Like many photographers, Houston Vandergriff built on a natural gift by studying her craft. More than 200 hours of classes at the Center for Professional Education and Lifelong Learning at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, have helped him improve the technical and artistic techniques he uses on portraits, landscapes and action shots .
Vandergriff was born with Down syndrome and a hole in his heart. Doctors thought he wouldn’t survive, but his parents had other ideas. “When Houston was born,” says her father, David, a 1979 graduate of UT’s Tickle College of Engineering, “my wife Katie and I decided we were going to give her every opportunity to do whatever our daughters, Maranda and Elisa, did. . Partly because of her own interest in the arts, Katie had encouraged their daughters to pursue acting, painting and other creative pursuits.Maranda is now creative director of the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, and Elisa is a freelance web developer and digital media specialist.
Now, at 24, Houston has already built a successful career as a photographer. He sells scenic shots from his many trips with his family, donating the proceeds to charity. A recent calendar sold twice. His work has made him a TikTok star, with 400,000 followers and over 23 million views.
Vandergriff’s website, DownsandTowns.com, where he sells his work, includes a succinct summary: “He has traveled far and wide and hopes his photographs will inspire others to live life to the full and live life with compassion. Houston has a simple vision with her photography: to make the world a better place. »
Putting passion at the center
Vandergriff started taking pictures in preschool when his parents gave him a disposable camera, and he got more serious in a 4-H photo program in middle school. Then, with his Nikon D7100 and his mother by his side, he completed more than 200 hours of study at UT’s Center for Professional Education and Lifelong Learning, earning a photography certificate in 2019. and an advanced certificate in 2020.
“All of her photography classmates immediately fell in love with Houston and were totally supportive of her progress as a photographer, as were her uncredited photography teachers,” says Darrin Devault, director of the center and its photography certificate programs. . “He has a keen eye for capturing stunning images that inspire others, especially his landscape images which were taken during his frequent family trips abroad.”
David Vandergriff agrees: “Houston is good at capturing that different perspective. He’ll go to the side and find a wiser way to look at something. It comes across as spectacular in many ways.
David is a mechanical engineer who travels frequently for work, including traveling to southern France as a subcontractor supporting Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s role in building the ITER Tokamak nuclear fusion reactor. “When I travel, Houston can go with me,” he says.
Vandergriff captured beautiful images of the French countryside on these trips, as well as snaps from a family visit to Maranda in Italy and other travels. He has visited all 95 counties of Tennessee, 49 of the 50 United States, five Canadian provinces and 26 countries. When asked about his favorite country, he smiled and replied, “All of them.”
When the family went on a mission trip with the First Baptist Church of Powell to rebuild a church in Guatemala, they learned about the challenges of children with special needs. Vandergriff decided to donate the proceeds from the photo sale to a Guatemalan non-profit organization.
Sharing the Gift of Hope
“Downsandtowns.com is a special needs awareness and advocacy site,” says David. “Yes, Houston has Down syndrome. But that hasn’t limited what he’s able to do or where he’s able to do it.
Houston completed a photography internship at ORNL as part of the BEST Knoxville (Bridge to Employment in Service and Tourism) program. Every week, he delivers Mobile Meals with his grandmother, Marilyn Umstead. He works one day a week at the Lucky Day Resale and Gift Shop on Western Avenue. He competes through Knoxville Challenger Sports, an organization that provides opportunities for children and young adults with special needs in soccer, basketball, golf, swimming and bowling. He is also a crew chief for his father’s 1992 BMW endurance racing team.
“For doing portraits, he’s so authentic,” says David. “He’s a shining star. He has the most magnetic personality of anyone I know. He has a way of drawing people in. He puts everyone at ease. He puts them at ease. »
When asked how he became so outgoing, Houston quickly and surely replies, “I was born that way.”