ISU alumni go from grandparents’ attic to professional photographers

Dan McClanahan poses for a portrait Friday September 11, 2015 in McClanahan Studios in Ames, Iowa.

Josh Newell

Like most young couples who grew up in the age of the computer, Alex and Dan McClanahan have dozens of selfies plastered in various places around the Internet. But most other couples’ selfies don’t involve expensive studio strobes or photo compositing dozens of layers in Photoshop.

For the last six years, Alex and Dan have run McClanahan Studios, which is located in a nondescript building at 210 5th St. across from the Ames Library.

The large glass windows would make the ground floor office into something resembling an exhibit at the zoo for those inside if wasn’t for the gigantic photographs hung on the windows, completely enrapturing the attention of anyone who passes by.


“I didn’t really have any vision for my future, so in-state tuition was cheap,” Dan said.

Growing up in Ames, Dan graduated from Ames High School in 2004 and enrolled at Iowa State as a journalism major, starting work at the Iowa State Daily.

“I got roped in early,” Dan said. “I was the naive freshman who watches the movies where all the good-looking protagonists write for the magazines in New York and their lives look fun.”

Dan didn’t work as a photographer during his first two years at Iowa State, but rather as a writer covering the Ames music scene.

“I was really into music,” Dan said. “Then I realized I wasn’t going to be able to support a family, eventually, if that happened. So I sort of surrounded myself with activities in that world. So I worked at the M-Shop as a sound tech, I worked at the Daily, you know, like album reviews and running the arts and entertainment section.”

That same year, Dan met fellow freshman Alex, who joined Freshman Council basically on a whim.

“I guess I’ll just do this thing,” Alex said.

Alex and Dan sat down the next year and planned out their class schedules, so they could maximize their time together, going so far as to take the same history of rock ‘n’ roll class.

“It was the one class I never missed,” Dan said.

Dan enrolled in associate professor Dennis Chamberlin’s intro to photography class his junior year.

“Part way through, I met Dennis [Chamberlin], who’s awesome,” Dan said. “He advised I switch from print emphasis to visual communication emphasis.”

Dan won’t mention it, but he worked harder than anyone else in the course. After receiving an assignment to make a portrait, most of the students turned in shoots that had frame counts in the 50s. Dan’s final frame count came in at over 800.

“It was like his life depended on getting the right frame,” Chamberlin said. “He just tried so many things. I couldn’t believe how enthusiastic he was about that assignment.”

While Dan excelled in Chamberlin’s photojournalism classes, the rules and regulations quickly grew stale for him.

“I had an internship with a newspaper and it was fun, but it kind of taught me that I didn’t want to do that,” Dan said. “I love it and I respect it, it’s just the lifestyle is a little rough on the wife that you want to see.”

Dan also grew dissatisfied with the creative constraints that are placed on photographers who work for newspapers.

“If everyone else is doing things one way, that kind of kills my interest in doing that because it’s not unique anymore,” Dan said. “So that’s why, like in [photojournalism] I go shoot an Iowa State basketball game, you’re sitting in a row with 10 other people shooting the exact same thing with the exact same lens, which is unexciting to me because of that fact. I’d rather come up with a creative idea and execute it. That’s why I make the posters instead of shoot the game.”

As graduation loomed, Dan and Alex began to look toward what life outside of Iowa State would look like.

“I think as a culture, we put a little too much emphasis on career being the ultimate thing in life,” Dan said. “I knew a couple things. I knew I wanted to marry Alex and I knew whatever I’d end up doing would be with her, even if it wasn’t in my major.”

Real life strikes

Alex and Dan got married in July 2008. They were ready to move Boulder, Colo., where Alex had a graphic design job lined up at a large advertising firm.

“She was 99 percent certain we were moving there,” Dan said. “She went back to do all the interviews with five different people and solidify the deal, and that day, they lost the Nike account. So they ended up not having a job for her anymore. That was our big plan, right before we got married, and then the rug got pulled out from under us. We even had an apartment picked out, and all that.”

With Alex’s job offer no longer on the table, the pair moved into Dan’s grandparents’ attic, while they both found part-time jobs in Ames.

“They offered up their attic for free, and they’re awesome, so living with them was actually really fun,” Dan said.

Dan found work as a computer technician at McFarland Clinic, and Alex worked at The Café in Northridge.

“We started doing [McClanahan Studios] as we had a lot of free time on our hands, and there was real interest through Facebook inquiries,” Dan said.

With their free time, Dan and Alex incorporated McClanahan Studios as a business in March 2009 and started shooting weddings and senior portraits soon after.

Dan said since the beginning they have stayed busy keeping up the pace of the business. Most of their work comes in the summer and fall, giving the two time to plan next year’s shoots during the winter and spring, as well as attend photography conferences and seminars.

“Ever since we’ve started we’ve been busy,” Dan said.

Alex left her job at The Café in 2010 and began working at the studio full time alongside Dan.

“It’s pretty awesome you get to choose your coworker, who is awesome,” Alex said.

Award season

Dan and Alex have both been submitting their work to the Professional Photographers of America competitions since 2010. This year is the best they have done as a pair.

After entering at the state level in March, their photos moved on to regionals and then national levels of the competition.

Dan was awarded a Diamond Photographer of the Year award, which means all four of his submitted photos made it to the Professional Photographers of America Loan Collection. Alex’s four images received a bronze medal, making the cut into the General Collection of the PPA.

Only 1,085 of the 5,190 images submitted into the competition were chosen for the Loan Collection. Alex was one of 55 photographers worldwide to receive the bronze medal, and Dan’s award is one of only 35 on the planet.

While other couples might become competitive, Alex and Dan celebrate each other’s accomplishments instead of their own.

“He gets more happy for me, and I get more happy for him,” Alex said.

Despite the accolades, Dan’s favorite photo wasn’t well received by the judges. The photo, titled “Be Kind, Please Rewind,” features a model in a dress made out of magnetic tape springing out of a VHS player, as if she was a genie from a lamp.

The photo, which is a composite of nearly 30 different images, took 30 hours to edit. Dan said the dress made out of tape was the hardest part of the image to composite.

Moving forward

As the leaves start to turn from green to the deep reds and golds of fall in Iowa, Dan and Alex are preparing for another momentous shift in their business and lives.

Because of their runaway success in finding work and clients, the two are starting to move away from shooting weddings and family portraits and more toward higher paying commercial work.

Dan recently returned from a shoot in Florida, and the couple’s list of clients at Iowa State and other colleges around Iowa is growing rapidly.

The recently completed advertising campaign at Clarke University in Dubuque, Iowa, saw them shoot more than 25 different shots for posters to be used in promotional material for the university.

With all the chaos in their lives, Dan and Alex seem to take things in stride.

“I’m more of a one day at a time guy,” Dan said. “Right now we’re more preoccupied with having a kid.”