Although he has been a professional photographer for more than three decades, Lowell Downey’s love for photography has never wavered. Rather, it has given him a sense of awe for capturing moments in time with his camera.
Downey, who is co-owner of Art & Clarity, a photography and video company in Napa, has had his photos appear in books, magazines, museum and gallery exhibitions and in private collections.
His photos are taken in many countries from hot-air balloons and airplanes as well as on the ground — and sometimes beneath the ground.
This month, a retrospective of Downey’s work is on exhibit at the Napa County Library, 580 Coombs St., Napa. The photographs, spanning 40 years, include his aerial photographs from around the world, painterly vision photography, and black-and-white work from Italy.
He will be giving a talk on his philosophy and vision for the creative approach to photography in a wine-and-cheese reception at the library on Friday, Nov. 17, at 6 p.m.
Downey said he enjoys conversations with library patrons who have been viewing his work at the library since the beginning of the month.
As a photographer, writer and poet, Downey is a master storyteller, with the ability to transport the viewer and listener into a state of pure enchantment while he responds to questions from library visitors.
In front of a black-and-white photo, Downey shared the magic of the moment when he captured the powerful image of two different people coming toward each other in Rome.
As he was observing an old man in a trench coat standing in the ancient Italian city street, he was reminded of one of his favorite movies, “Wings of Dance,” that was in both color and black and white.
“When the movie appears in black and white, you are with the angels, but when the movie is in color, no one sees them (the angels) except Peter Falk,” Downey said. “All the angels wore trench coats.”
Inspired by the similarity of the man’s appearance to the angels in the movie, Downey lifted his camera. Just as he was taking the shot, a girl appeared from another direction.
“She wasn’t in there at all when I started shooting but she walked right in,” he said. “This moment only existed as I saw it for that fraction of a moment. It does not exist today.”
Downey marvels at the impossibility of capturing the “same shot” more than once. Even if nothing has moved, such as in a landscape, the light is constantly changing which ensures an absence of duplications, he explained.
In addition to his work behind his lenses, for the last several years, Downey has been teaching “The Art of Seeing,” which was selected last month by the New York Times as one of the top 10 photography adventures in the world. This class is also listed in the book “100 Things to Do in Napa Valley Before You Die.”
Art & Clarity co-owner Janna Waldinger teaches the classes with him.
“The Art of Seeing” is a guided adventure in the Napa Valley with camera in hand that offers participants the opportunity to take their photography skills to a new level.
Downey and Waldinger are busy with teaching classes and having a photography business together that includes a variety of work for corporations and for weddings.
The creative duo once did collaborative commission together for the Napa Valley Museum that took them below ground to photograph wine caves and the making of wine caves for an exhibit titled “Underground.”
Born in the panhandle of Texas, Downey credits his success to a mother who was “adamant” that her kids would have an education and not grow up poor and working on farms.
Even though his mother died of leukemia when he was only 7 years old, her love for learning “shaped the direction” of his life. She would have been pleased that he earned a Masters of Fine Arts degree from New York University, and that her son is a lifelong learner.
Downey was the photographer for “In Their Own Words: Latino Contributions to the Wine Industry in the U.S.” and “In Their Own Words: Latino Contributions to the World of Fine Cuisine.” These books were done on commission for AltaMed, a health care organization in Los Angeles.
During a 16-month commission for the Napa Valley Museum, producing photographs of the ecology of the Napa River for “Voices of The River, Downey developed an appreciation for the river and other bodies of water.
His concern for the river later led him to create aerial photographic studies for Friends of the River and for his personal documentation of the Napa River and delta.
“Photographing the river has changed the way I photograph,” he said. “Working with biologists and scientists, I have to show the way the world really is, not just take a pretty picture, though it is beautiful.”
When he is taking photos from an airplane, Downey calls his work a collaboration with the pilot. “I couldn’t take those photos without the pilot,” he said, laughing.
Downey sits on the board of the Institute for Conservation, Advocacy, Research and Education (ICARE), a nonprofit concerned with protecting the Napa County watersheds and the Napa River.
While documenting elements of the river, Downey met Joyce Bowen, owner of Bonaventura Balloons, when she took him up in her balloon.
Later, at Bowen’s invitation, Downey accompanied her for five years to document world-class international hot air balloon flights in Bolivia, Chile, India, Dubai and Switzerland, and he is now working on a book about these journeys.
“The work here (library) reflects my philosophy on seeing and the poetics of nature and of space,” Downey said. “I want people to think and imagine for themselves without being directed in any way.”
He said he was influenced by “The Poetics of Space” by Gaston Bachlaud and suggested that it as an enlightening book for others.
Art in the Library is sponsored by the Friends of the Library and the Napa County Library Foundation. The public is welcome to view the art and meet the artist who then gives a talk about their work, process, and inspirations.
A jury of local artists, a library commissioner and art in the library coordinator, Stephnia Pramuk, view all entries and make selections for the year. The judging is blind, without identifying factors that could identify the artist.