“Boom.” That’s the answer given by more than one of photographer Rick Hunter’s many shocked friends to the question of how to sum up the local lightning rod who died last Friday.
Hunter used the word frequently, even as he was ailing in his hospital room at Baptist Medical Center downtown during the weeks-long struggle with pneumonia that eventually overtook him. He used it to announce himself, and to end the conversation, and to emphasize a point in one of his bar stories. Like Hunter, “boom” signifies something that can’t be ignored.
Hunter garnered attention as the quarterback at his high school in Brownsville, TX, where he grew up. He later joined the U.S. Army, where he first picked up a camera. After a military career that included duties in Germany and West Point, N.Y., Hunter began to seriously pursue photography.
He quickly attracted the eye of Pulitzer prize-winning photographer Eddie Adams, best known for his photograph of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a suspected Viet Cong member during the Vietnam War. Hunter admired Adams’ style and took several workshops from him; the renowned photographer became something of a mentor to a still-young Hunter. Then, like many others, Adams became Hunter’s friend.
Hunter burst onto San Antonio’s scene 23 years ago, as a photographer for the Express-News where he further honed an aesthetic that former Current arts editor Sarah Fisch called “precise, accomplished and deeply humane.” According to the Express-News, Hunter’s work during his 10 years there earned honors from The Dallas Press Club and the National Press Photographers Association.
After the Express-News, Hunter freelanced full-time, venturing as far away as Cambodia and as close to home as his beloved Southtown neighborhood haunts, La Tuna, Madhatters and Tito’s. His photographs can now be seen all over town, at Baptist Medical Center, Taco Cabana, La Gloria Ice House and on Gemini Ink’s latest publicity materials, among many other locations.
“We hosted a retrospective show for him in 2008,” said Andy Benavides, who framed all of Hunter’s work for clients and who also operated a gallery space on South Flores Street. “It was amazing then and his work only continued to mature.” Of that exhibit Fisch wrote: “In frame after frame, Hunter lets [his] workmanlike approach achieve miracles; this show is about the intangible, alchemical moments of visual poetry.” Fellow photographer and longtime friend Michael Attwood said “I have total respect for his eye.”
Attwood joined many other friends at Tito’s on Sunday evening to toast to Hunter and reminisce. Their remembrances focused more on the man behind the camera than his work, though almost everyone there had bought a piece from the ever-hustling Hunter. Or they were given one, like the time Hunter showed up to a New Year’s Day party in King William, trying to pedal his prints. When the hostess good-naturedly called him out on his would-be moneymaking, he simply gave the prints away for free. “He was the most generous, explosive man,” said friend Karen Evans.
Indeed, if there was a quality that could overshadow his artistic talent, it might have been his storytelling. “He was probably the funniest guy I’ve ever met,” said neighbor Scott Smith, a proclamation backed up by many others. It helped that he was easy on the eyes. “I think everyone was secretly in love with Rick,” said Joyce Reyna, who met Hunter at another favorite spot, Taco Haven. “He was so handsome.”
He was also loud, something of a party animal and not afraid to alienate people. “He was critical of our community and didn’t hesitate to express it,” said Benavides. But behind the criticism was intelligence. The self-described avid reader picked up German while stationed in Germany with the Army, which he could still pull out to impress imbibers at Southtown’s Teutonic culture mecca, Beethoven’s. He made fast friends with Jerry Salinas, who grew up in Laredo and recognized a kindred border-dwelling soul. During their first conversation, Hunter surprised Salinas by drifting into fluent Spanish. “I knew he was for-real because the colloquialisms he was using were precise and there was a lot of slang,” said Salinas.
Hunter’s Spanish likely served him well during his many photo excursions to Mexico, a country that had a special hold on him. “He was more Mexican than most,” said Benavides, “he was intrigued with our culture and had a bit of vato in him.” The photographs Hunter brought back (in several hundred rolls of film) mapped the country from its deeply held religious traditions to its architectural ruins to everyday cowboys, waitresses and kids. Lots of kids.
While Hunter could seem outrageous and purely R-rated, there was a softer side. In 2008, at his retrospective, he related to Fisch an anecdote about covering the funeral of a young boy shot during a drive-by in the early 1990s. Hunter had secured the mother’s permission and prepared to shoot “this little bitty coffin, you know, with this statue of Jesus looking down at him, framing him just right …” he told Fisch. “I put the camera down. The shot was composed perfectly, but I couldn’t take it.”
A prolific Facebook poster, one of his last “photos of the day” was of a 2005 trip to Mexico he took with his son Maverick. He was also fond of his partner Shelbi Lyn Jary’s three-year-old granddaughter, posting photos of her dressed up for Halloween. Jary, who was by Hunter’s side during his most recent illness, wrote in an e-mail that “he was far from perfect, but he was my ideal.”