December 09, 1985 12:00 PM

Arriving in New York in 1979 with big-time dreams and a small-time budget, photographer Tony Mendoza answered the ad of a downtown painter who wanted someone to share her darkroom-equipped loft. He got considerably more than a roommate. He got Ernie, the painter’s 9-month-old cat. The moment Mendoza walked through the door, Ernie wrapped himself around the new boarder’s ankle and began contentedly chewing on his sock. The affection was mutual. Over the next two years, when he wasn’t earning a living teaching photography, Mendoza stalked Ernie with camera and strobe, often on all fours. All told, he made more than 5,000 exposures.

Taking pictures has been Mendoza’s favorite pastime since his boyhood in Havana, where he was born in 1941. After earning degrees from Yale and Harvard, he became an architect. But, “disillusioned with the office routine,” he chucked his job in 1973 for the freedom and penury of life as a photographic artist. The publication of Ernie: A Photographer’s Memoir (Capra Press, $5.95) caps Mendoza’s biggest year, which included a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and an autobiographical show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “I recently saw Ernie and told him he was going to be famous,” Mendoza says. “He looked at me awhile, then yawned.”

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