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American Photography Open 2020: Meet Judge Jerry Downs

By David Schonauer   Wednesday August 12, 2020


Do you take pictures to discover the world?

Or do you discover the world in order to take pictures?

“When I give a class, seminar or give one of my photo walks, I begin by going straight to the bottom line,” says photographer Jerry Downs, an instructor at the Digital Photo Academy. “To get everyone’s attention, I say, ‘I am going to give you the secret of how to take great pictures and it applies to absolutely everything else.’ Once I have their full attention, I begin, ‘When I go out to take pictures I no longer look for pictures. I simply enjoy the act of looking. Not everything makes a good picture but absolutely everything is worthy of appreciation. If you can find yourself in a state of appreciation pictures are everywhere.’”

Downs, who lives (as he puts it) “just north of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco,” has had his work published in books and magazines around the world and has given talks and led seminars on a wide range of subjects, including photography, visual literacy and optical illusions. He has covered Pope Francis’ first Easter week for Inside the Vatican magazine and received The Year’s Best Magazine Photo Series from Communication Arts Magazine for an article documenting farm life in a small town on the plains of Eastern Colorado.

He calls his first book, The Present—Finding Myself in the Middle of NowHere, “a book of self-discovery” that features 40 years worth of imagery taken on the road in the American West. His most recent book, Why You Were Born, is, he says, “about remembering the wonder of being a child, why it was important to forget, and how great it is to remember.”

“Being a photographer has exposed me to hundreds of places around the world and allowed me to visit the personal worlds of thousands of individuals,” he notes. “Each has taught me how to be a better photographer. And, more importantly, each has taught me something about myself. I’ve learned that the way I see the world is a reflection of how I see myself.”

Downs is also one of the judges of the American Photography Open 2020 competition, and today he shares ideas about what he’s looking for in contest entries. Not surprisingly, those ideas center on enjoyment and self-enrichment.

“My job has been to find different ways to look at things, which has taught me that there are a lot of ways to look at things!” he notes. “This perspective has helped me see that life is extremely malleable and open to an infinite number of interpretations. When I remember that I am making up my picture of the world from my own lines of thought, life itself becomes a creative act. When I remember that life is full of wonder, wonderful pictures are everywhere.”

“The thing I love most about what I do is that it is such a great way to talk about what I really love,” he adds. “I love life. That is really the bottom line.”

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