At the age of twelve, this Des Moines, Iowa native aspired to have his photography featured in Life Magazine. Not only did he make that a reality, James Wood’s work could be seen in ads for Honda, Apple, American Motors, Yamaha, Gallo, Levi’s, Marlboro, Polaroid, and Wells Fargo just to name a few.
“I’d rather teach students the art of photography.” Mr. Wood humbly states. His love of photography began, as he would watch his older brother, (who specialized in portrait and wedding photography.) develop photographs in their homemade dark room which was formerly a fruit cellar. After James’ brother gave him a mini camera to explore and make magic, he was hooked. “I took pictures of animals, my friends, my parents” reminisced James.
Although his attraction to the art of photography was clear, James briefly attended Iowa State University as a mechanical engineer and physics major. While in college, he submitted photos to a photography contest and won. The signs were evident and James dropped out of Iowa State, hitch hiked to California, attended a 4-year Bachelors in Fine Art program at Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. After graduation Wood opened a small studio in Hollywood.
Three years later he started teaching one night a week, at Art Center, for the next 24 years while growing his advertising photography studio. “I loved working with students on concepts, (the ideas behind the images) as opposed to technique,” states Wood.
Jim and his lovely wife Shayla, also a photographer, in a gallery show of his photographs. The gallery is the “Elings, Wood Gallery.” At Grandview College in De Moines, IA. The Gallery was named after Jim and his Best Friend Virgil Elings.
After being offered a permanent position to head up the photography department at the accredited Academy of Art in San Francisco, Wood created several key concept classes to give students. This allowed them to narrow down exactly what they want to do as their focus before they graduate.
The classes were Visualization, Concept Design and Portfolio I. He challenged students to visually interpret words like fear, love, power, humor, strength, etc. Different students come up with different visuals based on their personal life experiences, thus personal styles start to emerge. Digital photography and Photoshop allow a student to create what they imagine. They can also produce signature styles because of this advancement in technology.
This teaching style has not changed for 17 years that Wood has been teaching at the Academy. During the first day of class, he tells every hopeful student, “If your photography does not stay in someone’s mind, then you do not exist as a photographer.”
He is adamant that the industry is all about the picture and it really doesn’t care how you arrive at it. Fine art photography students at the Academy still keep the “old school” tradition of developing photographs by using the dark room. It is still a staple of the “fine art” process.
When students take Wood’s photography classes and put their heart and soul into each project, it shows. “My students leave with portfolios that don’t look like “student assignments.” The photography curriculum at the Academy is geared to work with each student to develop a very personal portfolio that incorporates their unique vision of their chosen subject, be it fashion, still life, portrait, fine art, documentary, or almost any subject matter. These professional portfolios allow the graduating students to enter the photo workforce with confidence.
written by Adesa Swann // photography by Michael Hallstrom