Al Rendon’s retrospective exhibit at the Witte Museum in San Antonio is both illuminating and fascinating. It is illuminating because the artist demonstrates a keen ability to capture available light and shadows with his lens, at times giving his images a near-magical quality. It is fascinating because of its complexity and broad range of subjects. Witte Texas History Curator Bruce Shackelford noted, “As works of art, Al Rendon’s images speak for themselves.” Rendon’s photos document 50 years of
Latino and Mexican culture in San Antonio.
Rendon reveals a personal side in the Witte show that we have not seen in his previous photographic exhibits or publications. This exhibit called “Mi Cultura” includes a theme of mi familia. Rendon was so fond of his photo of “Tia Lupe” [Aunt Lupe] that he insisted that it be on the cover of the Witte book publication of the exhibit.
Rendon’s photo of Tia Lupe, whom he describes as a caring second mother, captures her standing by her bedspread with an embellished image of the Virgin Guadalupe. Tia Lupe lived across the street from Rendon’s family on Texas Avenue near Woodlawn Lake. His brother Gerard shares a home with Al and his wife Liz in the beautiful yellow historic building they bought and remodeled on South Alamo Street. Gerard inherited the bed and bedspread. In addition, many of the photos in the exhibit are placed in handsome wood-carved frames made by Rendon’s father Enrique L. Martinez.
Rendon’s passion for photography began in 1973 when as a sixteen-year-old sophomore member of the Central Catholic yearbook staff, he decided to cover the local music scene. He went to his first rock concert with his older brother Gerard who acquired an extra ticket for a sold-out Led Zeppelin concert. Rendon hopped on the shoulders of their friend Charlie Frausto and managed a
few shots of Zeppelin, the vocalist Robert Plant, and guitarist Jimmy Page before the security guards shined a flashlight on him, a signal that there would be no more photos.
Rendon’s photos of Zeppelin and the two band members were exceptionally well executed, and they opened new doors for him. That summer Rendon took samples of his rock concert photos to KONO Radio Station and consequently received an offer from the manager to cover Elton John in concert. Soon Rendon had backstage passes to concerts with legendary musicians from all parts of the world. The Witte Retrospective includes photos of Freddy King, Mick Jagger, and Stevie Ray Vaugh who is wearing a brigh Indian feathered head bonnet.
By his senior year, Rendon had earned enough money from his photographic work to attend college. However, opportunities in photography, which he considered exciting and fulfilling, led him to decide to postpone college and work full-time as a commercial photographer. Rendon spent the next ten years acquiring commercial photographic commissions and covering the major rock concerts in San Antonio. His photographs of rock stars Iggy Pop, Bonham Exchange [1983], and Ted Nugent [1975] are in the collection of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
Rendon’s first deep exposure to Mexican and Tejano cultural experiences came in 1981 with his work with the Fiesta Commission. [See photos of the San Antonio Charro Association in the exhibit]. Next came the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center [GCAC] in 1984. Juan Tejeda, the music director at the GCAC and founder of the Tejano Conjunto Festival, first heard about Rendon from staff members, photographer Kathy Vargas, and San Antonio advertising company owner Robert Sosa.
The Guadalupe initially hired Rendon for special events, including the Tejano Conjunto Festival. Pedro Rodriguez, the longtime director of the GCAC, saw many of Rendon’s early concert photographs and offered him full-time contract work at the Guadalupe in 1985. During this time Rendon assisted in photographing all the events at the Guadalupe, including the ballet folklorico, cinema festival, and the conjunto festival.
While at the Guadalupe, Rendon worked closely with Sandra Cisneros and Rosemary Catacalos who had started the Inter-American Book Fair. Rendon photographed many of the literary speakers including distinguished writers Carlos Fuentes, Isabel Allende, and Maya Angelou.
Rendon recalled that working with the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center reintroduced him to his Latino roots. He told Kathleen Franz of the National Museum of American History about his important discovery: “I wanted to document Hispanic culture.” Tejeda estimates that Rendon photographed more than 300 artists for the Guadalupe in the 1980s and 1990s, especially during the Tejano Conjunto Festival. Rendon continues to attend the
Festival on his own time now while he makes his living principally as a commercial photographer. His 1987 photograph of Flaco Jimenez, the famous Tejano accordionist, is in the collection of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Rendon’s coverage of Tejano music led to several exciting opportunities in the early 1980s. His dazzling photos of Flaco Jimenez, Santiago Jimenez, Jr., and Emilio y Raulito Navaira are shown in this exhibit. During the late 1980s, the enterprising photographer had been covering the emerging Tejana Queen Selena when her band was performing mostly in South Texas. Selena liked his photos and encouraged Rendon to cover her and her band, Los Dinos.
Selena’s music world changed after winning Female Vocalist of the Year honors at the Tejano Music Awards in 1988. In preparing for the Witte exhibit, Rendon found an unpublished photo of Selena taken in about 1990-1991 as she seemed to waltz across the stage imitating Janet Jackson. The album cover photo by Rendon of Selena in 1992 for “Entre a Mi Mundo” was selected for the cover of Newsweek in May of 2021. Rendon’s photo of Selena which appeared on the cover of People Magazine in March of 2020 sold more than 1.5 million copies.
I first became familiar with Rendon’s photography when I returned to San Antonio in 1999. His photo book of the San Antonio Charreada appeared in 2003, and my wife Harriett and I purchased several of his Charro photos. I was pleased to help organize Rendon’s first exhibit outside of the United States. In 2011, I proposed an exhibit for the China International Photographic Art Exhibition that focused on a presentation of 100 images by five Texas photographers. Thanks to my UTSA friend, Dr. Don Lien, the Chinese committee accepted our exhibit proposal “Infinite Horizon: Visions of Texas,” and I invited Peter Brown, Al Rendon, Joel Salcido, and Ansen Seale, to join me to present at Lishui City in the Zhejiang province of China.
In the days and weeks after the tragic killing of 23 Uvalde students and teachers, Rendon traveled regularly to the community to document the painting of twenty-three murals in the heart of downtown Uvalde. Uvalde is a small town of 8,000 residents and everyone knew someone killed or the family of a victim. It is obvious that Rendon has the ability to develop trusting relationships with the people he photographs. Rendon’s photos of the mural artists at work and the families visiting the murals are extraordinarily emotional. The family of Jackie Cazares invited Rendon to photograph their child’s bedroom.
There are no words to describe the emotions this photo generates.
Fifty or a hundred years from now when people wonder what Tejano culture and everyday life were like they will seek Rendon’s photographs. His images accurately capture the essence of the Tejano experiences.
The Witte team, Marise McDermott and Bruce Shackelford, are to be commended for a superb exhibit and a marvelous book, Mi Cultura. Bringing Shadows into Light: The Photography of Al Rendon. The book of 80 photos includes all 61 selected for the Witte exhibit which opened on September 2 and closes on January 7, 2024. The exhibit at the Witte Museum is also part of the annual Fotoseptiembre photo festival.