Curtis Callaway has the World by the Frame

by Jon Platt | November 8, 2018

From a young age, his destiny has been in front of him: adventure and capturing it in a frame.

Oversized couches scatter the second floor of Castellaw Communication Center. In the spring and fall semesters, students set up shop here between their classes and a buzz fills the hallways. In the summer, though, the buzz disappears. The hallways are empty, the couches lonely.

In early June, I sat on one of those couches waiting for Curtis Callaway, a senior lecturer of journalism, public relations, and new media at Baylor. The linoleum floor and ceramic tile walls of Castellaw make every small thing an echo, especially the stride of Curtis’s boots as I heard him coming up the stairwell. Like these echoes, you are aware when Curtis is there. He is tall, engaging, confident. Usually, he is on campus to teach and he wears a button-up shirt—one of those polyester fishing shirts by Columbia—in neutral colors, blue jeans, and brown loafers. This time, though, he is not teaching, coming into town from his farm for an errand and our interview. He dressed down. An old ballcap, t-shirt with grass clippings on the shoulder, and the scuffed boots show he had been working outside.

“It’s hot out there,” he said, and he smiled the unforced smile of a man living his best life. His smile is famous in the department. In fact, almost everyone I interviewed mentioned it. How wide it is, how genuine it is, and how comfortable it can make his students. It lets them know he is not here to badger or crucify them. I think they are part of the reason he smiles—the energy they give him and the higher purpose he has in leading them.


Callaway teaches photography. He is one of three in the department who does so. Graduating in 1991 from the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara and working as a professional photographer for two decades, Callaway’s perspective is different from the other two professors, who have spent their lives more in the realm in photojournalism.

 “He took me to the next level,” said Corrie Coleman, one of Callaway’s current students. “Because, with him, there is this crazy amount of obsession to detail.”

Rae Jefferson called that level of attention “Callaway caliber.” She said he taught her, “If you want to be good, you have to be precise.”

His method of teaching involves putting more “time and focus into each photo,” rather than “relying on circumstance.” Students in a course with Callaway learn to obsess over details and bring emotion into what they shoot.

“The action was cool, but the photo was plain,” said Drew Mills, a former student, on what his work looked like before taking Callaway’s introduction to photography course. “With Curtis, I learned what I can do with a photo . . . He really challenged me to not just show up, do what’s told, and move on. He wants to make sure it’s the best it can be.”

Perhaps his smile also comes from the leftover joy of adventures. It lingers from memories. Curtis, his wife Kaye (“whom he really likes”), and his two daughters had just returned from travelling across Italy. Last summer, he photographed on safari in Africa, but only after taking a group of students to Costa Rica in partnership with the environmental science department. Earlier this year, he and Kaye spent time swimming with whale sharks. A few weeks after their Italy trip, they were travelling again—this time to Maine.

“From his days with Cousteau, adventure followed him. And, since I’ve known him, he’s been around the world—either with a camera or complaining that he didn’t have one on him,” said Carol Perry, one of Callaway’s colleagues in the journalism department. Perry, also a senior lecturer, offices next door to Callaway in a tucked-away corner of Castellaw. “Curtis and Kaye should have the middle name ‘Adventure,’” Perry added.

Years before teaching at Baylor, Callaway did contract photography for the Jacques Cousteau Society, which specializes in marine biology exploration. Callaway “dove into places people had never dove before.” For eight months out of the year, for seven years, it was all adventure. Callaway was one of the first American photographers allowed back into Vietnam. He experienced remote parts of the world.

“We would be sailing from point A to point B and just stop at this random island,” he said, recalling one time he emerged from a dive and a native man in a canoe was thoroughly surprised by the diver and his gear.

Callaway worked directly with Jacques’ son, Jean Michel. On passenger ships, he gave lectures “on coral reef ecology, sharks, and marine mammals.” He did live broadcasts for the passengers from underwater.

“(My family) grew up watching Jacques Cousteau and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” he told a magazine in Mansfield, where his family is from.

He also grew up traveling to visit grandparents in the Ozarks. His grandmother would line her grandboys up with easels, brushes, canvas, and teach them to paint the Arkansas scenery. Curtis was only six or seven.

From a young age, his destiny has been in front of him: adventure and capturing it in a frame.

It was “truly fortuitous” that he came to teach at Baylor.

Since his arrival, he has helped to broaden the abilities of the journalism department and strengthened the graduating classes.

“Our department’s strength, I believe, is our commitment to and our care for our students and Curtis shares this vision,” said Dr. Clark Baker, associate professor of journalism, public relations, and new media, and a fellow teacher of photographer with Callaway. “It is indeed a pleasure to work alongside him.”

While his record precedes him, his care for his students now defines him.

“One of the things I have to do as chair, is review our faculty,” said Dr. Sara Stone, chair of the journalism, public relations, and new media department. “I can only think of one (student) evaluation that said, ‘This class was not for me.’”

Only one. There are not many professors who can say that.

“He has made more of our students think about being photojournalists,” Stone continued. “For the most part, students end their semester (with Callaway) saying, ‘This was the best class I took at Baylor.’ He opens doors for more students.”

Callaway constantly invites students along with him on adventures, spreading the joy you see in his smile.

He is famous for exploring the world, and “he still is,” said Constance Atton, a former student. She traveled with Callaway on several trips. “I love experiencing that with him.”

Mills traveled with Callaway for a study abroad program in 2014 in Italy. The students nicknamed him “Captain Callaway,” from his years at sea with the Cousteau Society.

Another place Callaway invites his students is into his life. He shares his ranch, his table, and his family regularly. Showing them the personal side many workaholics like Callaway might not have. It is his wife, Kaye, who keeps him balanced, everyone agrees.

“They feed off of each other,” Atton said. “He respects her and everything she has to say . . . (They are) genuinely patient, every thought she has he is hanging on to every word, and every thought he has she is hanging on the same.”

On one trip, Kaye fell from a cliff, suffering a tremendous injury.

“But, boom, he was there, he was ready,” said Mills, who was on the trip with them. “He was in control of the situation . . . He had a singular focus—her—and he’s been that way ever since.”

Curtis was there when Kaye woke up in hospital. Most people would not have made the sacrifices he made, Perry said. Some noted his attention to caring for Kaye could have lost him his job, but she was what was (and is) important to him. Kaye changes Curtis the way he changes others.

Now, Kaye is healing and, in watching them, it is a beautiful reminder of what love is for. From her injury, sometimes it is difficult for her to pull out a certain word from her mind. Though, she fully knows the concept she is searching for. He is there and she looks to him for help.

“When she is thinking of a word, he doesn’t automatically say it even though he knows it,” Atton said, suggesting there is a stronger link between the Callaways than can be explained. “They are so captivated by each other.”

As Curtis and Kaye spend their lives together, they do their best to bring out the passions of those intersecting their path.

“He has helped me be less afraid with my creative endeavors,” Jefferson said.

That day in Castellaw, we intended to sit in Callaway’s office. But, since it is summer, there is little space for sitting—camera bags and equipment he will lend out to students in the fall line almost every available square inch. Scattered on bookshelves are antique cameras, lenses, and photos. Facing the door is a shelf with a cool green album of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, a reminder of a former project. (Callaway did a documentary on Tommy Duncan, Wills’ singing partner and bandmember. Or, should I say, of course Callaway did a documentary on Tommy Duncan.) The man has accomplished so much and, yet, he never stops pushing the horizon and never stops sharing along the way.

“The diversity of his career,” Coleman said. “It really showed me what’s possible.”

Because he obsesses, waits, shows his best, pulls out the best in others—simply put, because he cares to show he cares—Curtis changes the lives of those around him in monumental ways.

“A friendship with him, it’s deeper than talk and work. It’s about your goals,” and about what is truly meaningful in life, Mills affirmed.

There are few will disagree with Carol Perry: “I’m glad Curtis is who he is.”

And all along the way, he is carrying his effortless, infectious smile.

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