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Tony Mendoza’s telling stories


Fall
2017

This professor emeritus may be best known for his beautiful photographs, but the tiny stories he’s authored about his family, life in his native Cuba and more touch the heart as well. Tony Mendoza’s work is in many esteemed collections, including that of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Here are some images and tales from his upcoming book, aptly titled Pictures with Stories.

Grandmother and Hedge Picture

Grandmother and Hedge Picture

PLAY AUDIO | Tony Mendoza

My grandmother Otrín lived very happily with my grandfather for 51 years. They met at a party when she was 16. Her family had moved from Santiago to Havana, and she was being introduced to society. My grandfather asked her for a dance, and Otrín recalled, they barely talked, but she liked him. Otrín knew they would marry when the next day a carriage filled with orchids arrived from my grandfather.

Man and Granddaughter in Park

Man and Granddaughter in Park

PLAY AUDIO | Tony Mendoza

I took this picture of a man and a child in a Cuban park. At first I thought this was a male nanny taking care of a high party official’s child, since the park was next to an exclusive residential area. (Most Cuban high party officials are white.) I was mistaken. This is a grandfather and his grandchild. Was the grandfather a descendant of blacks and his grandchild turned out lily-white? Not really. The grandfather is as lily-white as the child, but he has worked in the fields, and his skin is permanently suntanned. Does the child hand gesture remind one of Renaissance paintings of baby Jesus? Maybe, but the grandchild is a girl.

Dinosaur Park

Dinosaur Park

PLAY AUDIO | Tony Mendoza

Photographs are inherently surreal objects, and photographs taken in Cuba tend to be doubly surreal. What does this picture explain? Very little, and a lot. Some general decided that more tourists would go to Cuba if they created a unique dinosaur park in the mountains of Oriente province. So, I’m assuming, without doing much further research on this idea, they put to work an army of craftsmen to construct life-size dinosaurs, sprinkled them all over this desolate landscape, and waited for the tourists to come. The day I went, I was the only tourist there, and then a man bicycled by.

Cat and Dragonfly

Cat and Dragonfly

PLAY AUDIO | Tony Mendoza

I lived in Tribeca for four years and I always had a problem coming up with the rent. My portion wasn’t much for a New York loft, around $700, but combined with food expenses, and photography expenses, I was always short when the rent payment came around .... On the last Saturday of every month I would walk over to Soho and set up at the corner of Broome Street and West Broadway and would sell 16x20-inch black and white Ernie pictures for $50 until I met the rent shortfall. As the day progressed, if the pictures weren’t moving enough at $50, I would lift the paper sign on the brick wall and under it was a $40 sign. I would always sell some at $40, but if I was still short on the rent, I would lift the paper sign again to expose the $30 sign. The cat pictures always moved fast at $30. One day a curator from the Museum of Modern Art came by and said: “We have this picture in our collection (Ernie chasing the dragonfly). What you are doing is very bad for your career.” I agreed, somewhat embarrassed, but I had rent to pay. In 2016, some 30 years after they acquired it, I got an email from MoMA saying that the Ernie and the dragonfly picture (as well as the dog and the ant picture) will be among the 57 images in their 2018 appointment calendar. Whoever bought it for $30 will be surprised.

Underwater Selfie

Underwater Selfie

PLAY AUDIO | Tony Mendoza

Carmen didn’t quite know what she was getting into, marrying an always-on-the-job photographer. I figured my wedding was an excellent opportunity for a photo project, so I set up a studio just outside the function room in the Key Biscayne Hotel where we were married. After the ceremony, I photographed the long-married couples who came to our wedding and took notes after asking them for their tips on how to succeed in marriage. We went to Cozumel for our honeymoon and I made her submerge with me for more than a few takes so I could get a good underwater selfie, which later became the postcard we sent as a thank-you note for our wedding presents.

Ohio State class

Ohio State Class

PLAY AUDIO | Tony Mendoza

Shortly after Carmen and I were married, I realized that my days as a freelance photographer were over. Alex, Carmen’s son, had a terrible case of stomach flu. He couldn’t stop vomiting and had to spend three days in a hospital. The hospital bill came to $3,000. After I paid I knew I had to get a regular job with health insurance. It took a while, but finally, Ohio State offered me a tenure-track job teaching photography. “Can you teach sensitometry,” they asked. “Sure,” I replied. After the phone call, I rushed to the library to find out what sensitometry was.

Carmen's Aunt

Carmen's Aunt

PLAY AUDIO | Tony Mendoza

Carmen’s great-aunt, Adamina Maderos, is 92. She lives in Esperanza, a small town near Santa Clara, and we visited her. This is a story she tells: “One day, a friend of my sister comes to her house. She tells me his name is Ignacio. He sees me and tells my sister, you didn’t tell me you had a sister! I look at him and I think, he’s so good looking! The next day he arrives at our house with his big truck. He comes in and tells me, get in the truck. I say, why? Where are we going? He says, don’t worry about where we’re going. Just get in the truck. I’m thinking, he’s so good looking! So I get in the truck and we drive one hour to Cienfuegos. I ask him, what are we going to do in Cienfuegos? He says don’t worry about it. You’ll see. So he parks this truck in front of the local judge. He says we’re getting married today. I’m surprised. But he was so good looking! We came back to Esperanza as man and wife.”

Bob the Dog

Bob the Dog

PLAY AUDIO | Tony Mendoza

In 2005, Carmen had come to the conclusion that we needed a dog. Lydia, our daughter, was going away to college, and Alex, our son, was already gone. We were about to become empty nesters. Carmen was thinking that at this particular juncture, she longed to be showered with love and attention, and I was hopeless, a photographer serially obsessed with his current projects. A dog sounded just about right. On a summer morning, we noticed an ad in the paper, dachshunds for sale, six weeks old. We drove out from our home in Columbus to a rural farm 40 miles away, thinking it was a nice day for a drive and we would just take a look. When we got there, we noticed a long-haired male wandering about by himself. He was alert and friendly and the largest in the litter, the alpha dog. We initially named him Bowie, after David Bowie, because he had a blue eye and a brown eye, but with time, that got shortened to Bob.

Like what you see?

Explore Tony Mendoza’s website, a treasure trove of images and stories from this photographer’s eclectic, spirited life.