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April 05, 2012 8:54 am

A picturesque career

Written by Ilene Olson

J.L. ‘Woody’ Wooden shows three Maasai children their images on his camera during a 2005 photo safari to Tanzania. J.L. ‘Woody’ Wooden shows three Maasai children their images on his camera during a 2005 photo safari to Tanzania. Courtesy photo

Photography instructor set to retire in May

Best pay cut I ever took,” Woody Wooden said Tuesday when recalling his 2001 move to Powell to take a position as a photography instructor at Northwest College.

Prior to coming to Northwest, Wooden was a program manager at the Community College of Southern Nevada, where he also taught photography.

“Northwest College had a very strong photography program, and we had just gotten a little baby girl,” he said. “All of the women who are in the program (at the Nevada college) who are born and raised in Las Vegas sort of had a superficial attitude. Everything was instantaneous gratification.

“My wife and I decided that we really didn’t want her growing up in that environment.”

Wooden said he took a 47-percent pay cut when he assumed the NWC position — and he has no regrets.

“There’s just something that I totally like about teaching,” he said. “I was able to insist that I not be program coordinator or division chair. All I wanted was to teach in the classroom. And they’ve respected that.

Several years ago, Wooden and his wife decided to move to Wapiti, west of Cody.

“People thought I was crazy,” he said. “But that one-hour drive has been very therapeutic, and it’s a beautiful place.”

Wooden originally didn’t plan to retire at all, but Parkinson’s disease changed his plans.

“I thought they’d walk in here one day and find me frozen in position and say, ‘It smells bad in here. Let’s get him out of here,’” he joked.

Overall, though, “I’m not unhappy to be retiring, either. I’m accepting of it.”

Parkinson’s disease, ischemic heart disease and spinal arthritis are the prices he has paid for exposure to the defoliant, Agent Orange, during his military service in Vietnam.

While he doesn’t like the way he got Parkinson’s, he said he is thankful that Veterans Affairs is taking care of medical bills, “so I’m not going to be stuck at home, living paycheck to paycheck.”

Wooden said he thought he might have to retire a year ago.

“I almost didn’t come back this year, but we got the shakes under control, and it’s been fairly effective. I’m glad it held up,” he said. “I have to admit this last year has been a little rough at times because of all my doctor appointments and my less energetic moments. But overall, it’s been a hoot.”

After he retires, “I have big plans,” he said. “I want to do a lot more in publication and illustration. Three years ago, I had a cover of images for ‘Cody and Beyond,’ and I’m still working for them on different assignments.”

He also has been asked to do some talks and presentations at different places. The first will be in Casper next year.

But first, he plans to take some time to relax.

“I envision retirement as doing the things I want to do, interspersed with a few assignments,” Wooden said. “You can have it both ways, can’t you?”

Wooden, his wife Catherine and their two children, Ellie and Alex, will continue to live in Wapiti as long as it is practical.

“We love it,” Wooden said.

“We will probably move to Cody when my kids start driving, or if my health degrades more.”

But he has no plans to leave the area.

“I just can’t think of living anywhere else,” he said.

Looking back over his years at Northwest College and remembering the students he has taught and guided, Wooden said his favorite moments are “when you are teaching a concept and you see the light go on.”

But “that happens all the time,” so he couldn’t single out just one memory or moment.

“You would have to put it in the hundreds,” he said.

The most rewarding times, he said, are when former students come back to talk about their photography careers and to encourage other students in the program.

“Seeing students achieve and go into the filed, then having them come back and tell other students that they’re capable of doing the same thing,” he said. “We just had a couple of our students (AAron Ontiveroz and Seth McConnell) come back to talk to students about working at the Denver Post. I can remember one of them coming in class tired and sleepy. I didn’t think he was paying attention. But now he’s working at the Denver Post.

“They have grown up not only to be professional photographers, but also to be considerate young men.”

“I think that’s what makes our program unique, and part of what drew me here, is the practicality of what is taught here. We have students in New York, all over the country, all over the world.”

Wooden credits the success of the program to “the dedication of Craig Satterlee, Anthony Polvere and Gary Bakken, and Jane (Johnson) is like the pivotal hub that holds this program together. All of them are student oriented. They want to take care of the student — What do they need to know? What do they need to learn?”

But Satterlee, associate professor of photography and NWC photography program coordinator, said Wooden deserves much of the credit as well.

“He’s got a lot of experience that, I think, complimented what we do, and where we were weak, that was his strength,” Satterlee said. “He is a strong supporter of the philosophy we have ... as far as training photography students to go out and make a life in it.

“He’s done an awful lot in his life... He’s so easy to get along with. He jokes around, and we all have a good time. That part is always going to be missed. But for me, he’s not retiring, because I’m going to continue to talk to him, and I expect to see him in the photography community quite often.

“What’s funny to me is, when I look back, it all happened so fast. It seems like he just got here,” Satterlee said.

Wooden said he had the best of two worlds. While teaching, he also was able to pursue his own passion for photography.

“I got paid for this,” he said, gesturing toward the classrooms where he teaches, a note of amazement in his voice. “Not much money, but I still got paid for doing it. My photography as a whole is amazing to do, and then to get paid for it ...

“Every day, you don’t go to work — you just go.”

Woody Wooden retires with retrospective photo exhibit opening Tuesday, April 10

Northwest College celebrates the life and tenure of J.L. “Woody” Wooden with a retrospective exhibit of his life’s work that opens Tuesday, April 10, in SinClair Gallery.

The display kicks off with an artist’s reception at 7:30 p.m. in the Orendorff Building Lounge.

Wooden, who is retiring this spring from his faculty position in the NWC Photography Department, will share highlights from a photography career that includes images from the Vietnam War, President Reagan, lightning storms and world travels.

Wooden’s award-winning career began when he was a combat medic in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. His work from this period has hung in offices in Washington, D.C., and toured the United States for more than two years in the “As Seen By Both Sides: American and Vietnamese Artists Look at the War” exhibit.

That collection now resides at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. “Missing and the Forgotten,” one of Wooden’s images from the exhibit that received the most notoriety.

After the war, Wooden found himself in a promising cinematography career documenting forest fires for CBS News and marveling as his footage aired on Walter Cronkite’s news program. When it became obvious that war injuries would prevent him from carrying heavy motion picture equipment on a daily basis, Wooden turned to still cameras and a career that took him across the United States in a pattern that was as unpredictable as it was all-encompassing.

Wooden’s vocational history includes several years as a homicide specialist doing forensics photography for the Tucson Police Department and the Pima County Sheriff’s Department in Arizona, and later in California. He also spent numerous years in commercial photography, working either for himself or for advertising agencies.

Photographs featured in the exhibit from this period of Wooden’s career include an image of a coveted living orchid and a photo of former Secretary of State Madeline Albright.

While living in Santa Barbara, Calif., Wooden was commissioned to photograph individual images of then President Reagan for an American Cancer Society fundraiser. It was on this assignment that Wooden says he made one of the biggest mistakes of his career —trying to move past a secret service agent by telling him he needed to get a better angle “to shoot the President.”

One of his long-standing passions has been capturing lightning on film. After working with world renowned lightning physicist Leon Salanave and then becoming one of the nation’s leading experts on lightning photography, Wooden published a two-volume thesis on the subject.

Through all the years and in all the places his multifaceted career took him, Wooden always taught photography. In addition to NWC, he’s been on faculty rolls at colleges in Texas, California, Alabama and Nevada.

Wooden’s photographs have been exhibited in museums across North America, and in Europe and China.

Wooden invited community members to Tuesday’s reception. “A Retrospective–Images by J.L. ‘Woody’ Wooden” will hang through April 27 in SinClair Gallery.

Located in the Orendorff Building, the gallery is open from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays. Admission is free.

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