June 29, 1987 12:00 PM

by Tony Mendoza

There are word books and there are photo books, but rarely do the twain combine in anything but a mishmash. A notable exception is Mendoza’s mating of paragraphs and photographs to form a series of 45 humorous and surprisingly poignant stepping-stones through his life story. He begins with wryly affectionate portraits of his family—boisterous, close-knit and very wealthy Cubans who dismissed Castro as just another politician until they “found themselves living in Miami in drastically reduced circumstances.” Mendoza goes on to profile his foible-filled adolescence and education, culminating in his decision (after graduating from Harvard’s architectural school) to quit his job and pursue photography as an art, a very low-paying art as he quickly discovers. Mendoza, who chronicled the life of a cat in Ernie, makes this book look easy, but that’s part of its genius. He has realized that to achieve a true synthesis, word and image must speak the same language. Like his photographs, his prose is uncluttered, direct and always specific. Photographs evoke a subjective response by presenting an aggregate of seemingly objective details. Mendoza’s prose works the same way, and there’s not a single histrionic line in the book. And by distilling each story down to a single paragraph (often to just two sentences) he solves graphic design problems that have plagued attempts to combine text and pictures. The text blocks, rarely as large as the photographs themselves, add a physical dimension to their harmony and balance. This also means the words can be absorbed in about the time it takes for the photo to sink in. Mendoza’s modesty shows in his self-deflating humor, as well as in the book’s friendly size (it is almost literally a pocketbook) and inviting price. Don’t be deceived. This funny little book is as sophisticated and original as anything you’ll find in the bookstore. (Atlantic Monthly Press, paper, $6.95)

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