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Arts & Culture

Selena Photos Showcased In New McNay Installation: 'A Full-Fledged Star'

In 1992, a young Texan singer caught the attention of a now-defunct, New York-based publication, Mas Magazine. They asked San Antonio photographer John Dyer to shoot a cover and spread of the performer.

“They called me and said, ‘We’ve heard that there’s a young lady in Texas that’s starting to become somewhat well known,’” Dyer said. “I had heard of Selena at that point but didn’t know all that much about her and certainly didn’t know what would happen with her career.” 

He met Selena Quintanilla-Pérez at his studio in the Blue Star area of Southtown. She pulled up in a red hatchback bursting with outfits. Dyer said she was full of energy. 

Selena's power pose from the 1992 photo shoot in Mas Magazine.
Credit Dominic Anthony Walsh | Texas Public Radio
Dominic Anthony Walsh | Texas Public Radio
Selena's power pose from the 1992 photo shoot in Mas Magazine.

One photo featured Quintanilla standing on a white and black checkered floor with a red curtain hanging behind her. Wearing all black with knee-high, high-heeled boots, she struck a power pose. 

That photo and others now hang in San Antonio’s McNay Art Museum, in a room that museum director Richard Aste called the “Selena Chapel.” A replica of the set is in one corner of the room, where visitors can strike their own power poses. 

The photos and interactive set are part of the “Selena Forever/Siempre Selena” installation.  

Kate Carey, McNay's head of education and curator of the installation, said it was first considered to be part of the upcoming “Fashion Nirvana” exhibition, which explores fashion icons of the 1990s. But, Carey said, once she and other McNay staff saw the photos, they decided to create a separate, concurrent installation specifically for Selena because she is a self-made fashion and music icon who deserved the space.

Visitors to the McNay can try out their own power stance in a replica of Dyer's 1992 set for the Mas Magazine photo session.
Credit Dominic Anthony Walsh | Texas Public Radio
Visitors to the McNay can try out their own power stance in a replica of Dyer's 1992 set for the Mas Magazine photo session.

Carey noted that Quintanilla frequently designed her own wardrobe, which often challenged social norms — especially expectations about modesty.  

“She was the architect of her own image, many times designing her own garments,” Carey said. “She also pushed boundaries in terms of her image.”

Lisa Lopez — a fellow Tejano pop star who performed at many of the same concerts as Quintanilla — shared her final memory of the singer, and it had to do with fashion. 

Lopez and Quintanilla shared a green room before a performance, and Lopez remembered Quintanilla commenting on a jewel-studded belt that she wore as a necklace. 

“I saw a little bit of her fashion curiosity,” Lopez said. “She was always looking at what other artists were wearing.”

The pictures in the installation came from two separate sessions that captured two distinct points in Quintanilla’s career — the beginning of her rapid upward trajectory and the peak of that popularity. 

Another photo from the 1992 shoot captured Quintanilla’s iconic smile.  

Lopez said the picture conveyed her friendly, gregarious spirit. 

“I mean, you look at this one picture here, and you just see this incredible smile,” Lopez said. “And this is of course before all the Photoshop and everything, and she just looks magnificent. You remember her with that red lipstick, you know, and those big beautiful teeth, and her eyes just gleaming. It’s just a very infectious smile that she had.”

Quintanilla and Lopez performed together several times. 

“She was a standard,” Lopez said. “It made so many young artists better, and I think that’s what she brought to not only the genre but to the spirit of artistry, as well.”

Quintanilla’s live performances were good enough to garner a Grammy. She took home the 1994 award for best Mexican American album after the release of Selena Live!, which was recorded during a free concert in Corpus Christi. 

In 1995, John Dyer was contacted by Texas Monthly to take his second photo spread of Selena. By then, she was often being called the “Queen of Tejano music.” 

But Quintanilla brought a different energy to the Texas Monthly shoot than she did to the 1992 Mas Magazine shoot.  

“This was dramatically different than the first one,” Dyer said. “This was a star — a full-fledged star — that had been pulled in too many different directions.”

The 1995 photos captured a more somber side of Quintanilla. The huge smile was gone.

During the 1995 session for "Texas Monthly," Quintanilla was exhausted by the demands of stardom, and the huge smile seen in the 1992 shoot was gone.
Credit Dominic Anthony Walsh | Texas Public Radio
During the 1995 session for "Texas Monthly," Quintanilla was exhausted by the demands of stardom, and the huge smile seen in the 1992 shoot was gone.

But before the Texas Monthly piece was published, Yolanda Saldivar, president of Selena's fan club, shot and killed her.

The magazine used one of Dyer’s photos for the cover. The publication’s art director delivered a handwritten note to him saying that it was his strongest work. Dyer had mixed feelings about the compliment.

“‘That’s good, but god, why did it have to be this picture?’ There’s not much more I can say than that,” Dyer said. “No one wants to be congratulated for a death.”

Lisa Lopez and other fans, friends and family gathered to celebrate Quintanilla’s life. Lopez said at the funeral, Quintanilla’s father showed Lopez and her family a then-unreleased song by Selena, “I Could Fall In Love.” It was released later that year.

“When I heard it, it was like, ‘Gosh,’” Lopez said. “She just had so much life in her — so much talent, beauty, love — and I think it just warmed my heart that she had an incredible family that supported her and was with her every step of the way.”

Lopez said Quintanilla left an indelible impact on Tejano pop music through her creativity and brought the genre to a massive number of new listeners.  

“Every time you have an iconic artist in a particular genre, you expand it — you elevate it,” Lopez said. 

Quintanilla’s elevation of Tejano pop music may be long lasting, but the “Selena Forever/Siempre Selena” installation is not forever. It is on display through July.

Dominic Anthony can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Instagram at @Dominic_Anthony_Walsh.