The Many Lives of Mendoza

Cuban refugee.
Ivy league preppy.
Hippie commune resident.
Modern New York artist.
Retired photography prof.
Successful Kickstarter campaigner and self-published author.

Tony Mendoza has lived enough lives to fill a book. Or eight. A photographer and author, the 76-year-old places his striking color and black and white images alongside succinct paragraphs capturing specific memories. A flashbulb igniting a moment in time, spectacular or mundane. We identify with his images not because we have lived his life, but because he is our friend recounting his greatest hits. The stories with which we’re already familiar, but goad him into telling again and again. Mendoza tags his tales with an accompanying belly laugh that smacks the air above him and then drifts away like steam on a calm day. He drops bemused and casual conversational bombs—like trying to sail on a motorboat from Cuba to Florida when he was a young teenager, attending Harvard and Yale, and taking an elevator up to his loft past Andy Warhol’s parties nightly when he was a starving artist in New York.

To publish his latest book, “Pictures With Stories: A Memoir,” the Columbus resident and retired OSU prof forged his own path. Confronted by unresponsive publishing houses, he turned to crowdfunding. And after a successful Kickstarter, 2017 will see the print version of his latest set of tiny tales, as well as a show at Columbus’ Joseph Editions Gallery.

(614) was able to pin down the indefatigable Mendoza long enough to hear about his past and future lives.

How long have you been cataloguing things?

At some point, I started writing little stories with the photographs. I started doing that when I realized that maybe I had lived an interesting life. I say maybe because we all live interesting lives. I feel in a way privileged that I’ve lived many lives. I used to be an upper class Cuban in one life. I was a very spoiled kid and I was wealthy. I was a morally terrible person [laughs].

What was the worst thing you did when you were a kid?

When you grow up in a Latin culture and you’re a boy, you kind of have the run of everything. And you’re allowed to do everything. So from the moment I was 13, I had the run of the city of Havana. It was a center of sin in our hemisphere, and I participated in it [laughs]. At 18 I left, but living in Havana was a wild place. I gambled, I went to brothels, I drank. I did everything.

When you were a teenager?

When I was 13! [laughs]

When did the political climate change?

In 1958, Fidel Castro came in. And in 1960, I left. That was my first life, then I came to America. I quickly moved into the American thing because I had gone to a prep school. I totally understood Americans, what they were like and all that. I liked it. I liked the whole thing. I just moved into American society pretty quickly. I went through an Ivy league education. I went to Yale, so I became kind of a preppy, just automatically. I bought clothes at Brooks Brothers [laughs], went to Yale and went to all the girl’s schools for dates—Sara Lawrence and Vassar. That was my second life, as a preppy. Then the next step was, I went to graduate school and architectural school—and that was in Cambridge—and I got radicalized. At the end of that, I became part of the ’60s. So that was my third life.

When you say you understood Americans, what does that mean?

American culture, in my opinion, was clearly superior to Cuban culture. Cuban culture was very traditional, conservative and all that. There was a sense that you did what your father did. That also implied that you would also adopt their ideas. So there was religion and there was property, and there was conservative political ideology, and so on. When I came to the United States, I realized that you didn’t adopt your parents culture automatically. If anything, you rebelled against it. I kind of understood that right away. And people were very open, religiously and all that. No one really gave a damn about all that, and that suited my personality. Socially… the girls necked. Cuban girls didn’t, so I immediately took to that. [laughs] I immediately became an American at heart.

How did you become a part of the ’60s?

The ’60s changed me a lot because I basically got rid of all my conservative views pretty fast. I took to the idea that the ’60s was about exploring everything. Nothing was off limits. Drugs, sex, rock and roll, leftist politics, everything of that sort. At the end of that decade, I moved into a commune and explored that lifestyle of living with many people and trying things out. Nothing heavy—marijuana, acid, that kind of thing. And then my fourth life was… I became an artist.

Tell me about your breakthrough moment in New York.

I had this box of really good cat pictures. I spent like two years and took like 10,000 pictures of this cat. Photographed him every day. I knew pretty fast I had a project that was gonna fly, because people really admired the pictures. Even good galleries in New York gave me a show of cat pictures—which is rare. I took it to publishers, thinking “This is clearly a book.” I got rejected like 30 times. I went to everybody in New York, and everyone rejected it. Then somebody said: you can’t publish a book of pictures if you’re not a famous person. If you’re Ansel Adams, you can put a bunch of pictures in a book and then publish them. But if you’re Tony-Mendoza-I’ve-never-heard-of-you, you can’t do that. You have to have a story, a text. The book has to be interesting to read and see. There has to be writing in this thing. After so many rejections, that made perfect sense. It was interesting, cause up to that point, I never saw myself as a writer. I saw myself as a photographer. I basically holed myself up for a while and started coming up with the text. The first publisher who saw the project with the text said “This is great, let’s publish it.”

With that success behind you, why did you turn to Kickstarter?

Stories, my previous book, got reviewed in Time, Newsweek, Vogue, New York Times Book Review—all excellent reviews. All the viewers loved what I do, photographs with little stories… I figured, “Hell, I’m just gonna write publishers and say, ‘I’ve brought my Stories book up to date. I’ve written new stories.’” And to my amazement, no publisher wanted to publish it. The Museum of Modern Art owns 65 stories in the permanent collection, and people aren’t interested in this? [laughs] F*ck this. I’m gonna publish it myself.

Mendoza will release his latest book, Pictures with Stories: A Memoir in the fall of 2017. His show at Joseph Editions will open Thursday, September 14. More info at josepheditions.com.

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