David Mendelsohn
Finding Fame, Fortune, And Fun

If was on a plane about two years ago and noticed an article in a photo publication about photographers successfully utilizing their web sites, and David Mendelsohn was one of the three profiled photographers. Imagine my surprise when I noticed that I, "Mr. Well-Rounded," had not heard of this talented shooter. Then I noticed he was from New Hampshire, practically right next door to me. Had I been walking around with my head in the sand? After a visit to his web site I knew I had to meet this guy.

I "back-burnered" it until I received a brochure in the mail that featured several beautifully crafted and artistic portraits. Searching for a credit line, I noticed David's name once again. That settles it, I said. I gotta see this guy.

The following interview is pieced together from phone conversations, e-mail messages, and a visit to my "neighbor."

Shutterbug: David, looking at the type of work you do and your client list, shouldn't you be in New York or L.A.?

David Mendelsohn: I think if your style is unique and visible enough, you can live and work just about anywhere. I'm less than an hour away from a major international airport. I've got a couple of good reps and Wendy (my wife) handles most of the business aspects. The Internet has made the world even smaller. My web site allows clients from anywhere in the world to view my work instantaneously.

SB: Let's talk about your web site. You've got it divided into personal and client work. Why do you show personal work?

DM: It has been observed that there is a noticeable difference between my commercial and personal work. Perhaps it may be true, but I have a difficult time seeing it. For me, the distinction between both is thankfully blurred these days. I am assigned because of a certain way I see things. Our books get called in for advertising, for people, for architecture, for corporate. We even get requests these days for fashion.

We don't assume we do it better than the "specialist." We do know however, that we do it perhaps a little differently and that's what defines us.

By design or demand of the marketplace, most of my assigned work is in color. In contrast, my personal work is generally executed in black and white. However, if one discounts the medium, there is an obvious similarity.

SB: What are your requirements for accepting an assignment?

DM: I have what I call the "Three F's Rule." That's fame, fortune, and fun. If I can get two out of the three, I'll accept the assignment. Of course, all three's even better.

SB: Looking at your client list, I see big companies such as Audi, Boeing, Amtrak, and United Airlines. Why don't you tell me about a couple of recent assignments.

DM: We recently completed Sun International's annual report (a huge resort and casino operation) which had me shooting shoeless and suntanned, for about five weeks, in locations such as Mauritius, an island four hours by jet off the coast of South Africa with a temperature of about 85°.

We returned and, with additional help, frantically edited around 500 rolls so that we could make their deadlines. Two days later, we were on a flight to Banff in the Canadian Rockies to shoot an ad campaign for Aramark. We encountered more sunshine, but at altitudes of around 10,000' and temper- atures circa 20°F below zero. I came home feeling like a freezer-burned steak, edited, and we were off again to 80°F weather to shoot for the Bahama Ministry of Tourism. Sometimes, making it through customs is just as important as putting together a shot. Bottom line is that I love the adventure and diversity inherent in this business.

SB: Describe your shooting style for me.

DM: Meticulous may be a good way of describing my work. To be sure, the quality of light and shadow is equally important. As a matter of fact, I consider those elements as an essential part of the design. But for me, without visual order, an image fails despite the content. All things must be considered. Harmonies must be present for the message to be fluent. It all must come together symphonically. If there is too much noise, at least for me, it is difficult to hear the melody.

SB: Now, for just a little technical information. What films and formats do you shoot?

DM: I shoot anything from 35mm to 8x10, depending on the requirements of the assignment. Having said that, my favorite format is 35mm.
I like 35mm for the same reasons everyone else does--small size, great film selection, fast lenses, zooms, 36 exposure rolls, etc. I prefer the Fuji slide films and Kodak T-Max films for black and white.

SB: Many of your images look manipulated. What techniques do you use?

DM: Manipulation for me is a simple concept but takes on a certain camp mentality in this, The Digital Age. I begin to manipulate the image when I choose the film and the light I decide to shoot it under. I manipulate my subject further through camera angle, choice of f/stop, lens, format, and perspective. I manipulate my color by introducing various gelatin filters over my lens, some drastic, some subtle. I manipulate if I use a polarizing filter.

I manipulate when it comes to developer choices. I manipulate in the darkroom by dodging, burning, paper choice, grade, and choice of toner. I might take the final print, cut and segment it, run it through a Xerox machine, and transfer it to tissue paper. Subsequently, I might handcolor that from the back with every medium known to man including clothing dye and an ammonia wash, and finally reassemble the sections. The Zone System is manipulation. At one point Platinum was considered an alternative process. There are a lot of variables. They should be embraced. They are the essential tools which, in combination, allow an artist to find his or her own voice. It's plain silly not to explore options.

To date, I have welcomed my Mac and Photoshop into my life like a free Picasso. To be clear, as a personal choice, I don't do photo composite stuff. I don't put angel wings on a nude and have her flying over the Sahara. Frankly, I think it would be more fun to try that real time. Besides, we'd all be out there naked and warm. Nonetheless, it's quite fascinating to look at, and better when the artist considers the direction, quality, and color of light when putting it all together. Rather, I am using my digital tools as a darkroom. I may enhance color, change tone, eliminate detail, or dodge and burn as never before possible. Despite the up-front pains I traditionally take, I have never made an image that couldn't be improved. No one has. It's the impure nature of the physical world. Beyond that, once I'm satisfied, I can store the final information and generate identical prints whenever needed.

SB: What drives you?

DM: Like all artists, I am driven by fear of personal failure. As important as pleasing the client is, I continually have to ask myself if I pushed my combination of technique and perception a little further than the last outing. Did I grow or did I simply imitate myself? It is that factor, above everything, that creates my inertia and makes me a little despondent or deliriously happy depending on the answer.

SB: Thank you, David.

For more information, contact David Mendelsohn through his web site: www.davidm.com or e-mail: eyesite@davidm.com.