The lonely landscape was still and dark, the hour so early that not even the sun was up, when photographer Joe Lowery started setting up his tripod and camera. His hands worked quickly and easily in the dark. He had done it so many times that it was second nature to him now. Once his equipment was ready, he waited for the sun.
Five mornings in a row he had come to this same location in Austin County, Texas. He knew tht a field of wildflowers lay hidden in the darkness, ready to burst with color at the first appearance of light. He kept returning in hopes of catching a brilliant sunrise, just a little better than the day before.
Slowly the rising sun began to cast a faint glow, barely illuminating the ground. Lowery took the cue and snapped his camera into action. An early morning haze shrouded the scene with an ethereal quality, as the blues and pinks of the wildflowers burst forth, complemented by the pink and violet sky. This was the sunrise he had hoped to see.
In a matter of minutes, the sun had risen and the haze had lifted. The show was over, but the image remained, captured on film through an artist’s lens.
Satisfying an Artistic Longing
Lowery was the only person present that morning, but now thousands of people have seen that dramatic sunrise on the cover of Texas Highways, a travel magazine known for its scenic photography.
He believes beauty like this is a gift from God, which he loves to share with others. At the same time, he is compelled to satisfy his artistic side, which would otherwise lay dormant in his day job as a banker. Lowery, a Heritage Land Bank customer, has a bachelor’s degree in business from Stephen F. Austin University and an MBA from Texas A&M University. He has built a career in his native East Texas at a bank his family helped to start decades ago.
“My mom was an artist and liked to paint. My dad built sawmills and had more of an engineering mind,” Lowery says. “I guess I’m a confusion of the two.”
From time to time, Lowery has quit banking to pursue photography full time, but has returned to banking as a way to satisfy his analytical side and keep him closer to home and family.
“If you do it professionally, you can be gone most of the year. I need to be home more than that, but in the spring and fall, when I travel most, it can be hard to reach me,” he says.
The Art of Photography
Lowery treats his photography as an art and strives to capture images that evoke emotion from viewers. In his Lufkin, Texas, studio hangs a letter from former first lady, Lady Bird Johnson. In it, she expresses her appreciation for a particular bluebonnet photograph (shown above) and says that, when she first saw the photograph, she “almost ceased breathing.”
It is that “wow” effect that Lowery strives to achieve.
“You get a lot of stuff that is pretty, but I want pictures that I can put on my wall, leave there forever and be excited every time I see them. If I get one of those in the spring and in the fall, then I think I’ve had a good year.”
Lowery also attends art shows occasionally and enjoys talking with people about the pictures.
“Listening to people’s stories is as much fun as anything,” he says. “I’ve learned that what really makes a picture popular is whether people can relate to it in some way. I guess that’s true of any art.”
At the shows, some people will suggest that he give black and white photography a try. “But I like the color, the bright color. Sometimes the color will just pop, and it makes your heart beat faster,” he says. “It is what feels right inside of me to do.”
Discovering Treasures Off the Beaten Path
Although he photographs at national parks and other places around the country, Lowery is best known for his scenic Texas shots. His photos often grace the covers of magazines, including Texas Highways and Landscapes, as well as note cards, calendars and framed prints.
“It excites you when other people like what you’ve done,” Lowery says. “If someone else liked it enough to buy it, that makes me feel good. I like to have my pictures appreciated.”
He also enjoys discovering beauty in unlikely places or seeing beauty that might be overlooked by others. “You learn a lot along the way, and you hardly look at anything without seeing a picture,” he says.
He shows a scenic field picture as an example. “This field was on the side of a highway, and you could drive by it a hundred times and never notice this unless I stood there and pointed out the landmarks to you.”
Some places, he says, are inherently beautiful. No matter when you go, the view will always be breathtaking. At other places, like wildflower fields, the beautiful scenes are fleeting. One year a field might be covered with flowers, but if the next year is particularly dry, there might not be a single flower in the same field.
In addition to wandering the state’s back roads, he returns to some locations annually, such as Lost Maples State Natural Area and Ratcliff Lake in the fall and the Texas Hill Country and Big Bend National Park in the spring. But he never knows what he is going to find there.
“You wonder sometimes when you take a picture at a particular spot if you’ll ever see it like that again,” he says.
Learning by Doing
Lowery first started taking pictures with a Polaroid camera on family hunting trips to Colorado in the 1960s. He bought his first 35-mm camera when he was in graduate school.
He taught himself the craft by reading and practicing. “I would read everything from Ansel Adams to Monet. They would say all this stuff about the light,” he says, adding that at the time he was not entirely sure what they meant. “I know now that it really is all about the light. What makes a picture feel anything to you is the light.”
He captures his images on medium format film with a graduated neutral density filter. The images are then scanned before being digitally printed. In the future, he plans to start shooting digitally, which he has only experimented with so far. He also hopes to compile some of his best work into a book one day.
Although he takes his craft seriously, he also recognizes that he is not entirely responsible for his success.
“You can start to think that you’re doing it yourself, but so much of it is totally outside of your control. It just depends on what the day does, what the light does and whether God decides to put on a show that day or not.
“People will ask, ‘How did you get the light like that?’ I tell them, ‘God does all the hard work. I just take the picture.’”
To see more of Joe Lowery’s photographs, visit www.joelowery.com
Finding Beauty Close to Home
When Lowery decided to invest in photography as a second career, he started traveling to national parks and other scenic locations. After an experience at Arches National Park in Utah one year, he ventured in a new direction.
South Texas Windmill, Val Verde County
He was there nearly a week with no clouds. As he puts it, “It was pretty to look at, but not pretty to photograph.” He went into a local photographer’s gallery and saw beautiful shots of storm clouds and dramatic skies. He returned home complaining.
“I told my wife, ‘There is no way I can compete with this. It’s just totally a gift from God if I get there when the right conditions are happening.’”
His wife, Jackie, answered, “Why don’t you stay close by and do more Texas stuff?”
He thought that made sense. Now, instead of doing a few major trips, he does shorter trips and wanders the back roads of Texas. It has proven to be a good strategy for him. It keeps him closer to home and family in East Texas, and it also fits a niche market for Texas art.
Plus, he adds, Texas is a really diverse place. There is a lot to choose from and a lot of ground to cover. He points to his odometer as proof. His vehicle now shows more than 200,000 miles, and his previous car had more than 390,000 miles on it when he passed it along to a family member.Joe Lowery
Although you can never be certain of shooting the perfect photo, you can improve your odds, says Joe Lowery. Below are his recommendations.
- Go when the light is good, which generally means early morning or late evening.
- Go at the time of year when something is happening in nature.
- Go to locations where those changes in nature are evident.
For aspiring professional photographers, he gives this additional advice:
- Keep an open mind. Sometimes your first idea is not the best one, so don’t get too focused on that and miss a better shot right in front of you.
- Don’t get discouraged. I sent the same photo to the same magazine and same photo editor four times. Three times it was not considered, and the fourth time it made the cover.