Robert Mendelsohn was extraordinarily talented at being the only white guy in the room.
He made a living doing that, photographing black social life in Philadelphia for the better of four decades. He was a freelancer for the Philadelphia Tribune, the Sunday Sun and numerous other papers.
But that career came to a sudden close this weekend. Mendelsohn, 61, was found dead Friday night in the rooming house where he lived alone in Germantown. His cause of death has not yet been determined.
Social media gushed with tributes, from elected officials like Councilmember Helen Gym and state Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell to a cavalcade of colleagues in the media industry. For many, Mendelsohn was more than just the hired photog — he was a stitch in the canvas, particularly in the black community that he celebrated one lens flutter at a time.
He began working the scene amid the old-school paparazzi era of the 1980s. Colleagues described his stamina and passion for the work, day after day. He took public transit around town to shoot three or five events in any given day, from humble charities to swanky galas, from early morning political junkets to A-list afterparties.
“He had access to a portion of Philly’s black community that I dare say so many people never ever get to see,” recalled longtime colleague Bobbi I. Booker. “A large part of it was because he kinda dealt with being an outsider and being different. He embraced it.”
How this Jewish white man got that access is another story.
Booker described him as “always disheveled and occasionally aromatic” at social events, like “bumbling television detective Columbo.” But that disarming exterior belied a “shrewd media entrepreneur and survivor who was an unlikely celebrity behind — and in front of — the camera,” Booker observed.
He had a gift for flattery and ingratiation that never came off as less than sincere. Every woman was a beautiful woman, every man a sharp-dressed man. Mendelsohn went out of his way to entertain the children bored out of their skulls at public events. He had the rare quality of someone who genuinely enjoyed lavishing attention on everyone he met.
“Robert wanted everyone to be photographed and be seen by everyone,” recalled Hugh E. Dillion, a fellow social chronicler to whom Mendelsohn served as an early mentor. “He remembered everyone’s name. He knew their family members. He remembered every conversation he had with you.”
Or, as Booker put it: “He made people matter.”
Growing up Jewish in North Philly
Mendelsohn grew up in a working-class household in Feltonville. His was one of several scattered Jewish families in the neighborhood, he told friend and reporter Jenice Armstrong for a 2013 Inquirer profile. In elementary school, he befriended the first African American students bused in to his school.
“When I go somewhere totally white, I feel uncomfortable,” Mendelsohn told Armstrong. “I feel more accepted by the black community.”
Mendelsohn’s sudden death this weekend comes just months after he lost one of his closest friends in the black community: Davida Godett, an advocate for stroke awareness, died in May. Friends say the two were extremely close, and Godett’s death crushed Mendelsohn. He posted photos of her frequently on his Facebook and Instagram in recent weeks.
When other white families began to flee North Philadelphia in 1960s and 1970s, the Mendelsohns stayed rooted.
He graduated from Olney High School in 1975, and worked odd jobs until he landed a gig as an in-store K-Mart photographer. In his free time, the budding documentarian would hang out outside tapings of the legendary Mike Douglas Show in Center City, snagging photos and autographs with celebrity guests.
He waylaid that passion into his first photojournalist gigs, and in no time become a recognized face at numerous events.
“He transcended the lens with an always friendly smile,” said Manuel McDonnell Smith, president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists — where Mendelsohn was a member. “There was a comfort in seeing him at an event. You knew that he would snap all of the right people and all of the right moments.”
Mendelsohn himself made cameos in pictures from time to time, posting old prints of himself mugging with everyone from TV personality Johnny Carson to actress Ethel Merman to (less enthusiastically) former President Ronald Reagan.
Friends and colleagues say there wasn’t a place Mendelsohn went in Philadelphia he wasn’t welcomed like an old friend.
When singer Jill Scott returned to her native city for a show in the early 2000s, Booker recalled waiting with a gaggle of reporters to do interviews with the national star. Scott entered the press scrum and beelined through the crowd for Mendelsohn. She threw her arms around him and planted a big smooch right on his lips.
Scott looked Mendelsohn in the eyes, Booker recalls, and said something that described his parting gift to so many in the city.
“You were the only one who was there before everyone else. You took my picture when it mattered.”