He’s not in Kansas anymore. Nor in Denver, Los Angeles or Miami, to name some of the places in which Dana Bowden has lived on his way to becoming a major commercial photographer in the Washington, D.C. area. And having shot for everyone from ABC-TV to Ritz-Carlton Hotels (actually more than that, but this was the only “z” in his list), the Midwestern native has reached a place of, so to speak, capitol gains.
“D.C. is a whole different atmosphere,” says the Bethesda-based photographer. “It doesn’t have the advertising market of other cities but lots of government and corporate stuff instead. My primary market is hotels and resorts, and D.C. is where the big hotel chains’ headquarters are. I’d been working at the regional level and wanted to get more into the corporate-level stuff.”
That he has – even a partial list of Bowden’s hospitality clients reads like an issue of Travel + Lesiure: Crowne Plaza Hotels, Hawks Cay Resorts, Marriott Vacation Club, and Williams Island in what is modestly called the Florida Riviera. He’s also shot advertising and promotion for a host of entertainment companies, and editorial work for the likes of Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, and Germany’s Bild am Sonntag. An inveterate tinkerer who spent much of his youth taking things apart and putting them back together – occasionally getting an electric shock for his troubles – Bowden quite believably tells you that, “Photography with me is sort of just a tool that lets me play with light.”
He got into that game relatively late. Born in Kansas City, Kans., in 1959, and raised both there and in Kansas City, Mo. (“It’s the same city, just on different parts of the state line”) and 35 miles away in Gardner, Kans., Bowden was part of a three-kid household where his stay-at-home mom was an artist and both she and Bowden’s 2 _-year-older brother “could paint and draw and do all that stuff. I felt inept in the art department even though I was very visual.” He found out just how visual he was after trading an antique rifle for a classic Agfa Karat camera, and fell in love with film. “I began shooting stuff around the neighborhood, the house — basically anything I could point at.”
Not yet thinking of photography as a career path, however, Bowden entered Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kans., and got his Associate’s Degree in electronics. Moving to Denver afterward and joining the work world for an unfulfilling few months, he then attended the University of Northern Colorado, in Greeley, where he took photojournalism courses. “The idea was I wanted to be a National Geographic photographer,” he recalls. “I went to school there for two years, then got a job with a commercial studio in Denver,” becoming an assistant at local institution William Swartz Photography.
With the energy of youth, Bowden simultaneously worked nights freelancing for The Denver Post, covering rock concerts. ” I loved going backstage and hanging with the rocks stars,” he admits – as who wouldn’t? – but, “It made me realize that advertising and commercial work would pay the bills.” Bill Swartz by this time had become “a great mentor. He was really good about teaching me everything about the business and how to take great pictures. He took me in like I was one of the family.” Indeed – Bowden’s fellow assistant was Swartz’s stepson, Randy. “He was about my age and we became good friends and went on ski vacations and boating, that kind of outdoorsy Denver stuff. It was a fun place to live and a great job.”
Still and so, Bowden by the mid-1980s needed to stretch his wings. Venturing to Los Angeles, where he met his future wife, producer Pam Levinson, he assisted at Boulevard Studios, then one of the largest photo studios in the world. Bowden eventually began doing unit photography for such films as Scorchers (1991), with Faye Dunaway, Denholm Elliott, James Earl Jones and Emily Lloyd, and Only You (1992), with Helen Hunt, Andrew McCarthy and Kelly Preston. Bowden and Levinson had a son, built a house in the Hollywood Hills, and might still be there today were it not for L.A.’s famous “earthquakes, floods, riots, you name it,” he says. The family moved to Sarasota, Fla., where Bowden, burnt out on photography but still a tinkerer, spent three or four years buying, remodeling and flipping houses.
But if you’re a shooter at heart, you can’t stay away. After Levinson got a scholarship to the University of Miami School of Law, the couple moved to the nearby ‘burbs and Bowden began photographing houses as well as remodeling them. He soon built up a portfolio of architecture photography, which led to shooting hotels and resorts. When Levinson snagged a law-firm position in Washington, D.C., in 2004, the family went north.
Through all his peripatetic journeys, one thing’s remained constant: “The visual excitement,” Bowden says. “Capturing the world around me and getting it into an image database — which we used to call film!” he adds, chuckling. And the tinkerer is never far away. “The one thing that really makes a photograph is light, so that’s where I decided I was going to set myself apart from other photographers. I started concentrating on the equipment for lighting, and making my own boxes and scrims. I always bought only the most basic stuff, since none of it did exactly what I wanted it to and so I’d modify it. I’m always building new gadgets to bend light or twist it in a certain way that I want. I think I’m a frustrated industrial designer,” he jokes. “I get as much enjoyment out of tweaking the equipment as I do taking the pictures!”
But his Digital Photography Academy classes, he says, don’t push that particularly, so non-tinkerers should do just fine. “When I’m teaching,” Bowden says, “my idea is to try and get students to look at the creative aspect of photography, and not so much the technical side.”
Call Digital Photo Academy at 1 877 372 2231. Lots of people seem to hang up if our welcome recording comes on instead of a live voice, but we promise to return your message within a day or two if you leave one with your name and number. It would be even better if you included your e mail address as well as the date and city of the class you are considering. If leaving a voice mail message is not your thing, please email us at DPAbooking@digitalphotoacademy.com or Richard@digitalphotoacademy.com.