Object Lesson: On Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana by Guy Mendes

Guy Mendes (American, b. 1948), On Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana, 1975, Gelatin silver print, Gift of the artist, 78.167

Many of us can name a work of art, music, or literature that provokes an emotional or even a physical reaction. This photograph by Guy Mendes has that quality, and can inspire an incredible sense of lightness and peace. The photograph is beautiful in its simplicity. The soft bend in the wrinkled sail allows us to see an otherwise invisible breeze that was too soft to raise whitecaps on the lake’s surface, but might have blown strong enough to cool one’s face on a warm afternoon at the Lakefront. Mendes rendered the three layers (water, sky, and cloth) in the brightest of gray tones, and they stack on top of each other with very subtle changes in gradation. We know instinctively that the sailcloth is closer to us than the clouds, but the camera’s tendency to flatten space blends them cohesively on the same picture plane.

Photography has often been described as freezing discrete moments of time, slicing the present away from the past and the future and fixing it onto a surface so that we can look at it with new attention. Considered that way, a photograph makes a good metaphor for the practice of mindfulness, or deliberately focusing one’s awareness on the current moment; checking in with physical sensations and emotional feelings with the goal of slowing down and being mentally present in that moment. While it is also true that the second a photograph is made, the slice of the present it captures has already passed, we also speak of a photography’s propensity to transport our imagination to a singular beat in time. To the extent that we can hold a photograph like this one in our mind, then, that gentle breeze blows all the way from 1975 to our present. For this writer, Mendes’ photograph serves a reminder to pause for a moment, to take a deep breath and be mindful.

Born and raised in New Orleans, Guy Mendes went off to college at the University of Kentucky, where he studied writing with Wendell Berry and began making photographs with this friend Ralph Eugene Meatyard. Mendes’ photography has ranged from commercial work to penetrating portraits, to landscapes focused on the environment and preservation. Much of his work reflects his interest in the idiosyncrasies of the American south and, like this photograph, features Mendes’ strong poetic sensibility.

Brian Piper, Mellon Foundation Assistant Curator of Photography

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