We had the good fortune of connecting with Tommy Cowan and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Tommy, where are your from? We’d love to hear about how your background has played a role in who you are today?
I am originally from Portland, OR, but moved to Denver when I was 12 in 2000. The reason for moving was for my parents to take ownership of a photography company shooting team sports. Naturally… I hated photography growing up. My parents were always stopping at old fences or covered bridges on road trips and I just couldn’t understanding what the appeal was. I did love sports though. That was my life growing up and when the opportunities came about, I did shoot some for my parents during wrestling meets or basketball tournaments when they shot action sports. I went to college to play baseball and during one of my college years I took a photography course and on the first day the local newspaper came in and asked in anyone had an SLR and knew how to shoot sports action. Sports action being literally the only thing I knew how to do, raised my hand and instantly had a job shooting the local high school sports in small town Sterling, CO for the Journal Advocate. I stopped playing ball, switched my major to photography and one thing led to another to where I am today.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
As a photographer, you have to be thinking creatively or else it just burns you out to be shooting within a certain mode, style, whatever you want to call it. I honestly think that is a given for creatives as a whole, not just photography. For me, where my creativity truly lies is within the personal connection I have with my subject and if my subject is inanimate, I try to build the connection to my potential viewer of the image. That personal connection doesn’t just happen when I have them in front of my lens. It starts on the individualized email I write from the response to their inquiry. It continues when I take potential clients out for drinks or dinner (before Covid). Then by the time they get in front my my camera, they know a little part about me and aren’t so rigid. They have a layer of trust to be vulnerable in front of me; to show their true selves. The personal connection aspect of my work is the thing that comes easily to me. Being an extrovert and personable, I think that’s the easy stuff. The technical part has had to be learned, sometimes brutally. My brain doesn’t work in exacts… that’s why math wasn’t my best subject in school. It had to take time and practice and patience to learn the concept of photography and light which wasn’t easy. Sometimes the technical side can still get in the way of creativity because you don’t know how to do something or nervous to try something new. That is why continuing my education in photography has been vital to growing as a businessman and photographer. Taking classes, seminars or watching tutorials. Getting feedback from your peers has been vital to my creativity and flow as an artist. Without knowing the trade as an expert, your creativity can only go so far.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Like I said earlier, I am originally from Portland, OR. My whole family lives back in the Pacific Northwest so if I was to show someone a good time, I would head to the PNW. Probably starting and ending in Portland. My sister and brother-in-law live on an amazing property in SE PDX. My sister is a chef, so eating and drinking on their patio and walking among their incredible garden is one of my favorite things ever. Heading out with my sister and her husband, we’d head out to Downtown and surrounding areas near the waterfront. My sister knows all the amazing restaurants and cool rooftop bars so she is leading the way. After a couple of days in the Portland, we would all head out to the coast. Canon Beach is an incredible spot for photography. Early sunrise and mist over the beach with Haystack Rock in the foreground is such a tranquil experience. Eating fresh seafood on the coast, it just doesn’t get much better. We would then head more inland and south the Umpqua river area for their INCREDIBLE hiking trails, natural hot springs and top notch waterfalls. The amount of greenery from the rainforest in the summer engulfs you and you can’t help but be amazed! We’d finish up by heading back to Portland and then east to the Columbia River Gorge. There are tons of overlooks, hiking trails and sights to see but specifically, we would make sure to hit the Oneonta Gorge hike. On this hike you have to climb over a HUGE pile of wet timber (pretty sketchy) then continue on scaling rocks and creeks in a small canyon until you get to a spot that you have to wade in chest deep freezing glacier water. Once on the other side, there are dark black rock faces on either side with pops of green moss and when you turn the corner a killer waterfall that feels like it was meant just for you and your crew of people. It is one of the most surreal spots I’ve ever been and truly a sight to see. Damn. I want to go to Oregon now.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Being in the photography field, my parents were definitely supportive of my photography journey. Whether it was photography or baseball, they would have supported me but I do owe them credit of simply being there as parents! When giving advice about photography or entrepreneurship, my biggest suggestion is to gain a mentor. Find someone who is doing exactly what you want to do and is doing it successfully. The person that I gained as a mentor was McCory James from Elevate Photography. I had an interview with Elevate to 2nd shoot some weddings for them and I thought I killed the interview. Turns out the interview killed me and he simply said your work isn’t good enough to shoot for us… but we like you and you could assist for us on weddings. Having my ego crushed and ready to leave, I looked around room and realized thatI didn’t have a single photo as good as any image on the walls of their studio. I took the assistant gig, shlepped gear around and asked questions and learned from the other photographers until McCory thought I was ready to start shooting for them. Not only did McCory help my photography but he helped the business aspect as well. I asked questions about pricing, tough customers, website design, etc. The best part about a mentor is they have a lot of great advice… but it doesn’t mean you need to take it! Just because they did something a certain way, didn’t mean I had to do the same things. Hearing his input and making my own decisions help me mold the type of person, photographer and business owner that I wanted to be and to put my own style on it. McCory wasn’t the only one that helped me. The entire Elevate staff and other photographer peers I learned from daily. Regardless of status of business I think I can learn something from any photographer no matter how novice or expert.