The first time I had seen Olmendini was twenty years back. I was sitting in a Manhattan subway car when a tall, elegant man entered pushing a small, rectangular cart. It seemed odd to me that he was wearing a tuxedo and a red cotton shirt. And his head was crowned by an old-fashioned top hat. With great dignity and parsimony he began softly whistling and reached into his pocket to produce a long, multicolored streamer.
Over the next few minutes, he went through a classic Latin American magician’s routine. Things would get tossed and disappear mid-air instead of coming down again. A boring, nondescript handkerchief would be funneled into his closed fist and emerge as eye-popping red silk, and then unfurl to release a real, live dove in a flutter of wings. There were other sleight-of-hand tricks that led to the grand finale: pulling a beautiful, plump white rabbit out of a seemingly empty velvet box, its heart beating rapidly in its chest, eyes darting nervously from side to side. When the whistling stopped, the magician extended a long velvet pouch with golden trim and collected donations from passengers. Dropping a bill into his pouch, I thanked him in Spanish for his wonderful show. He smiled back and produced a small business card from his pocket. His name was written out in glittering letters on a velvety black background: Olmedini El Mago.
Already a famous magician with his own TV show when he left Ecuador in the early 1990s, Olmedini came to New York in search of even greater fame and international acclaim. His dream never materialized. Olmedini is now seventy nine years old, a stroke survivor and blind in both eyes; yet he still works the subways on an almost daily basis. To my mind, he is a modern-day Don Quixote, caballero de la triste figura, knight of the sorrowful figure. His dream of making it big in New York remains undiminished and every time he descends into the city’s netherworld, he does it for the greater glory of his art and chosen profession.
In 2018, twenty years after we first met, I was able to find and reconnect with Olmedini. This project is a photographic document of his life as a blind magician: his faith, determination and grit as he continues to work the subways of New York City to make a living.