Photographer shows downtown San Antonio in a strange new light

Ghostly streaks of neon drift across a nighttime shot of the downtown Aztec Theater by San Antonio photographer Erik Gustafson, while similar spectral images of the Alamo, Frost Tower, Friendship Torch and of the Tower of the Americas transform into a single image like a surreal postcard.

There are also black and white portraits of the souls that haunt these downtown streets. Young men with dark eyes and face tattoos. Old contemplatives with eroded faces. The late Hispanic street artist Elvis with a big homemade ring covering his wrinkled fingers.

The photos appear to have been passed through the gauntlet of filters on Gustafson’s Instagram account, @moneyshotphoto. But every shot is the furthest thing from digital.

“I feel like digital photography is just lifeless and sterile,” Gustafson, 42, said.

A multiple exposure image of downtown San Antonio landmarks by San Antonio photographer Erik Gustafson.

Courtesy of Erik Gustafson

So he makes familiar downtown scenes look strange and new with just an old camera and a makeshift darkroom.

For nearly 15 years, Gustafson captured downtown life with a vintage Leica M2 and other cameras made before he was born. He then develops the film in his bathroom or in a light-sealed closet with towels and blankets, tinkering with multiple exposures and chemicals to create shots most photographers could only dream of creating in Photoshop.

The results are turning heads online as well as in physical galleries.

A 2018 photoshoot of Marquita Richarte, a bikini-top Fiesta partier who fans dubbed “Fiesta Sucia,” went viral with more than 1,000 shares on Facebook. Meanwhile, sales of Gustafson’s multiple-exposure cityscapes at gallery shows led to expanded photography work ranging from corporate events to private portrait sessions.

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But the heart of the city remains at the heart of his work.

Portrait of Carmen King in downtown San Antonio by San Antonio photographer Erik Gustafson, who only uses film and old cameras for his work.

Portrait of Carmen King in downtown San Antonio by San Antonio photographer Erik Gustafson, who only uses film and old cameras for his work.

Courtesy of Erik Gustafson

Gustafson specializes in street photography, a candid look at ordinary people and places, usually downtown. Street photography also highlights abandoned buildings and marginalized members of society, subjects that most people tend to avoid or ignore.

“That’s the thing with street photography,” Gustafson said. “You chase what you don’t know you chase.”

Sometimes this hunt can get a little too close and personal. Most of Gustafson’s photos feature either buildings or people agreeing to be photographed. But he also posted photos that lean more towards photojournalism, such as shots of a crusty character stopped outside Casa Rio and the aftermath of a car accident on Southwest Military Drive where a driver in his vehicle crashed gives Gustafson the stinking eye from behind the wheel.

“He has a way of taking pictures that I think are a bit startling,” said longtime friend Justin Parr, artist and owner of the FL!GHT Gallery at Blue Star Arts Complex, which has exhibited the work of Gustavson. “He kind of has a way of almost getting himself into trouble, so much so that he gets a great shot as a result.”

Gustafson first honed that eye for trouble and terrain in high school in the late 1990s when he used to lug around extra gear: his skateboard.

He had learned to use a camera from an early age. His former army father was a photographer for his college newspaper and collected cameras during his army days, while his older sister majored in photography and taught at Virginia Commonwealth University. But it wasn’t until high school that Gustafson took (and failed) a course in a darkroom just so he could take skateboard photos.

Soon he was grabbing one of his dad’s old cameras to snap pictures of himself and other skaters hitting the asphalt, sometimes at 2 a.m. on the city’s East Side. It was then that Gustafson first saw the big picture in photography of its gritty surroundings and eclectic characters.

San Antonio street photographer Erik Gustafson, who uses 35mm film to capture city life and architecture, hits work earlier this month downtown.

San Antonio street photographer Erik Gustafson, who uses 35mm film to capture city life and architecture, hits work earlier this month downtown.

Carlos Javier Sanchez / Contributor

“And I had a camera and it turned into me to document everything,” he said. “That kind of mentality with skateboarding kind of created the mentality of how I see the world.”

Parr, who used to ride with Gustafson on his own skateboard at the time, said that kind of fearlessness translates into quality shots. He added that Gustafson is just as daring when he develops these photos as he takes them.

“He’s obsessed with technique and equipment,” Parr said. “He’s always jumping from one thing to the next. He’s obsessed with the medium of photography in a constant way that’s constantly changing.”

Call it affordable alchemy. Gustafson said his do-it-yourself approach, while time-consuming, saved him “an absurd amount of money in film cost and development”. For example, 400 feet of film can be cut into rolls which only cost him around $5 each versus $15 retail. And while processing and scanning film in a photo lab can cost around $40, it costs about a dollar.

Plus, no photo lab could do the job anyway. Gustafson said his experiments with motion picture film as well as chemicals and cross-processing would ruin most developing machines, setting up his own development equipment at home.

“The choice of films and the way I develop them will determine how the photos look,” he said. “Which I find to be a challenge and a blast in itself.”

Gustafson is working on an upcoming solo exhibition for the Not For You gallery at Blue Star, and he said he would love to share his creative techniques with others through workshops with nonprofit organizations. In the meantime, he continues to pound the pavement in search of the next big hit.

“I love taking my camera with me,” he said. “I like to capture my daily life, my way of seeing the world.”

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