SOME CALL HIM the Gordon Parks of Philly. To others, he's "Mr. Tribune." Whatever you call Robert Mendelsohn, you'd be hard-pressed to find an African-American-oriented society event in recent years that he hasn't photographed for the Philadelphia Tribune, the Philadelphia Sunday Sun or another one of the papers he shoots for as a freelancer. And he does it all using public transportation.
"He goes to places at nighttime that I wouldn't go without a car," laughed Jerry Mondesire, publisher of the Philadelphia Sunday Sun. "The beauty of it is that he gets along with so many kinds of people. That's so rare today."
It may seem odd that we're kicking off our Black History Month coverage with a feature about a white guy, but no other photographer since the late Jack T. Franklin has been all over black Philadelphia the way Mendelsohn has.
Take this past Saturday. Mendelsohn headed to Temple University for a book event featuring Hollywood superstar Will Smith and author Sister Souljah. He followed that with a black-tie fundraiser sponsored by the Brothers Network at the Philadelphia Theatre Company's production of "The Mountaintop," a dramatic re-enactment of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s last night alive.
He's been known to squeeze a few spur-of-the-moment shoots into an already packed itinerary. Even without an assignment, Mendelsohn shows up.
"Sometimes, he saves face for some of the newspaper publishers," said Sonny Driver, publisher of Scoop USA, another black publication that publishes Mendelsohn's work. "He knows about what's going on - the what, where, who and when - before they do.
Mendelsohn, 55, grew up in a rowhouse in Feltonville, the son of a warehouse worker and a retail worker. His was one of just several Jewish families in a neighborhood populated mostly by white Roman Catholics. Feeling a little like an outsider at Clara Barton Elementary School, he gravitated toward a couple of African-American boys after black kids started to be bused to the school.
When Mendelsohn graduated from Olney High School in 1975, his father got him a job as a warehouse stock boy, saying, "I'm not going to have you be a bum." Mendelsohn never enjoyed the work but stayed for 12 years for the paycheck. He did some telemarketing work for Life Call Medical Alert and later for Sears. Nothing stuck, though. Then, in 1994, he took a job as an in-store photographer at a Kmart in the Northeast.
Previously, as a hobby, he'd hang around outside the "Mike Douglas Show" collecting autographs and photos of celebrities as they exited the KYW-TV studios at 5th and Market Streets. He had traveled to New York, collecting buddy shots with Natalie Wood, Muhammad Ali, John Travolta and other big-time stars.
But that Kmart gig was his first paid photography job. He moved up to photographing society events after a chance encounter at a 1995 National Association of Black Journalists gathering in Philly.
Johnny Cochran, the renowned defense attorney from O.J. Simpson's murder trial, was the keynote speaker. Since Mendelsohn didn't have a ticket, he sneaked in. "I wanted to take a picture of Johnny Cochran, and I found out that there was dinner was included. I said, 'Oh, why not,' " Mendelsohn recalled on a YouTube video about his career.
"I walked in with a gang of people, sat at a table, started talking and met a writer who was doing a story on him, " he said. The reporter, who wrote for the Sun, told Mendelsohn, "I love your pictures," and suggested that Mendelsohn shoot for the paper. That led to other photography gigs, mostly, but not exclusively, at black-oriented newspapers. Between his various clients, "I probably average four days [each week] depending on the time of the year."
Journalists write the first draft of history, as the saying goes, and as he flits around to political gatherings and news conferences, Mendelsohn is acutely attuned to his role as documentarian to Philadelphia's black community. "It's today's modern history," he said.
Mendelsohn, by the way, is a member of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists.
When he's out and about, his is often the lone white face in the room. But he's OK with that. "When I go somewhere totally white, I feel uncomfortable," Mendelsohn told me. "I feel more accepted by the black community."
Over the years, he's sometimes flirted at parties with African-American women. "My parents when they were alive, they wouldn't have accepted that," Mendelsohn said. "It would have been bad enough [if] I would have married outside my religion."
Mendelsohn has never married. He rolls solo in his personal life, just as he does as an independent photographer. "I don't socialize with a lot of people outside of the business," he said.
He lived with his parents until 2002. Not one to be choosy about apartments, he placed a deposit with the first landlord who returned his call - for a rooming house in Germantown - and has been there since.
Like New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, who tools around Manhattan by bicycle and famously lives in a tiny apartment with no kitchen, Mendelsohn's needs are few.
His living room is whatever ballroom in Philadelphia he happens to be in at the time. On the floor, as often as not, is a red carpet.