Kickstarter: The Guy Mendes 40/40 Project 12.09.2010

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On the cover, Ace December 9 issue.
Cover photo by Dan Silvestri.
Other photos by Guy Mendes, courtesy Ann Tower Gallery and Phillip Jones.
[There is a typo in the print edition on the date of Mendes's KET retirement. The error is corrected in the online edition.

Forty Years/Forty Portraits
Kickstarting the Guy Mendes retrospective

by Bianca Spriggs

There was a time once where an artist could get noticed by sitting at home and sending out queries and samples to various curators and editors.  This was probably around the same time gas cost like $0.08 a gallon.  Nowadays, you got a vision? Then, with apologies to Asher Roth, you better G.R.I.N.D. until you grind out.  But with a website like Kickstarter in one’s arsenal, artists have a wonderful, user friendly platform to fund projects of all price-tags.  How?  By capitalizing (pun intended) on our country’s “something for something” mentality. 

Eddie Bracken & Ashley Judd, Woodford County 1999

Photographer Guy Mendes says, “A  few years ago I wanted to do a retrospective book and exhibit that would have been 40 years of landscapes, portraits, figure studies and, for lack of a better term, funny pictures. There was a publisher who wanted to do the book. I wanted it to be called CONFLUENCE. Then came the recession and its attendant decrease in funding for the arts. The next thing I heard from the publisher was that I would have to find the money for the book. I figured the project was dead for sure. About the same time I started hanging around with Phillip Jones and he suggested that we do a book of portraits. He said I needed more of a web presence, and I said, huh? A year later, with his considerable help, we used the web to raise enough to get 40/40 off the ground. It still amazes me that we have the book in hand.”

They raised $9,325 on Kickstarter with the help of 148 backers by October 4th of this year.  For every pledge, a backer got a little something special.  At the one dollar level, the backer received “the pleasure of giving,” and the deal sweetened significantly from there including a postcard signed by Mendes, a signed copy of 40/40, a studio tour, a private photography workshop, and your own “Bluegrass Portrait,” that Mendes would make of you.  At the $1,000 level, a backer would receive a limited-edition signed copy of 40/40 that included two original 8”x10” silver gelatin prints. 

Kickstarter is a website dedicated to grassroots fundraising for creative projectschanging the world, one brush stroke, one word, and one well-placed dollar at a time. Kickstarter’s “A New Way to Fund and Follow Creativity” mantra is contagious, most recently garnering nods from heavyweight media outlets like the New York Times and NPR. From funding an alternative to the world’s most popular online social forum, to saving the honeybees, to recording albums, or publishing books, Kickstarter says to the creative person with even a dash of drive, in the words of a gifted visual artist friend of mine, “You give me the guts, I’ll create the glory!”

Mendes is celebrating forty years of taking photos through the stunning collection of photos 40/40: Forty Years, Forty Portraits.  Jones has put together a stunning breadth of exhibitions in the short time that I-193 has been open with little else but shoestring and spit and what he says is simply a can-do attitude, “I like getting things done. We’ve run this space on $15,000 this year—we don’t have any money, but we have a book now.”   

As Jones calls Mendes “one of the most significant photographers in the South,” it’s no surprise he did not balk at an opportunity to showcase Mendes’ work on this scale, especially since Jones has known of Kickstarter for some time through friends who have benefited from its use in bigger cities. Jones says he will definitely use Kickstarter as a resource again. 

Mendes says, “I wouldn’t want to go to the well too often, and I have to say I wouldn’t mind using the old model, where the publisher pays an advance and covers all the production and distribution costs. If that doesn’t happen I might try kickstarter again down the road, after 40/40 goes on its two-year tour.  I realize not all kickstarter projects get funded. I’ve seen a couple of friends get funded and others whose projects didn’t meet its goal. So I don’t take it for granted that we could replicate the success of 40/40, but I’d be willing to try.

The premise of the collection and the exhibition is two-fold.  One, Mendes will open his cache of images up to the public for the first time in twenty-four years through an exhibition of photos (opening on December 9 at I-193) to accompany the release of 40/40.  The second, Jones says, is to give people a feeling as if they’ve just embarked on a visit to Mendes’ studio, “The idea of this book came from hanging out with Guy in his studio.  You show up at his studio, have a beer, and there’s a stack of prints he’ll start going through.  We wanted the book to be really personal and intimate, like you’re going to his studio talking with him. You get these stories, these very serious things, and sometimes funny things.”  And so, these timeless images are accompanied by a brief bit of context to pin them down in time.

The exhibit, which includes 25 photos, will be shown next year at UK’s Chandler Hospital, and will then be exhibited on a two-year tour of Southern galleries.

And whether we recognize the subjects of these portraits or not, some with more recognizable faces than others including James Baker Hall, Ashley Judd, Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin, James Still, Ed McClanahan, and Bradley Harrison Picklesimer, the viewer is pricked with familiarity.  Like running into long-lost acquaintances at the store or a party.  How do you take the face of stranger and make it feel like a friend? 

Mendes apprenticed under the late James Baker Hall (author/photographer/UK faculty/and former Kentucky poet laureate) in 1971, and went on to teach photography at UK himself for 14 years. His day job was at KET, where he was an award-winning documentarian as a writer/producer from 1973 until he retired in 2008.

Wendell Berry, Henry County, KY 2003

The book opens with an introduction by Wendell Berry, a former professor who turned Mendes from a journalism major to an English major, and whom Mendes credits as one of the primary influences who changed the way he thought about pictures (along with Ralph Eugene Meatyard). Berry addresses what makes Mendes’ work so special.  He calls Mendes a “serious photographer” among non-photographers and memento photographers, and observes, “…the serious photographer is apt to be a person knowingly and with unusual patience submitted to time, watching through the relentlessly hurrying succession of instants for the instant that will be most revealing of the character of somebody or some place or both at once.”

Jones agrees in his Director’s Note, “40/40 is a whirlwind studio tour disguised as a book.  Its pages are filled with portraits, verbal and visual, guiding the viewer through moments in the lives of 40 people who have crossed paths with the artist along his own meandering course.  From the streets of New Orleans to the hills of Kentucky, Guy Mendes has spent the past 40 years rambling around the South, twisting and pulling light through his lens and giving us the people and places we all recognize but were never able to see.”

Mendes says, “Since about half of the subjects in the book and exhibit are no longer among us, part of what I’m up to is ancestor worship, calling up the dearly departed, bringing them to light to pay homage and remember the gift of their spirits. As for the half that’s still on the hoof, I think we need to show them the love while we make our way together through this time and place. I hope, too, that people will enjoy the silver prints. B & W old school is on the endangered disciplines list, but there are plenty of us practitioners still out here, looking at the world through grey scale glasses.”

The 40/40 exhibit opens December 9 at Institute 193 and continues through January 30. Mendes will sign the new book at Morris Book Shop on December 11. 

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