Sixty-one images made it into the Witte Museum’s 50-year retrospective of San Antonio photographer Al Rendón, Mi Cultura — Bringing Shadows Into the Light: The Photography of Al Rendón, opening Sept. 2. Among them are signature images of conjunto and rock musicians, Fiesta charros in action and other icons of San Antonio culture, including the ever-present Virgen de Guadalupe.
One image didn’t make it. During a late August conversation at Rendón’s photography studio in the heart of Southtown, the 67-year-old recalled an old Instamatic camera image he had taken of the July 1969 moon landing.
“Everyone is glued to their TVs watching that moment,” he said. “I’m like, I gotta take a picture of that.”
Rendón said he can still clearly see the photograph in his mind, a grainy black-and-white image of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin planting the U.S. flag in the moon’s dusty, cratered surface framed by the family’s giant console television, pineapple lamp on top illuminating the modestly appointed ’60s-era living room.
“I thought that was a great, artsy picture back then,” he said, “but I could never find it. It’s just one of those things.”
Alas, no prints or negatives remain in Rendón’s archives. However, the lost image and its circumstance represent essences of his approach to photography: lending localized, family-close context to events, acting as an agent of cultural memory and capturing moments lost to time.
“Well, I’m doing my work,” he said modestly of photographing his home city over five decades. “But it’s important work because you’re talking about places and people that aren’t around anymore.”
Pluck and place
Several of Rendón’s subjects have been lost to the cultures that adored them, most prominently Selena Quintanilla. His iconic 1993 portrait of the rising Tejano pop star hangs in the collection of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and is called “the national portrait of Selena” by Eduardo Diaz, acting deputy director of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Latino, in his exhibition catalog essay.
Other subjects no longer with us include genre-crossing accordionist Esteban “Steve” Jordan, dapper blues guitarist Freddy King and conjunto star Lydia Mendoza, images of which resulted from Rendón’s evolution from early rock ‘n’ roll photographer to studious documentarian of his beloved San Antonio cultura.
As a Catholic Central High School student in the early 1970s, an eager Rendón made himself available to the school’s photography department, taking an assignment nobody else wanted. The result was his first published photograph, a moody, spotlit image of 1972 Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern speaking in front of the Alamo.
Rendón’s pluck earned him the shot, having climbed atop a trash bin strapped to a light pole to position himself above the throng of spectators crowding the plaza. But his inexperience caused problems, the chief issue being a spotlight blasting right at his camera from behind McGovern. Darkroom techniques called dodging and burning — controlling how much light and shadow appear in the final image as it develops — rescued the only viable image on the roll of film.
“There’s a lot to be said about being in the right place at the right time,” Rendón said, “but it’s not about getting the most perfect picture … it’s more about having a vision and following through with it.”
During his phase photographing rock concerts, Rendón sat patiently in the front row watching rocker Ted Nugent gesticulate onstage as he played, long curly brown locks fanning out whenever the guitarist lunged to emphasize a chord.
Without an expensive motor drive gizmo that allowed many images to be taken within seconds, Rendón patiently waited for the right moment to click the shutter when hair, stage lighting, illuminated guitar neck, hair and the look of total concentration on Nugent’s face converged.
The wild image was stunning enough to elevate his status among rock photographers, earning many more such gigs and captivating images of such notables as Mick Jagger, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Iggy Pop and U2’s Bono in 1982 singing at a since defunct club called Cardi’s (tickets cost $4).
These images are among those shared between the exhibition and the accompanying catalog, which expands the retrospective selection beyond the 61 in the show.
Around that time, Rendón became indispensable to the Fiesta Commission as an official photographer of their yearly 10-day, multi-event celebration. In 1981, he was first assigned the annual A Day in Old Mexico and Charreada at the Rancho del Charro stadium.
He completed his assignment but was taken with the drama of the charreada and took many images of charros roping, riding bulls and wild horses and performing other ranching skills. Ten of those images are now included in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.
Rendón parlayed his newfound artistic intent into a series of images made for his first art exhibition, a 1986 Virgen de Guadalupe-themed show at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, which already employed Rendón as photographer of the annual Tejano Conjunto Festival. Selections from both ongoing series are in the show, and sections of the catalog are dedicated to both themes.
His Tía Lupe provided the initial inspiration for the series. The portrait of her standing solemnly by her bed with Virgen-emblazoned blanket is the cover image for the exhibition catalog and still ranks among Rendón’s favorites.
In another essay for the monograph accompanying the Witte exhibition, scholar Tomás Ybarra Frausto pays special attention to Rendón’s immersion in the Mexican American culture of San Antonio.
Ybarra Frausto writes, “His photographs capture the special ambiente of the city as a multicultural metropolis with historical and contemporary roots in an amalgam of European and New World peoples and their customs and traditions.”
He borrows a French term, flâneur, to describe Rendón as “an urban wanderer” constantly observing and documenting daily life.
Rendón took inspiration from notable street photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Tina Modotti and Manuel Álvarez Bravo, photographing among the avenues of his grandmother Benicia Rendón’s hometown of Nuevo Laredo.
Again, Rendón described waiting for that perfect moment when a great picture presents itself. On the family’s last visit to close the sale of his grandmother’s house after her death, he stood by the car preparing to leave. His eye caught the conjunction of the house with angles and shadows cast by a succession of outbuildings on the property. While framing the image in his mind’s eye, a little girl “came trucking around the corner,” he said, and he quickly snapped a picture.
“She came into the picture, and boom! I got it,” he said, knowing in the moment that her presence would transcend his original notion for the image. That picture, Grandma’s House (1985), was among the first sold to a Houston collector.
A ‘visual narrator’
Outgoing Witte Museum President and CEO Marise McDermott said, given Rendón’s history as an official photographer for the museum, it only made sense for the venue to host his 50-year retrospective.
“He’s been involved with the Witte almost that long,” McDermott said, having photographed many of its artifacts, made images for exhibitions and books, and having previously exhibited there in 2002 and 2008.
But it’s his immersion in the essential facets of San Antonio culture that makes him a ubiquitous presence. “We call him the master visual narrator of the cultural events of San Antonio,” she said, praising his “photographic grace and grit.”
Of families who visit the Mi Cultura exhibition, McDermott said, “they will see themselves in his photographs, in the food, the dress, the work, the culture. They will remember the scenes he’s captured because they’ve experienced it.”
Visitors will also take a trip back in time through Rendón’s personal ephemera included in the exhibition, from his early Instamatic and mechanical cameras to the backstage passes he was granted for concerts of Led Zeppelin, Elton John and other stars, to a recreation of the darkroom he used to develop and print images in the early years of his career.
But it’s the images of family that best express Rendón’s lifelong pursuit, he said — though where family ends and culture begins is not a line that he draws.
“My culture is my family,” Rendón said. “And I don’t just mean my blood family. I mean the family of San Antonio, the cultural institutions, the people, the artists, the politicians, the poets, the writers, they’re all important to our history.”
Mi Cultura — Bringing Shadows Into the Light: The Photography of Al Rendón is accessible with regular museum admission from Sept. 2 through Jan. 7. Rendón will be present for a catalog signing from 4-6 p.m. on Sept. 19 (a free admission Tuesday), and a panel discussion moderated by McDermott with the artist, Diaz, Ybarra Frausto, curator Bruce Shackelford and scholar Juan Tejeda will take place on Sunday, Nov. 5, from 2–4 p.m.
The exhibition is part of the 2023 Fotoseptiembre photography festival.