe every day?” describes what has kept him going all these years. Check out the short video, it’s inspiring to watch someone so in love with their craft speak about that passion.
If you’ve met Louis Mendes, please feel free to share your story in the comments!