Robert Mendelsohn was fondly remembered as the “people’s photographer.”
On Wednesday, hundreds of community members, politicians, journalists and photographers packed Goldsteins’ Rosenberg’s Raphel-Sacks Funeral Home in West Oak Lane to celebrate his life and legacy.
Mendelsohn, 61, died of heart disease. He was referred to as the “Gordon Parks” of Philadelphia and has been widely celebrated for covering Black social events throughout the city. From backyard cookouts to upper-echelon soirées, he covered these events for various publications including The Philadelphia Tribune, The New Observer, The Philadelphia Sunday Sun and Scoop USA.
“He was a force of love and service to the community,” Chaplain Jana Mallis said as she delivered his eulogy.
“He loved the people he served by taking their pictures and capturing many great moments. He was a humble, yet very accomplished photographer. He carved out a niche for himself, which will be very hard to replace. He served all, regardless of any payment.”
“He is a role model for all aspiring photographers and journalists,” Mallis continued.
“He never considered payment as his only motivation for any job. He did not have much, but he gave everything that he had. ”
Mendelsohn was born in 1957 and grew up in Philadelphia’s Feltonville section. His was one of the few Jewish families in the area. After he graduated from Olney High School in 1975, he worked as a warehouse stock clerk for 12 years. He did some telemarketing work and then took a job as an in-store photographer for Kmart in 1994.
Mendelsohn started photographing society events after a chance encounter at a 1995 National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) event in Philadelphia featuring a keynote address by the late renowned Defense Attorney Johnnie Cochran.
The crowd who gathered at Goldstein’s funeral home laughed together as Andrea Lawful-Sanders recounted how Mendelsohn sneaked into the NABJ event because he wanted to take a picture of the celebrated attorney.
That encounter led to Mendelsohn being hired by the Sunday Sun. He was subsequently brought on as a freelancer by other African-American publications.
Mendelsohn felt at ease in the Black community.
“When I go somewhere totally white, I feel uncomfortable,” Mendelsohn said in a story written by Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Jenice Armstrong.
“I feel more accepted in the Black community.”
When Catherine Hicks became the co-publisher of the Sunday Sun, Mendelsohn was instrumental in encouraging her to attend events throughout the community.
“He was the ‘people’s photographer’ as we called him,” she said.
“He is loved by so many. He has shown Philadelphia through his lens and his beautiful pictures.”
She referred to Mendelsohn as someone you expected to see everywhere.
“When you walked in somewhere and you see Robert, you know you’re at an event where there is going to be some notable people,” Hicks said, noting that the Sunday Sun plans to establish a scholarship in his name.
From journalists to politicians, numerous speakers shared their memories and impressions of Mendelsohn during the memorial service, including his close friend and freelancer writer, Marsha Cooper Stroman; community leader Donald “Ducky” Birts; public relations specialist Darisha Parker; former state Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown; state Rep. Margo Davidson and City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown.
“Robert would be so surprised to see all these people,” Stroman said.
“He was well appreciated but I think he would have loved it even more if a few more folks would have shown it, instead of keeping it within.”
State Sen. Sharif Street and City Councilmembers Cindy Bass, Jannie Blackwell, Derek Green and Reynolds Brown presented official citations during the service.
“It is clear as is evident by the diverse mix of professions in this room that Robert epitomized the skill, affection and ability to look at the beauty of life he captured,” Reynolds Brown said.
The late photographer chronicled 19 years of her work on City Council.
“Robert attended every single event and because of his willingness to always show up with a smile, it became clearly evident to my staff that if we’re doing anything Robert gets the first call and the first opportunity to be hired,” Reynolds Brown said.
Mendelsohn attended her annual Christmas Eve dinner in 2016 and captured the last family photo to include Reynolds Brown’s mother.
Vincent Thompson, a vice president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists and WURD radio host, underscored Mendelsohn’s impact on the community.
“It’s important for a photographer to understand people before they take a shot,’” Thompson said.
“That’s an important thing — to know people. One thing that I think you can see from this gathering today is that Robert knew people. Robert loved people. Robert cared about people.”