As Selena fans no doubt know, April 16 would have been the 50th birthday of the young star who brought Latina culture to pop music and fashion. Tragically, she was killed in 1995 at age 23.

To celebrate the birthday, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History has tapped San Antonio photographer Alfred “Al” Rendon for 18 images of the iconic singer, posed and in performance, some rarely seen by a wider public.

Curator Mireya Loza has worked with the growing collection of Selena images and memorabilia collected by the museum, much of which is currently on display in several exhibitions including the American Enterprise and Girlhood (It’s Complicated) online exhibits.

Of the newly acquired images by Rendon, Loza said, “They’re spectacular. They show Selena in so many dynamic ways. We see her performing, we see her headshots, we see her in [advertising] photography. They are just beautiful. They’re gorgeous, large images. You really get to see Selena eye to eye and they’re absolutely stunning.”

Selena, whose full name was Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, will be the subject of the final installment of the Smithsonian’s “Latinas Talk Latinas” series of information videos, featuring Loza in conversation with San Antonio-based Smithsonian curator Verónica Méndez.

The two curators will discuss Selena’s iconic fashions and sound now represented in her music and the museum’s collections, including a recently-discovered television interview from a videotape found inside a camera donated by Univision. The 1994 video has been viewed nearly 4 million times on YouTube.

Rendon’s images – taken between 1989, when the photographer first saw Selena in performance outside the Tejano Music Awards being held inside the San Antonio Convention Center, and just before her death in 1995 – show glimpses of her magnetic personality onstage and behind the scenes interacting with fans.

Selena Quintanilla at the 1994 Tejano Music Awards. Credit: Courtesy / Al Rendon – Rendon Photography & Fine Art

At first sight, “I was just amazed at how well she performed and projected,” Rendon told interviewers for a 2017 Smithsonian oral history project. He’d been photographing Tejano music album covers for the Capitol/EMI record label, and when he found out they’d signed Selena to a contract, inquired about photographing her next album cover, Entre A Mi Mundo released in 1992.

The label rejected the first set of images by a different photographer and called in Rendon, who then had a chance to prove his capabilities. “It seemed like I was always the guy they would turn to when something didn’t go right. Then after that second time, they were just calling me all the time for whatever was coming up,” he told the Smithsonian interviewers.

Al Rendon

He also proved to be valued by Selena herself, who continued to work with Rendon for portraits, advertising opportunities, and performance photos.

“From that point on, she really liked working with me and liked the photos I did of her, and how I lit her and everything,” he said. “So she would always ask for them to hire me for different things.”

In all, Rendon estimates he shot 100 rolls of Selena images, many of which have been used by magazines and documentaries of the singer’s short life. Even now, Rendon continues to discover images that have not yet been seen, which he keeps in reserve for future opportunities.

Rendon recognizes the importance of being represented in the Smithsonian collections with previous images they’ve acquired, but called the new acquisition a “momentous achievement for me.”

He also said that were Selena to have survived past 1995, the two surely would have worked together to produce many more images.

“I would give anything for her to still be with us, but am glad I got to work with her and took the opportunity to document key moments in her life,” Rendon said.

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...