Rivard Report: What compelled you to begin taking photos of the Eastside cemeteries?

Juan Garcia

Juan Garcia: Cemeteries are fascinating places. Shortly after we moved into the neighborhood, I walked over to the cemeteries in search of our neighborhood’s namesake — Michael Dignowity‘s family plot. I didn’t find his grave site on that first trip, but was taken aback by the rich history I was walking through. Eventually, I did find the Dignowity family cemetery, but – having grown up in San Antonio – I have to admit that I was not aware of the uniqueness of the cemeteries. It was like walking through a history book of San Antonio and Texas.  I started taking images to record some of unique features and stories of the cemeteries and, hopefully, to educate folks about this wonderful hidden gem we have on the Eastside.

(Created with flickr slideshow.)

RR: What makes these cemeteries/plots unique?

JG: After we moved into Dignowity I began doing some research on the cemetery district and discovered that the cemeteries date back to the 1850s, that the area covers more than 100 acres of grave sites, that there are over 30 unique cemeteries, and that cemeteries are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The original National Cemetery for the military is within this complex. One block away is the Confederate Cemetery.

Besides the City Cemeteries there are cemeteries such as the Masonic Lodge, the cemetery for the Independent Order of Oddfellows, and numerous family church cemeteries. On the eastern end of the complexes located within City Cemetery #3 are the African-American cemeteries. The history around these cemeteries is fascinating. You can find well-known names such as the MengersGroos, Maverick and Mahncke. One of the most unusual burial sites is that of Sandra West, who was buried in her 1964 Ferrari!

Besides the historical figures that are buried in these cemeteries, it’s the grave markers or tombstones of everyday people who often catch my attention. In my treks through cemeteries it’s not uncommon to find grave markers simply marked “Father” with no name or date of death. Other markers tell that the person died at a young age or you find an entire plot of graves associated with one family. I wonder who these people were and what kinds of lives they led and where they lived. It’s untold and undiscovered history.

Foggy Morning. Photo by Juan Garcia.
Foggy Morning. Photo by Juan Garcia.

RR: You’ve taken photos from all over San Antonio. What are some of your favorite spots (aesthetically and/or historically)?

JG: Gosh, besides the cemeteries my interest is mostly in the architectural beauty of the city. I love San Antonio and have taken photos of the Missions, the River Walk, downtown, etc. Over the last couple of years my neighborhood has become one of my favorite areas to photograph. Dignowity Hill, like all of historic neighborhoods, has not only some wonderful architecture but some great history as well.

Along the Rio Grande. Photo by Juan Garcia
Along the Rio Grande. Photo by Juan Garcia.

One of the things I love to do is to document the restoration process of an old house. My wife and I have restored three old houses, including our own, since we moved into Dignowity. It’s fun to record the before, during and after images of an old house restoration project.

I love our downtown. When I was a kid my grandfather, and later my dad, owned a shoe repair shop on Laredo Street between Commerce and Houston Street. I grew up hanging out with the local characters. It was great to roam around downtown back then. The shop is long gone. The Vistana has taken over that whole city block. I enjoy documenting urban/city scenes. In a sense, I tend to approach photography from a street photographer/photo journalistic perspective, but also have an interest in landscape photography. One of my favorite places in Texas to photograph is the Big Bend region, and the Oregon coast is just beautiful.

Big bend grocery store. Photo by Juan Garcia.
Big bend grocery store. Photo by Juan Garcia.

RR: What are your camera specs (brand, size, etc.)? Did you have any technically difficult shots at the cemetery or elsewhere?

JG: I use a 12 mp Pentax digital camera. It’s an older model Pentax (at least three years old), but it gets the job done. Before I switched to digital I shot mostly Nikon. I still have several Nikons, i.e., a Nikon FM and I’m hanging on to my Nikon F100 along with a Yashicamat camera (medium format 120). I still like to shoot film every once in a while.

In regards to technical difficulties, shooting in fog can be a challenge, but it’s a great effect for cemetery shots. Photoshop is a great tool to have, but I don’t typically use it too much other than converting to black and white and cropping. I typically use one lens when I shoot, a 18-55mm Pentax zoom, but most of my shots are taken at 18mm (28 mm/35 equivalent). I like to get close when I shoot and I love the perspective that a wide-angle lens gives you.

RR: Tell us about yourself: “day job,” hobbies, interests, and what brought you to your home in Dignowity Hill? Are you a native San Antonian?

JG: I was born and raised in San Antonio many years ago. Graduated from Holy Cross HS, Our Lady of the Lake University for undergrad and received a Masters in Healthcare Administration from Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University). I work in the diagnostic side of the healthcare industry and currently work for a national company (AmeriPath) that manages pathology practices.

My “official” title is Regional Director of Operations. I oversee our markets in Arizona, Oklahoma and parts of Texas. I’m married to Barb, who has put up with me for 30 years. We have two grown daughters. One is an elementary school teacher,  and our other daughter is a police officer in Fort Worth. We also have two grandkids who are delightful. Besides photography, I love to garden, cook and I have a keen interest in old houses and anything historical. We’re also very involved in community activities and the neighborhood association, where I serve as president.

We “discovered” Dignowity Hill in 2006 through friends (Byron and Betty Sherouse) of ours who invited us to visit them in their newly restored house on Olive Street. This couple was part of the early wave of urban pioneers to move into Dignowity in 2004-2005. We fell in love with the historical character of the neighborhood after Byron gave us a tour of the area. As it turned out, Byron and Betty owned the house we currently live in. They saved the house from demolition and when we first saw our house in 2006 it was a wreck. The house had actually fallen off it pier-and-beam foundation.

One thing led to another and before we knew it we were the owners of a restoration project. After we got going with the project we decided to move to Dignowity once the house was finished. We moved in December 2007 and have not regretted our decision.

RR: The 8th annual Dignowity Hill Push Cart Derby is Saturday. Will you be taking photos or pushing a cart?

JG: Well, I’ve been asked to be the emcee of the event, so I’m not sure how much time I’ll actually have to take photos. But I’ll have one of my cameras along. Pushing cart is not in my plans.

See more of Garcia’s work:
Eastlight Photography: Dedicated to urban photography and San Antonio’s Eastside.
View from the Hill Blog: Ramblings, thoughts and rants from an urban dweller living in Dignowity Hill.
Old House Restoration Blog: Chronicles of an old house restoration project in Dignowity Hill Historic District, San Antonio Texas.

The Rivard Report is always looking for local photographers to feature on our homepage gallery – it’s easy and we pay. Interested professionals and hobbyists with a compelling visual story to share are encouraged to contact Managing Editor Iris Dimmick, iris@rivardreport.com

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San Antonio Report Staff

This article was assembled by various members of the San Antonio Report staff.