Like many photographers, Houston Vandergriff has built on a natural gift by studying his art. More than 200 hours of courses at the Center for Professional Education and Lifelong Learning at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, 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 would not survive, but his parents had other ideas. “When Houston was born,” says his father, David, a 1979 graduate of UT’s Tickle College of Engineering, “my wife Katie and I decided we were going to give him every opportunity to do everything that our daughters, Maranda and Elisa, did.” Partly because of her own interest in the arts, Katie had encouraged their daughters to pursue drama, painting, and other creative activities. 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 extensive travels with his family, donating the proceeds to charities. A recent calendar sold out twice. His work has made him a TikTok star, with 400,000 followers and more than 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 fullest and to live life with compassion. Houston has a simple vision with his photography: Make the world a better place.”
Bringing Passion into Focus
Vandergriff began taking pictures as a preschooler when his parents gave him a disposable camera, and he grew more serious in a middle school 4-H photo program. Then, with his Nikon D7100 and his mother by his side, he completed more than 200 hours of study through UT’s Center for Professional Education and Lifelong Learning, earning a certificate of photography in 2019 and an advanced certificate in 2020.
“All his photography classmates immediately fell in love with Houston and were totally supportive of his progress as a photographer, as were his noncredit photography instructors,” says Darrin Devault, director of both the center and its photography certificate programs. “He has a keen eye for capturing amazing images that inspire others—particularly his landscape images that were snapped during his frequent family trips abroad.”
David Vandergriff agrees: “Houston is good at capturing that different perspective. He’ll go off to the side and find a wiser way of looking at something. It comes across as spectacular in so many ways.”
David is a mechanical engineer who frequently travels for work, notably to the south of France as a subcontractor supporting Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s part in building the ITER Tokamak nuclear fusion reactor. “When I travel, Houston can go with me,” he says.
Vandergriff has captured beautiful images of the French countryside on those trips, as well as shots from a family visit to Maranda in Italy and other travels. He has been to all 95 counties in Tennessee, 49 of the 50 United States, five Canadian provinces, and 26 countries. When asked his favorite country, he smiles and says, “All of ’em.”
When the family went on a mission trip with First Baptist Church of Powell to rebuild a church in Guatemala, they learned about the challenges of special needs children there. Vandergriff resolved to donate proceeds from photo sales to a Guatemalan nonprofit.
Sharing the Gift of Hope
“Downsandtowns.com is about awareness and advocacy for special needs,” says David. “Yes, Houston has Down syndrome. But that has not limited what he’s able to do or where he’s able to do it.”
Houston interned as a photographer at ORNL through the BEST Knoxville (Bridge to Employment in Service and Tourism) program. Each 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 children and young adults with special needs with opportunities in soccer, basketball, golf, swimming, and bowling. He also serves as crew chief for his father’s 1992 BMW endurance racing team.
“For taking portraits, he is so authentic,” says David. “He is a bright star. He has the most magnetic personality of anyone I know. He has a way of drawing people in. He makes everyone feel comfortable. He makes them feel at ease.”
Asked how he came to be so outgoing, Houston answers quickly and surely, “I was born that way.”