“What kind of camera do you use or like the most?”

“… Iris, for a photographer, that’s a dumb question.”

Fair enough. It’s a standard question that I ask photographers we feature on the Rivard Report’s homepage gallery and it’s the same question people ask me when I tell them that part of my job is photography. Al Rendon, professional photographer and native San Antonian, makes a good point.

He picks up his phone and taps the screen, as if to take a picture of me sipping coffee in his kitchen.

“This works just as well as any camera,” he said.

If he had taken that photo, it would have captured a look of surprise. I had assumed professional photographers were picky about their equipment – surely they resent the smart phone and the simplicity of point-and-shoot cameras, the kind that Ashton Kutcher is trying to sell. Well, you know what happens when you assume.

Self Portrait (c) Al Rendon. Taken with a camera phone.

“It’s more about light, composition, and understanding how your camera works,” Rendon explained, who has exhibited his work internationally.

These basic elements have stayed true through the transition from film to digital photography, he said, but that didn’t stop him from resisting that transition.

“I had to overcome my fear of computers, I didn’t trust them.” It wasn’t until 2002 that he went completely digital. “In the beginning it’s a slow learning process, but worth it (because the digital process) is just faster in the long-run.”

This week’s homepage gallery features photos he has taken of the River Walk during the past 30 years. The muted glow from the new light emitting diode (LED) lights have recently highlighted the importance of understanding those elements, especially for the non-professional photographer.

Incandescent Holiday Lights by Al Rendon
Incandescent holiday lights. Photo (c) Al Rendon.

The cooler color palette (blues, purples, greens) have tamed the “warm and cozy” feel of photos from previous years.

They’re trickier to photograph, he said, but he’s ultimately unfazed by the switch from incandescent bulbs.

“To the eye and the untrained photographer, they don’t appear as bright,” Rendon said. “But (on camera), you can make them appear just as well.”

Longer exposure times to capture more light in a photograph means a very steady hand – or sometimes a tripod – is needed to avoid blurry, distorted images. His patience and expertise pays off.

“Even if you know what you’re doing, night photography is difficult.”

2012 LED Christmas - just as photogenic, but not as warm
This year’s LED holiday lights: photogenic, but not as warm. Photo (c) Al Rendon.

“As long as they light up the river, they’re going to be beautiful, but ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder,’” Rendon said, “In the long-run, LED lights are going to save energy and last longer … over time they will be (warmer and brighter) as the technology gets better.”

But it’s not all aperture and shutter speeds. One tactic he uses for much of his night photography is timing.

“I take most of my pictures as it’s becoming night, not at night,” he said, “Fifteen minutes after (the sun goes down), the sky is dark blue, that’s all you need.”

Rendon’s experience, of course, extends way beyond holiday lights. After the yearbooks and newsletters of high school, he started fine-tuning his concert photography. Led Zeppelin, Mick Jagger, Elton John, Muddy Waters and Patti Smith are but a few among his extensive rock n’ roll portfolio.

Iggy Pop. Photo (c) Al Rendon.

“Everything I can do, I’ve learned from experimentation (and by) observing what other photographers were doing,” Rendon said. He spent several years working for more senior photographers, assisting and developing film in darkrooms.

In the mid-80s, he began to cultivate his own commercial photography skills and lab, shooting for clients like the San Antonio Visitors Bureau, Diamond Shamrock and the Fiesta Commission. However, photographers were among the first to get cut out of many companies budgets during the late ’80s recession.

The economic downturn became a blessing in disguise as it initiated Rendon’s segue into work with the Witte MuseumGuadalupe Cultural Arts Center and other  organizations that allowed him to explore his cultural roots and artistic expression. He continues to work for local and regional clients; commercial, journalistic and artistic (himself).

Dancer Teresa Champion and Guitarist Willie Champion, “El Curro.” Photo (c) Al Rendon.

His artistic series/collections reflect a deep understanding of San Antonio and Hispanic culture. The collection, Retratos, for instance, profiles individuals that positively impact the community. Local artists, writers, actors, business leaders, singers, politicians, dancers – some friends and family – are represented. A culmination of his life in San Antonio, a project that can’t help but grow.

Some are famous, some have stayed out of the mainstream spotlight, quietly contributing in one way or another to the collective “cultural soul” of San Antonio. It’s a concept that is not easily defined, but nonetheless is well communicated through his photography.

“These are the people that make San Antonio unique – each person, each personality, and each expression taken in a flash of time. Some of them are family or close friends, with years of conversations, experiences and emotions together. Others are known to me as leaders of my community, as profound influences. Presented humbly, with great respect for the footprints they make, these are portraits of my Latino community, Mi Retratos.” — Al Rendon Photography & Fine Art (website)

Rendon’s self portrait is, rightfully, among these profiles.

Iris Dimmick is managing editor of the Rivard Report. Follow her on Twitter @viviris or contact her at iris@rivardreport.com.

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org