Updated: Sep 7, 2020
For nearly fifty years now, photographer Al Rendon has been documenting his hometown, San Antonio. Starting when he was just sixteen, capturing the visits of big-name rock bands to the city, he’s continued with photos of Conjunto and Tejano musicians, local artists, street food purveyors, charreada riders, and ordinary citizens.
Rendon still remembers fondly how, as a teenager, he ‘weaseled’ his way backstage at San Antonio rock concerts to get photos of big stars like Rod Stewart, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin, rushed home to develop and print them, and headed back once again to talk his way into after-parties and sell the photos to the stars and their entourages.
“I had so much fun, I can’t hear anymore,” Al jokes. But he says that the experience taught him lessons about the business side of photography. It also taught him how to capture moments and people on film, on the fly.
Today he’s an established commercial photographer whose art photos appear in books, in the Smithsonian, and in museums in Chicago, Houston, China and elsewhere throughout the U.S. and the Americas. But he’s always stayed focused on ‘mi cultura’. And his commercial photography has always served as a springboard for his more personal art photography.
An early example of that ‘mi cultura’ focus and the commercial / art cross-pollination is his photography of musicians — first Conjunto musicians, then Tejano bands, and culminating with his many photographic sessions with Selena.
That all started when he became the official photographer for the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center Tejano Conjunto Festival in the mid-1980s.
“It came very naturally for me to cover that festival and those musicians,” Rendon says, “because I was already familiar with photographing musicians from all the times I did rock and roll bands…and now I switched over to Conjunto, and to me it was very natural because coming from a Hispanic, Latino family, a Mexican family, I was used to hearing that music played a lot because my dad listened and played that music all the time when he was working in his shop.”
Photographing those musicians was a big part of Rendon’s work for years. He photographed them at the Festival, of course, but he also worked with them outside that event.
Among other things, he did a lot of album cover photography.
“I could cross the language barrier because a lot of these Tejano bands were coming out of the border and from Mexico. And a lot of them didn't speak English.”
Rendon took the musicians seriously. Other photographers, who weren’t themselves into the music scene, had an attitude of “Oh, let's just get them in the studio and take a bunch of pictures and see what happens.”
Rendon’s approach was different. “We usually would set up a meeting where I would sit down with the head of the band, with their management, the record company, and we’d sort of talk about, 'Okay, you've recorded all this music. We're getting ready to do your album. What is your music about? What is the concept so that we can take a picture of the band that kind of illustrates the music you're producing.'”
That approach led him to the top of the Tejano music genre: He photographed Selena.
Rendon became Selena’s ‘go-to’ photographer. He did promotional work, ads, and an album cover. And recently, one of his shots of Selena was used as a People magazine cover.
It was also a commercial assignment that introduced Rendon to the charreada — the Mexican rodeo.
Rendon first saw a charreada when he took photos of it on assignment for the Fiesta Commission.
“The first time I went to a charreada, I just fell in love with that. And I thought this was the most beautiful thing to photograph” he told us.
“I took my photographs for the commission, but while I was there, I always took extra film because I wanted to shoot stuff for myself. Eventually I started exhibiting those photos and selling those photos as art. So a lot of times, my artwork would be a result of me being introduced to something commercially.”
The result are photos — both color and black and white — that document the pageantry and beauty of that event.
From the start, Rendon learned the nitty-gritty, behind-the-scenes mechanics of his art and profession.
As a high school freshman at Central Catholic, he worked in the darkroom. That’s all the freshmen were allowed to do.
“They would teach us how to develop the negatives and, you know, they waited till we were very proficient at doing that before they said, okay, now you can make proof sheets, and then, okay, now you can make prints. And this was all before we could ever take a picture, before they would even hand me a camera. First, you’ve got to learn how to do all this dark room stuff.”
“By the time I was a sophomore, they let me take the cameras out.”
“It was very fortunate for me to learn photography that way, because I learned kind of from behind the scenes before actually taking pictures.”
Rendon committed early to photography as a profession. And it did take commitment. He wanted to pursue photography, but his family and his teachers were pushing him toward college and a career in something like law or medicine.
His father, he says, supported him in his choice. His father was a woodworker and woodcarver who, in order to support his family, had held a ‘real’ job for most of his life, turning to his first love — woodworking — only when he retired.
Rendon managed to make a living in the business early on, but not necessarily doing the photography he wanted to do. He worked in photographic labs, developing the work of other photographers, and he apprenticed with established photographers, doing weddings and commercial work.
That work gave him a solid grounding, he says today. He learned the mechanics. He learned how other photographers approached their craft. And he learned the business side of photography.
Al Rendon is pretty well known in the Lavaca and King William neighborhoods. Equally well-known is the historic building in which he lives and has his studio.
Rendon and his brother bought the building at 733 South Alamo in 2001. At the time, the building was broken up into multiple offices on the first floor and short-term room rentals on the second floor. The second floor, he says, was “almost third world conditions … and that's where we wanted to live eventually.”
Making it livable took a lot of work on the part of Rendon, his wife Liz, and his brother Gerard.
“For the first two years, all we did was demolition on the upstairs and take out everything, so we could start over. And then eventually we got a grant to redo the exterior.”
“We renovated the upstairs to where me and my wife have our living space and my brother has his bachelor pad.”
“Downstairs, we removed a lot of walls. We took up all the carpeting and flooring and just exposed the concrete.”
“It was a long process. It took us about five, six years to make this place really livable and nice.”
An unexpected upside to the renovation, Rendon says, is that the impracticality of installing a darkroom in the building pushed him to more rapidly transition to a fully digital approach to his work.
The mechanics of his craft
A lot of photography happens in the darkroom — or, in today’s world — in software tools like Photoshop. That’s where photographers take the raw photograph they’ve captured and draw out of it the image that represents what they want you to see.
Raw photographs — whether digital or film — do not perfectly represent the world. There are limitations in both media that prevent a perfect representation, and, in any case there’s no ‘true’ image — we all see things differently.
The original image is raw material, and the photographer as an artist, as a craftsman, works with that raw material to create a final result. Colors must be adjusted, contrast must be adjusted, the photo must be cropped. The photographer has a vision and works with darkroom equipment or software tools to achieve that vision.
Rendon learned that lesson early, first in the Central Catholic darkroom, and later, when he worked in a commercial lab and collaborated with photographers to produce the effects each photographer was aiming to achieve.
While much of his commercial photography is in color, much of his art photography is black and white or sepia.
Part of that is simple history. When he got his start, black and white was pretty much the standard. Newspaper photographs, for example, were all black and white. And when color became more prevalent, color-capable darkrooms were more expensive and complex, and most photographers sent their work out to commercial labs, thus losing the control that they had in their black-and-white darkrooms.
“I was never happy with the results I got from the photo labs”, Rendon told us. I couldn't control everything the way I wanted.”
But Rendon also preferred the look of black and white.
When he began exhibiting his art, “I made sure that they were in black and white, sepia tone. I like the warm brown color tones. I think they represented Latino culture well.”
His exhibits also gave him the opportunity to work with his father. “As a woodworker and a woodcarver, he would make my wooden frames and carve a design into the border. And I would always make sure I displayed my artwork in his frames to help them stand out and look more like folk art.”
Of course, with digital photography, the images he captures are full color, but his software ‘darkroom’ lets him convert those images into the same black and white, sepia tones that he used to capture with his black and white film
Rendon’s work today is still a mix of commercial and art photography.
And he still loves what he does.
“My lifestyle is flexible and it allows me total creativity. I don't have anybody standing over my shoulder telling me what to do or how to do it.
“I make my own appointments. I take my own photos. I get to work with some wonderful, creative people. I don't have the everyday pressures that most people have in a nine to five job.
“But in general, I just love my job because this is what I decided I wanted to do at a very young age. It’s been gratifying and very rewarding. And I’ve made a decent income at it.”