by Susan Drinkard
Copyright1996 � Sandpoint Magazine
Every small town seems to have its town photographer, the visual historian who wears one of those khaki-colored vests stuffed with film, filters and lenses. Photographers at local papers tend to come and go, but the town photographer stays on board for a lifetime, taking pictures of babies, brides, bridges, and in Sandpoint's case, spectacular landscapes.
Duane "Cap" Davis is the man who has inherited the mantle of town photographer for Sandpoint. He'll no doubt laugh at the idea, but he is a legend in his own time.
Cap began his career as a photographer here under the tutelage of Ross Hall, who himself took over the town's photo business from Sandpoint's first town photographer, Dick Himes. Hall, who died in 1990, achieved renown for his sweeping, large-format black-and-white photography of the countryside and life in the Panhandle beginning in the '30s.
From 1947 to 1949 Cap learned the basics of photography from Hall, and assisted in some of his famous shoots at that time, including the historic log drives on North Idaho rivers. Ross couldn't be in two places at once, so during his apprenticeship Cap took photos with a 4x5 camera. "We were trying to cover two ends of the drives - up on the bank and down on the river," Cap recalls. "Ross got the best shots because he knew what he was doing. I was a babe in the woods.
"The first trip I made with Ross was to the top of Wood Rat Hill overlooking Priest Lake. We packed his big old 10-inch panorama camera and spent a half-day clearing land so we could see the lake," he said. It's been nearly a half century since those photos were shot, but they're still exhibited today in places.
A lot of things have changed in the photography business in all the years Cap has been taking pictures.
These days everyone has a 35 mm camera, and people shoot a lot of pictures of the same thing, he said. "But in those days you took a 4x5 camera and you shot one picture. Every flashbulb cost 10 cents." The subject would have to convince you they had their eyes shut for you to shoot two, said Cap.
Cap was born in Tescott, Kan., in 1926 to a farming family. He caught the photography bug in the early '40s while in high school. In those days, photography was all done in black and white, as color processes were just being created.
In fact, when the first roll of color film came into town at the local drug store, "They only got one roll," Cap remembers. "The druggist knew he could sell it to me." At over $4 for only six exposures, it was an extravagant expenditure. "At the time, people were working for a dollar a day," he recalled. "That was four days labor." His father was mad that Cap would spend so much on film - and scoffed at the thought he could even shoot a photograph in color.
But Cap did, and the druggist displayed the photos at his shop - some pictures taken around the farm, "with one or two of my dad with his turkeys. He was pooh-poohing the idea of color photos so much I had to take that." Cap still gets a chuckle when he remembers his dad later bragging to friends about the color photos his kid took.
Cap's father had first come to Sandpoint when he was 19 while on his way north to the wheat harvest in Canada. His car got stuck in Sandpoint, so he stayed for the winter and worked in a Humbird Lumber Company logging camp up Rapid Lightning Creek. When he came out in the spring he couldn't believe all the fish running up the creeks. "He used to say you could 'just go up a creek with a pitchfork and get trout!' " Cap said. Those impressions of North Idaho finally prompted Cap's father to move the family here, in 1943 after Cap was out of high school. Cap went to serve in Iwo Jima during World War II.
After the war, Cap studied agricultural engineering at the University of Idaho. He was one of the first people tested for career aptitudes; his kept coming up as art, but he kept trying to pursue engineering studies. "Photography at that time was not considered art," he says.
While in college he married Verna Mae Jones, a Sandpoint girl. They have four children, and six grandchildren. Verna Mae also worked for Ross Hall and his wife, Hazel, learning hand coloring from Hazel. "At that time, there was a lot of hand coloring to do," Cap recalls. "I was just an apprentice, but Verna Mae was paid by the piece. So she was the money bags."
After his early beginnings as a photographer, Cap took a 12-year hiatus to run a dairy farm north of Sandpoint with his father. One day in 1963, Cap ran into Ross Hall in town, and Hall told Cap he wanted to concentrate more on his then-booming postcard photography, and spend less time on the studio work. So Cap bought Hall out. They both operated out of the same building.
At one time Cap had 26 people on his payroll. Three scout jamborees in the 1960s - Girl Scout Nationals, Boy Scout World and the Boy Scout Nationals - kept them busy taking some 35,000 pictures. He hired high school students and trained each to do one thing well in the darkroom. He didn't have time to teach them the principles of photography. It was mass production without the machinery they have today, he said. Even now, 27 years later, he's still using the backs of some of the "cull" shots for scratch paper.
But Cap Davis is not known for mass production. He's a detail man. "You're always after a little bit more, and I don't ever consider that you get to take the perfect picture. If you did, you'd quit." Pressed to select a favorite photo, he'd choose one of his old coffee pot on a campfire.
"I always dream of a shot overlooking the lake ... maybe the syringas are blooming and just as you're getting ready to take it, a nice buck deer walks into the foreground. He has a nice set of antlers on, and the light is just right on him, and you happened to have hit the exposure," he said. "That never happens. If it does, you're not ready." Indeed, with his requirements for great weather and rare light, Cap considers he gets only some 12 good shooting days per year.
Even his young grandsons have learned to recognize a good day to take photos. "There's puffies in the sky today, Grandpa, so you better go," they say. Cap says puffies are big white, fluffy clouds, and he loves to take photos with puffies.
Cap's photos have appeared in innumerable periodicals, from Sunset to Sandpoint Magazine. An agency in New York sells the use of his photos nationally. His best-selling shot is of a combine in barley on a hill in the Palouse.
He's also produced a coffee table book of photos taken in Washington state, simply titled "Washington," on a commission from Old National Bank in Spokane. That project took him more than two years to finish. He toured every area of the state through two complete season change to shoot the book.
Cap is a humble man. He will not tell you all the big magazines where his photos are published. "It looks like I'm saying, 'I've been here, and I've been there.' Getting a picture in a magazine, that's what I do for a living," he said.
Cap Davis has looked through a lot of lenses in his day. He knows a good photo has a certain vitality or snap, an honest composition, and it may tell a story - all qualities within Cap Davis the man.
Oh, and a few puffies don't hurt.
Susan Drinkard, a teacher at Sandpoint Middle School, loves winter.
Cap Davis maintains the Duane Davis Photography studio in his home, 263-3014.
Sandpoint Magazine Contents