Somebody once posed a seemingly obvious question to Danny Rawls: “I like your pictures, but mine don’t look that good – what do you do?”
Rawls’ reply was one simple word: Passion.
“You can’t just mash a button and it’s just going to be like you want it,” said Rawls, a Hattiesburg resident who has studied and practiced the art of photography for most of his adult life. “I find myself, sometimes, living and breathing it too much. Everywhere I go I see an image.”
It’s what led him to get serious in the field when he was teaching History and Speech at Sumrall High School in the late ‘70s, when he found himself sponsoring the school’s yearbook. Being in the film days, it wasn’t always convenient to hire someone to come out and shoot pictures at the school, so Rawls bought a camera of his own.
At the time, Rawls lived next to Carl Broome, a photographer who owned a studio in Hattiesburg, which gave him a chance to tag along with Broome and learn the craft. When it came time for Rawls to renew his teaching certificate, he decided to take a photo class.
It was then he decided he wanted to make a career of photography – enough so to leave teaching. After leaving the school system, Rawls opened his own photography studio on Hardy Street, which remained there for 21 years until he decided to change direction after digital photography gained popularity.
“I kind of saw the handwriting on the wall,” he said. “Of course, the world of photography changed with the advent of digital and it becoming more affordable for everyone.
“I have kind of a running sermon that I preach … that everybody who owns a camera is a photographer. There was a time that every photographer bombarded Facebook, and they were much like insurance salesmen – as soon as they used up their circle of friends, they were out of business and went on to something else.”
After closing the studio, Rawls wasn’t quite sure where he would end up. Fortunately, it wasn’t too long before officials from the University of Southern Mississippi tabbed him to manage the school’s photo services, a position he held from 2000 until he retired last year.
“We photographed everything – the alumni association, sporting events, different departments that would want photos for their website,” Rawls said. “We had probably one of the nicest studios around, there in the basement of the Thad Cochran Center.
“We really had kind of the best toys that a photographer could hope for. And in talking to some of my contemporaries that have similar jobs at different universities, they can’t believe the facility that we have (compared to some other places.)”
Since his retirement, Rawls has continued with his photography, serving as an adjunct professor at William Carey University. He’s also worked with smART Space, which is a community arts studio provided by the Hattiesburg Arts Council in the America Building downtown.
“That was really a pleasure, to be able to have a space to put my things,” he said. “We had a couple of shows, and a couple of official openings where people were invited to come down.
“From that, there were a couple of people that came, and I said, ‘Hey, I like your look – let’s take some pictures.’”
In fact, he enjoys photography even moreso now that he’s retired, as he can focus on doing projects that he really enjoys doing.
“I’m very selective – I really like people and portraiture, and I like the control of setting all that up,” he said. “One of my favorite photographers was Richard Avedon – he was a portrait and magazine photographer – and a quote of his I can really identify with is, ‘My portraits are more about me than they are about the people I photograph.’
“There’s often a darker side, a moodier side, rather than a prettier, smiley side. Jokingly, sometimes subjects say I won’t let them smile – sometimes I think that’s artificial. I like to get a relationship going with them … so it’s not just them standing there.”
One thing Rawls has learned over his career: It’s not the quality of the camera so much as the skill of the person behind it.
“It’s not the wand that gets the rabbit out of the hat; it’s the magic in the magician,” he said. “It’s like saying a great writer must have a good computer or a good keyboard – I don’t think that’s how it works.
“The equipment, within a certain price point, is all the same now; it’s what you do with it that matters.”
Haskel Burns, staff reporter for Signature, used to think he was a good photographer, having taking up photojournalism at The University of Southern Mississippi. Seeing Danny Rawls’ pictures made him reconsider his level of expertise.