Press "Enter" to skip to content

Photographer Dan Downing: Getting the Light Right

Article by Ed Quillen

Art – July 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

WHEN ONE IS NEW to photography, Dan Downing recalls, it’s all about recording the subject matter that appears in the viewfinder. But eventually, “you realize that it’s all about light. You’re working with the light reflected from objects, not the objects themselves. Light is everything in photography, and if you learn to get that right, the rest follows.”

Downing, who is 51 and lives in Mesa Antero west of Nathrop, specializes in large black-and-white landscapes, captured with a bulky and rugged tripod-mounted 4″x5″ field camera.

If his work makes one think of Ansel Adams, “that’s fine with me. He’s been a major inspiration and influence, along with Edward Weston and Paul Caponigo.”

Downing’s fascination with photography began during his boyhood in Hutchinson, Kansas. His father, a machinist, sometimes took over the kitchen at night to develop photos taken with the family Kodak Brownie, which was passed on to Dan. After that, the boy soon became the family’s photographer, and then he began taking pictures for the neighbors. “I just took to it,” he recalls.

But it was basically a hobby, and Downing had other priorities then. After high school, there was college at Fort Hays, where he joined some other students to form “The Jades” — a successful rock ‘n’ roll band, with Downing playing lead guitar.

[Otter Point by Dan Downing]
[Otter Point by Dan Downing]

“We started out playing rhythm and blues, Sam and Dave stuff. Then we started covering Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix — more or less the usual course for a bar band in those days. We caught on, though. We were playing all over the Midwest, and when we weren’t on the road, we were the house band at the Fireside Club.”

That lively schedule didn’t mesh well with being a student, and so Downing dropped out. Then came the draft notice. “I gave serious thought to going to Canada,” he recalls, “but ended up joining the National Guard.” After that, he returned to school and got a degree (which “didn’t have anything to do with art”) from Friends University in Wichita.

Photography remained a “pretty intense hobby” as Downing went to work for a metal-fabricating company that built things like conveyor systems for grain elevators. He did pretty well there, “but the man who owned the outfit had five sons, and I wasn’t one of them, so I didn’t see much room for advancement.”

So when the chance came to buy a photo studio in Wellington, Kansas, Downing took it. Much of the work was rather routine, like high-school graduation portraits, but Downing enjoyed it.

“A good portrait isn’t just taking a picture. I liked talking to someone, getting an idea of his or her personality, then finding a way to make the portrait express what I’d found so that other people would see that, too.”

His reputation grew, and his business prospered. In 1988-89, he was the featured artist at the Kansas state capitol, where the House of Representatives chose his work to adorn its walls during the legislative session.

But Downing had been looking westward from Kansas for a long time. He had an uncle who was “more or less a hermit who lived in a cabin in the woods at the ghost town of Hillerman [near Tincup in Taylor Park], and our family visited him when I was a kid.”

[Home Comfort Hotel by Dan Downing]
[Home Comfort Hotel by Dan Downing]

Downing loved the place, “and I visited it as often as I could, even more often after I got my driver’s license. I always wanted to live in the mountains, although I have to say that this valley is one I never paid much attention to — it was just something to get through on my way to my uncle’s cabin.”

About a decade ago, he had a chance to sell the Kansas studio, and “I made some good investments along the way.” He could build his dream home with an ample darkroom in the mountains, and he had the time and money to travel to take the pictures he wanted to take.

Downing prefers black-and-white to color for several reasons, but the main one is that it offers more artistic freedom.

“With a color picture, people expect the sky to be blue and the grass to be green. If the color deviates from their expectations, then the image won’t appeal to them.”

But with black-and-white, “if the sky is dark, darker than any natural daylight sky, it’s just part of the image. There aren’t expectations. People judge it on its own terms.”

Downing doesn’t see himself as a passive recorder of whatever nature might present. He’s of the Ansel Adams school that “the negative is the score, the print is the performance,” and so his finished 16″x20″ art prints result from dodging, burning, and related darkroom techniques.

[Chalk Cliffs by Dan Downing]
[Chalk Cliffs by Dan Downing]

THEY HAVE EXQUISITE tonal range and detail, the result of thought that begins long before the shutter is snapped. He needs to examine the scene and determine what it conveys to him. Then he has to get the light right, which means finding a vantage and determining the right season and time of day for the sun to be in the proper position.

The tripod and camera are the next step, and then the darkroom. Since he works with sheet film where each negative can be developed individually (as opposed to roll film where a dozen or more negatives must be developed at the same time), “I can adjust contrast and density during development” by changing time, temperature, and agitation.

Enlargement also provides the opportunity to adjust the image toward what Downing envisioned before he took the picture. And that’s why he uses conventional silver-emulsion print paper, rather than platinum, like some other black-and-white photographers [such as Dan Rohn, profiled in the October 1998 Colorado Central].

“Platinum provides a marvelous print with wonderful tones,” he says. “But it requires so much light that you can’t really use an enlarger — it has to be contact printed, and that limits what you can do.”

After all those portraits in Kansas, Downing now specializes in landscapes, “although when I look at my recent work — like from a recent trip to Turkey — I see that people are starting to creep back in.”

[Rowboat, Turkey -- by Dan Downing]
[Rowboat, Turkey — by Dan Downing]

Downing has no plans to return to portrait work, though. Nor does he have any interest in commissioned work for publications or advertising agencies. He can afford to specialize on what he most enjoys, and that’s traveling and creating the big black-and-white landscape prints sold in galleries — his work is available locally at the Art-ti-cu-la-tion Gallery on Sackett Avenue next to the Victoria Tavern in Salida.

And even if he uses the most traditional tools of photography — essentially the same kind of camera that William Henry Jackson’s mule Hypo hauled around the mountains more than a century go — Downing will soon offer his work in the most modern of ways, on the World Wide Web at

That’s an apt name for his website, he concludes, since “It’s all about the light and putting it on paper.”

Ed Quillen learned to run a camera in 1972 after he lied on a newspaper job application and said he was already able to take grip-and-grin pictures of people handing checks to other people. His photographic skills have not improved much since then, but he likes to think his writing is better.