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J.R. Valdez: An Eye for Photography

Created: 21 September, 2018
Updated: 13 September, 2023
5 min read

J.R. Valdez

When he was only four years old, J.R. Valdez received the family Kodak camera from his father during a trip to Yosemite National Park.

“I was a precocious kid so he said ‘you take the pictures,’ and from that point on I was hooked,” said Valdez, a Barrio Logan resident who has an extensive reel of work in the local photography and commercial art world, as well as an exciting photography project opening in the near future. “I took pictures of waterfalls, bears, and deer, and when the first roll came back from the photo procesor, I knew this was what I wanted to do.”

As a child of immigrants, Valdez was often questioned about his pursuit of photography, as he was expected by relatives to go into a more traditional profession to make a living like his elders.

However, Valdez’s mother, Maria Valenzuela, supported him, and his father, John Valdez Sr., was especially fully supportive of his son’s decision, as he also held his own creative ambition.

“My father worked at the local defense plants before, during, and after World War II, but his dream was always to be a musician, and he knew my dream was to be a photographer,” Valdez shared. “As I progressed and started winning awards and doing all of that, he saw that this was my career so he, along with all my family, supported me.”

During his formative years, Valdez developed his knack for capturing stills, and a taste for cartoon-style drawings.

Valdez’s first assignments as a photographer came in high school, when his graphic arts teacher handed him the school’s high-end Rolleiflex camera upon seeing his work.

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“He put the camera in my hands and said ‘you have the eye… go for it.’”

During his high school days, Valdez was his school’s yearbook and newspaper photographer, capturing every football game, club activity, and big dance.

Since then, Valdez was on his way to working his dream job, completing a vocational photography program at City College and serving as a Navy photographer during the Vietnam War, right after receiving his secondary teaching credentials from San Diego State.

“The Navy totally changed my outlook on life and I spent some years traveling the country and the world because they would give me assignments to do,” he said.

Upon his return to civilian life, Valdez maintained a busy work schedule. For years he would work taking high school portraits, shooting with renowned photography studios throughout San Diego, capturing weddings and quinceañeras, and teaching high school photography courses.

“Teaching was a good match because I was dealing with kids who wanted to learn photography and I wanted to teach for many years,” he said. “I would talk about composition, what makes a good picture and a bad picture, how to take pics of cheerleaders and wrestlers. I basically (passed on) the wisdom I had learned on to my students.”

Today, Valdez is preparing to exhibit a project which he has had in the works for years.

“I got to the point where I said there’s things that I want to do in my life and I have to move on. They say many people retire, but photography is not an occupation that you can retire from, so I started becoming more selective with what I wanted,” Valdez stated.

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While visiting his daughter, Hallmark Channel audience coordinator Justine Valdez-Lebel, in Hollywood, Valdez was invited to the yearly Hollywood Forever celebration.

“It is a huge Dia de los Muertos festival at the Hollywood Forever cemetery between sound stages and buildings,” Valdez described. “I saw fine art, face painters, lots of dancing, and a lot of food; my head exploded.”

“But I noticed one thing missing, photography.”

After two years of work from conception to final framing, Valdez is getting ready to exhibit his Dia de los Muertos photography exhibition at a gallery on the corner of Logan and Sampson in the heart of historic Logan Avenue.

“I wanted to do the first opening here in Barrio Logan, which is where my roots are and where I was conceived and have lived and to give back to the community because this is where I started out,” he declared, adding that there is interest in his exhibit from galleries “up north.”

His exhibit, which will open on the weekend of Oct. 19, will feature a set number of portraits featuring live models in full Dia de los Muertos face and body paint. Although he did not want to reveal too much, Valdez did tease that the number of portraits will be a direct reference to an iconic Mexican art staple.

With the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration taking prominence in mainstream culture, Valdez says that his exhibit will set a trend in the way in which the Mexican holiday will be depicted.

“My vision is that what you will be seeing what will be the image of Day of the Dead of the future, I have seen plenty of movies and my prediction is that you will soon be seeing live actors painted in movies based on Dia de los Muertos, and I think this is a visionary idea,” he elaborated.

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J.R. Valdez’s show, titled El Arte de Día de los Muertos: A Face and Body Photographic Art Exhibition, will be on view through Nov. 2. at the Barrio Art gallery (2195 Logan Avenue).

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