Featured Artist/Traveler: Jerry Downs - The Extraordinary in the Ordinary
Jerry Downs’ photography captures moments of synchronicity and wonder. His eye is ever vigilant, on the lookout for surprises and a wink and a nudge. His eclectic body of work is expansive and firmly rooted in the present moment. Each image feels like a call to…wake up! See what is before you! Don’t miss it! Everything is a miracle!
Thanks for sharing the person behind the daily images we love on Facebook and Instagram! You have such a unique and particular way of seeing the world. I understand that growing up in a very large family directly impacted your future creative life.
Thanks Amy. I appreciate you asking me to come play.
Yes, I was the 5th of 11 children. In my personal mythology I chose to be born in that time and place. I grew up in the country and went to school in the city. I wanted to experience the greatest variety available, to see as many different points of view as possible.
So how did your early environment shape and sharpen your ability to SEE in a more present way?
I got to be a child a lot longer than most kids. I was always surrounded by infants and toddlers for the first ten years of my life. By the time I came along the kids did most of the work. As a 5 year old I was in charge of taking care of the babies. I was the baby whisperer.
I know this will sound silly, but to honestly answer your question I have to tell you a story. When a baby was crying and all my tricks didn't work I didn't go to my parents or older siblings, I went to my littler brothers and sisters. I asked the next youngest one to me to ask her next youngest to ask the baby what they wanted. They would find out and translate back up to me so I knew what to do. It didn't seem weird at the time and we did it all the time just for fun. We even asked the baby (who was the only one who remembered) what it was like before we were born.
So to answer your question, I was born this way. My early years were a kind of paradise of pure wonder and bliss. I think we were all born knowing and I think it is important to forget. I just got to forget later than most.
That's enough of that. I could write a whole book about it. In fact I did. I wrote WHY YOU WERE BORN to remind adults about the magic and wonder they knew as children. That book sold out. I'll be making a digital version available soon. (See the details at the bottom about how to get a free copy.)
So why photography and when did you first start looking through the lens?
I was always an artist of some sort. I loved to write and did acting throughout high school. I didn't get a real camera until I was 18. The thing I loved about taking pictures was that it was the best way I knew of to investigate and talk about what I was really interested in, life and the human experience. With photography, life itself is the palette you draw from.
What are the main things that inspire you? You often say that everything is a miracle.
When I give a talk or lead a photo walk I always begin with this observation, “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 everything is worthy of appreciation. If you can find yourself in a state of appreciation, pictures are everywhere.” What inspires me? The fact that anything exists at all!
You have been to many places around the world - included the former Soviet Union, Finland, Haiti, China, Germany, Switzerland, former Yugoslavia. What brought you to those places and what impact did those travels have on you?
Most of the time it it was a job that got me there and helped pay for the week or two on either end to travel around and see the sights and souls of the place. It is enormously fascinating to me to see how everyone is the same, which is to say, each person is absolutely unique and completely different. Some of my favorite things to do in foreign countries is to get lost and find my way back to where I am staying without knowing the language. I learn a lot about the natives, and I learn a lot about myself. It's like that Tennyson quote: "What does he know of England who only England knows.”
You have also traveled many miles around the US, visiting 48 of the 50 states. What interests you so much about our country and the people/landscapes?
I feel the same way about traveling in the US as I do about traveling in the rest of the world. Some states are as different as one country is from another. Alabama is different than Maine. Hell, even Northern and Southern California are different states of being.
One particular route you have done countless times is from your current home in California to your previous home in Colorado. Do you see new things each time you drive those same roads?
Yes, I've driven more than 50 round trips between Boulder and San Francisco. I know every one of the the spots that I have taken pictures and yet it is always different. It's not just different because I've seen that stretch of terrain at every time of day and night in every season of the year, it's different because I'm different. I'm different because I learned new ways to see from having done the last trip and from all the time I lived in between.
Because you often travel solo, people ask if you get lonely sometimes. How do you respond?
I say something like this: No, I don't. I don't feel lonely because I don't feel like I am alone. I'm in a continuous conversation with the world. And I'm listening for the pictures to call me over to them. They are always saying look over here, turn your head now. Then we have to do that whole “thank you for stopping thing”, wishing each other well thing. I'm not lonely because the world is so alive and has so much to say. The nice thing is that you don't have to be rude by leaving. When you are talking with the world the conversation simply continues as you head on down the road.
Do you make your living from being a photographer and if so, in what way?
Yes, I've made my living being an artist of various sorts. I've written two book, spent seven years making large paper collages, I sell prints, do commercial photography jobs, consult people on how to use social media and give talks and photo walks on photography, using photography for self discovery and perception. I mostly give the photo tours in the San Francisco Bay Area. I also do private tours anywhere in the world.
You have a large following on Facebook and Instagram - what are your thoughts on social media and how it has grown your audience?
Yes, I love Facebook and really enjoy Instagram. I post a PHOTO OF THE DAY everyday on Facebook as well as other photographers work I admire and a GOOD NIGHT/GOOD MORNING picture before I go to bed. Every day I average around 600 Likes. My favorite thing is the large number of comments and interactions we share.
I never really specialized in any particular subject matter. I love it all, so you might find a floral, a street scene, people or what has become affectionately known as a "Jerry Picture," which could be a humorous take on life or an extraordinary look at something that is extra ordinary. I never post anything that has to do with politics.
My posts are all about how interesting, odd or beautiful the world is. I take my cue from what I learned while taking pictures: Everyone and everything loves to be appreciated and when they feel appreciation they love you back. It's pretty simple.
Tell us about your current project. It’s interesting that you set yourself a challenge.
I am now just finishing a project that began almost 40 years ago. I've always loved synchronicities, so I started to take pictures of them. Then I had this idea (just to make it really hard) to take a series of 101 synchronicities and each of the images had to have a number from 0 to 100 somewhere in the picture. Currently I am working on a video to launch and promote the series.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Sure, here's the bottom line: If we walk around the world damning everything, it looks like hell. If we walk around appreciating and loving the world, we are in a kind of paradise!
You can reach Jerry at 415-686-2369
Follow him on Facebook and Instagram
If you would like to get a free digital copy of WHY YOU WERE BORN email Jerry at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to put the word "Born" in the subject line.
Read other interviews with artist/travelers in this series HERE