La Tuna Icehouse & Grill is right across the San Antonio River from our apartment in King William. It’s co-owned by my landlord, Mike Looney – so in the interest of full disclosure, I need to say that I love this place. Though I’m not much of a beer drinker, my friends tell me they have a good selection. They have three choices for wine: pinot grigio, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. No idea what the brand is, but it’s cheap and cold and easy to alternate with a $1 Topo Chico. The food is some of the heaviest, “artery-clogging” stuff you can find in Southtown, a far (and often welcomed) cry from the modern, more healthy restaurants popping up in the area. Sometimes you just need fish tacos and a cheap beer.
The icehouse itself is a work of art, slowly accumulating a collage of stickers, mermaid figurines, drawings and photographs of/from regulars. On June 6, fine art will be added to La Tuna’s walls via Stephen G. McDowell’s photography.
As a fellow regular of La Tuna and Southtown resident, McDowell has agreed to share his passions via the photo gallery above and the words below:
Rivard Report: First, tell us a bit about yourself – are you a native San Antonian?
Stephen McDowell: I moved to San Antonio in September of 2000 as part of a project to install a new computer system for City Public Service. I was responsible for purchasing, installing and maintaining the hardware infrastructure, so I was required to relocate. My wife, Holly Goeckler, and I have been here ever since. We’ve lived on Houston Street at the Brady Towers, in the suburbs out by Fiesta Texas, and in downtown San Antonio, in the Lavaca historic area. But we’re from Philly. We were both born and raised in the Philadelphia suburbs – Holly is from Abington, PA. I’m from Glenside.
I took Radio, Television and Film Production at Temple University in the early ’80s. Then I worked for a publishing company in the late 80’s, writing and editing for a series of trade publications. That lead to the position of assistant editor. Then I started a career in Information Technology in 1996, working with enterprise resource planning software and large-scale software and hardware implementations.
RR: How did you first become interested in photography?
SM: The interest came with owning my first camera. And I’ve had a camera in my hand since I was 14. My parents bought me a Kodak Tele-Instamatic pocket camera somewhere around 1976. And I took it everywhere I went. I shelled out a couple hundred dollars in 1980 and bought my first 35mm camera — a Fujica STX-1. The collection grew from there. I have a Nikon FM2 and a medium-format Mamiya 645 at home that I used for the better part of 20 years. They’re on a shelf, next to a dead Minolta XE-7 that can’t be repaired because the camera has been discontinued.
I went digital in 2005 with a Canon PowerShot S70 in 2005, and haven’t touched film since. But ever since that first pocket camera, I’ve been interested in photography.
RR: How do you achieve that crisp-yet-glowing effect on your night photos? Is it a matter of finding the right light or finding the right exposure?
SM: It’s always a matter of finding the right light. And sometimes, it helps to bring your own. The photo you’re referring to here was shot with an exposure of around 30 seconds. The glowing effect is achieved with a fill flash. I fired the flash at the structure while the shutter was open. And the fill flash did wonders to bring out the color and texture of the structure and separate it from the background and the evening sky. A modest amount of final adjustments were made in Adobe Lightroom.
RR: What are your camera specs?
SM: I use a Canon 5D Mark II with a Canon 17-40mm lens. I shoot almost entirely wide angle. I had a 28mm lens on my Nikon FM2 for over a decade that I never once removed. The 50mm normal lens stayed at home on a shelf. The last time I owned a long lens was in 1982. And I might have used it three times.
For precision, I use a Gossen Luna Pro light meter. And I like Bogen (now Manfrotto) tripod equipment – I own two that are at least 25 years old.
Where tripods are concerned, they have to be heavy and solid, I’m sorry to say. Drop 500 bucks on a carbon fiber tripod that weighs two pounds and extends to a height of eight feet thanks to state-of-the-art quasi-spectacular technical whimsy and you’ll end up with a fine-looking piece of design work that will sway like a reed in the wind. Pick up a big old 20th century Bogen made of tubular steel the weighs 25 pounds and you’ll have a stable, reliable platform and maybe a torn rotator cuff from hauling the thing around. But your timed exposures will be crystal clear.
My post-photographic workflow is a different story, and involves everything from Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop to iPhone apps. Digital photography fairly demands post-processing, particularly if you’re shooting RAW images — that is, native-format images pulled directly from the camera’s optical chip. The dimension and scale packed into the RAW image format is a finished product waiting to happen, and not a finished product in itself. Color balance, highlights and shadows, saturation and vibrance, clarity, sharpness and noise reduction can be tweaked with products like Adobe Lightroom, making the finished product literally glow.
RR: What compels you to take photos of the buildings/places that you do? Is there a common element that you look for?
SM: I look for immensity, mystery and grandeur. And I prefer to shoot during twilight. The light is actually perfect for my purposes after the sun has already set. During Civil, Nautical and Astronomical Twilight, when the sun is below the horizon, the colors of the sky can be exposed over time, producing stunning effects. Mix the indigos and violets of a twilight sky with the neons and incandescents of a city and you can get fantastic results.
RR: What makes a building or place “iconic” in your eyes?
SM: It’s interesting you ask that. I used the word “iconic” to describe a collection of images on my website after I sold a print of the Big Tex silo to Mike Looney (of La Tuna fame). Mike intended to present the print to James Lifshutz, the owner of the Blue Star Art Complex. Mike said the photo was “iconic.” So the credit for that statement goes to him. But the Big Tex structure has been part of the Southtown skyline for a very long time. And to me, it is an integral part of downtown San Antonio. And it is about to become an integral part of a new complex. So the photograph depicts the structure as it once was, before its resurrection. In that sense, iconic describes it well (thanks Mike).
RR: What effect are you using in your more psychedelic photos? Is that a stock effect or one that you designed? How do you decide which photos to use that effect on?
SM: This particular photo is actually a collage of perhaps 16 photos, melded together into a single panorama. The overall effect gives you depth of field and quality of form that you can’t capture with just a single picture. The psychedelic effects are achieved with a series of iPhone apps, including Snapseed and Tangled FX. The photograph is also tweaked in Lightroom multiple times. So, the post-photographic workflow would look something like this – shoot 16 photos, meld them together into a panorama, crop for effect, tune in Lightroom, export to iPhone, tune in iPhone using various apps, export back to Lightroom, make final adjustments and then export to JPEG.
I stylize photos for a variety of reasons, including, but not limited to, the periodic alleviation of boredom. Particular images lend themselves better to special visual effects. Those shot with an iPhone, for example, typically aren’t going to enlarge beyond a modest size in their native form. But after they’re stylized, and their details are blended and enhanced, they become something that can be reproduced differently. They become more portable, for lack of a better word.
The images I would refer to as Fine Art were shot with a Canon DSLR and were composed to stand on their own. Outside of color balancing and tone adjustments, these images typically stay as they are. On the other hand, I do have a sizeable collection of images shot with a DSLR that were run through various digital workflows to produce stylized effects. And I’m usually happy with the results.
RR: On your website, the only human being pictured is Mike Looney. Have you made a conscious decision to photograph buildings? Do you have an aversion to taking portraits of people?
SM: Mike Looney is pictured on my website because Marlys Dietrick, Mike’s wife, wanted a copy of that particular photo. I used my website to initiate the print and delivery process. Then I decided to leave the picture there.
But where architectural versus portrait photography is concerned, for me it definitely comes down to preference. I like skyscraper-sized subjects shot on the leading the edge of night. Put me in a room with a human subject and a three-point lighting system and I’d be pretty much lost. Drop me off in the middle of Shanghai at twilight with a DSLR, a tripod and a light meter and I’ll produce.
I used to be the Family Photographer for the McDowell clan, and the Team Photographer for the group of friends I grew up with in the late 70’s and early 80’s. So maybe after hearing the words “Get that camera out of my face” a few thousand times, I decided to alter my focus.
RR: What keeps you in San Antonio?
SM: Friendly people, interesting culture, laid back feeling and downtown living. When we lived in the northern suburbs out by Fiesta Texas, we were seriously considering relocation. We couldn’t go back to Philly because I own too many cowboy hats and Holly and I say “Y’all” now. And Philly is too … brusque. We were thinking Albuquerque or Portland, Oregon – someplace where nature hasn’t been shunted too far off to the side. But when we moved into our home in Lavaca, within walking distance of everything in the downtown area, we decided to stay. Frankly, we’ve never been happier living anywhere else.
RR: What do you order at La Tuna?
SM: I drink Pacifico, pretty much exclusively. If they have Peroni or Pilsener Urquell on special, I’ll think about it for a second or two. But then I’ll order a Pacifico. La Tuna is more of a Pacifico place. People dress their beers there. And if you put a lime in a Pilsener Urquell, you’re liable to start an international incident. So I pretty much stick to Pacifico.