The shutter clicks and captures
the fame, of Movie Stars, Presidents, and Country Singers to Astronauts. If
Don Davis could line up all the 16x20 gold-framed photographs he has
taken since 1952, it would be a solid line some 400 feet long, portraying
at least 200 celebrities. Hidden adventures lie behind each photo,
from the moment it was taken to the time the final autograph was applied
with a silver pen.
For Davis and his wife, Garnet, it became a way
of life, a hobby with a challenge sometimes yielding great rewards. Meeting
presidents, dining with celebrities, free concert tickets and backstage
passes are just a few of them.
The Davis’s have been on the Country Music Heritage
Committee at the Kentucky Highlands Museum, in Ashland, KY for the
past ten years and have helped to attain $14,000 in showcases. Davis
was responsible for acquiring the world’s largest collection
of country singer Keith Whitley, from millionaire Richard Snoden. Snoden,
owner of Talley Ho Casino in Las Vegas, is a collector, fan, and friend
of the Whitley family. Davis attended and photographed the unveiling
of the seven-foot statue of Whitley in Sandy Hook, KY. The statue
had been escorted from Nashville by 45 Harley Davison motorcycles.
As a freelance photographer, Davis, with the help of
his wife Garnet, has captured scenic landscapes, weddings and historic
moments since his army days.
“I was just a poor country boy when I joined the army,” Davis
said. “I was stationed in Panama in 1952 and took up photography
as a hobby. I formed a photography club on my base and when I heard
the Queen of England was coming to Panama City, I took the camera club
to see her. That was the first time I photographed a famous face.” Davis
had sent copies to the Queen and later received a letter of appreciation
from Buckingham Palace. “(It) really whetted my appetite for
Photographing celebrities.” Soon after, Davis began taking
pictures of celebrities at every available opportunity.
“I was on the Portsmouth River Days committee for eight years
and was chief photographer and on the publicity committee, I helped
bring in people like James Durey, Bob Fuller and Lonzo and Oscar,” he
smiles. “For four years, I did the River Days program and I needed
photos to print in the program. It was then I realized how
many celebrity photos I had accumulated in my files.”
Davis started his collection of different personalities by enlarging
the best of the photos to 16x20 size in gold frames. Each frame
displays a gold plaque at the bottom listing the celebrity’s
name, profession and date the photo was taken.
“The art and the challenge is to take a candid shot and make
it look like a portrait,” said Davis. “When you only
get five minutes, you have to make the most of the five minutes. You
have to get the right angle and the right background, so you have to
think fast. Sometimes when the background is really bad,
I have it removed by the artists at the photography studio and a black
background put in,” Davis continues.
The most difficult challenge is obtaining an autograph for each
image. Most of his photo collection is autographed
with a gold, silver or black pen, depending on its background.
“I have to catch them a second time,” he laughs. “That’s
where the challenge comes in. If I hear they are going to be
within driving distance, Garnet and I try to go where they are to get
the autograph. While I’m there, I usually shoot a few more
photos of any other stars that may be in the area.”
“One of the saddest things is when one of the stars die before
the photo is autographed. Some of the photographs that will never
be autographed are Dinah Shore, Telly Savalas, Bill Monroe, Conway
Twitty and Ernest Tubb.”
One of his most memorable experiences was photographing Dolly
Parton. Mingling in with her fan club, Davis ended up about
10 feet away from her. He took several shots with a 70 to 200MM
lens. Obtaining the Portraits autograph was a similar
adventure. Dolly Parton made a backstage appearance at Cannonsburg,
KY. Everyone was being turned away with the exception of a group
of school children that had made her a coat of many colors, to match
her song. They presented her the colorful coat in a box with
a dozen roses and an official commendation from Billy Ray Cyrus’s
father, who was State Rep., to make it official. Encouraged by
the children, Dolly tried the coat on and Davis said, “Dolly,
look at me” then a world exclusive photo of Dolly in the coat
of many colors was captured.
A true challenge was photographing Charlton Heston
at a political breakfast being held for the Republican Party
in Roberts Arena.
“I found out Heston was going to be in Ohio. I
had to make a lot of calls to find out where he was going to be. Then
I found out he was only going to be at the breakfast one hour. “I
had to make plans fast. My press pass from a local newspaper got me
in and I photographed him during his speech. It was a thrill and an
honor to photograph such a mega-star.”
As a personal friend of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Davis had managed
to photograph the couple many times. After the death of Roger’s
sister, Cleda Willoughby of Portsmouth, Davis sent Roy and Dale a 5x7
photo of Willoughby. In return, he received a letter from Dale Evans
stating it was framed and was setting on Roger’s desk.
Davis was Co-coordinator of the Roy Rogers Festival activities on
the Esplanade for nearly five years and has worked with the festival
for approximately 20 years. He has scheduled entertainment and
staged western shoot-outs in Portsmouth. During one of the Festivals,
Actor, Iron Eyes Cody, attended a cookout at the Davis’s. A
photograph was captured by Davis which now hangs in the Shawnee State
Lodge in Friendship, Ohio.
During another political campaign in Huntington, WV, Davis captured
Bill, Hilary and Chelsea Clinton, whose images he later framed. Davis
read that former President Jimmy Carter and wife Roselyn, and Hilary
Clinton were lending a hand for the Habitat for Humanity in Pikeville,
KY. Not only did he attain autographs for his previous images
of President Carter and Roselyn, he was able to meet Hilary Clinton.
Davis, with a press pass, was able to walk freely around one of the
houses being built where he met Jimmy Carter and asked if he would
sign his photo. President Carter replied, “Sure, bring
it on up here.” The former President and his wife both
signed their photos.
Later, at a building used for lunches, he met Hilary and asked if
she would sign her photos. She said, “Sure, I’ll
do it.” The Secret Service actually helped Davis set up
tables to lie out her photos for signing. Hilary picked up one
of the photos and said, “Wow, that is up close.” Then
she signed it while Davis photographed her signing, and one of her
Davis sent copies of them autographing the images and received
letters from both Jimmy Carter and Hilary Clinton.
Davis’s work hangs in honor at various museums. At the
Coalton Museum in Coalton, Ohio, hangs the last image taken of Gov.
Rhodes, signed by him to the people of Ohio. At Bob Brown’s
Leather Museum in Hollywood, a photograph portrait of Bob Brown himself,
the famous leather workman to numerous Hollywood stars, is on display. In
the DuMont Museum in Signory, IA, several of Davis’s photographs
are displayed. He and Garnet traveled to Iowa recently and were
given the grand tour of the museum.
“To capture Arnold Schawrtzenegger, I went to Columbus to a
fitness Seminar where Swartznagger was going to make a guest appearance”,
said Davis. “My press pass got me in and I received all
sorts of gifts and expensive magazines on fitness. I photographed
him, but that is one that I have never gotten autographed yet.”
Davis has even made The New York Times Newspaper, which requested
and published one of his photos in an article about Country Singer
Amy Chaney, covering her concert at The Kentucky Highlands Museum.
Retirement has in no way slowed Davis down. Last year he had
an exhibit of celebrity photos at Prestonsburg, KY Mountain Arts Center. Davis
was Coordinator of the 2004 Tri-State Country Talent Search in Ashland,
KY and is currently active in locating talent for the Southern Ohio
Opry while helping with tickets at the door and photographs when needed.
Davis has come a long way from the country boy who wanted
to be a photographer. As a three-time commissioned Kentucky Colonel,
he has received letters from numerous stars, and important celebrities
such as former Presidents Carter and Clinton. Davis always sends a
copy of the photo he enlarges to each celebrity. Over the years
he has given away some 35,000 photos. Always with a smile, he
exhibits many on the walls of his workshop.
“One thing I’ve always said is that kindness is hard
to give away” Davis stated. “I’ve been blessed
by the wonderful people I’ve been associated with through
the medium of photography. When you treat people right and you’re
nice to people, it comes back to you.”