FELIX OCCHIUTO can easily be considered the Tiger Woods of
the photography world. Having placed at or near the top in every photo
competition he has entered in the last 10 years, Occhiuto is a formidable
The back room of Woodhaven Gallery Photographers on Jamaica Avenue, which
Occhiuto owns along with Rita McCauley, his business partner of 35 years, is
crammed with plaques and trophies. The awards include: Photographer of the Year
1998, Best in Show and Award of Excellence - all by the Professional
Photographers of Greater New York - and the Fuji Award 2000. He has collected
so many plaques that, lacking space in his office, he has started stashing them
in his car.
At 82, Occhiuto is spry, animated and above all, passionate about his art
and his lifelong love of learning.
"A mind is like a parachute. It only works when it is open and I go around
with mine open," Occhiuto said.
It is an attitude that has allowed the son of Italian immigrant parents to
lead a life of artistic endeavor and intellectual fulfillment.
father and mother who emigrated from Italy, finally meeting and marrying in New
York. Although he describes his family as loving, Occhiuto felt the sting of
being different as a young boy growing up in a time and place where an artistic
nature was little understood.
"I was considered weird," he said.
But his creativity was not to be inhibited. While still in high school, he
won a scholarship to the Leonardo DaVinci Art School in Manhattan, given by an
Italian organization of which his father was a member. There, under the
tutelage of Italian-born instructors, he studied sculpture. After high school
graduation, he joined the Army Air Corps, and it was in the military,
developing combat photos at Columbia Air Force Base in South Carolina that he
discovered his desire to take pictures.
Upon his discharge and aided by the G.I. Bill, Occhiuto spent six years in
formal training, first at the Germain School of Photography in Manhattan and
then at the New York Institute of Photography, also in Manhattan.
It was soon after he moved into his current home in Woodhaven in the 1950s
that he met McCauley at a photography competition. The photo buffs decided to
turn their talents into a business and in 1966 opened the Woodhaven Gallery.
Over the years, they have photographed more than 5,000 weddings and social
occasions. They continue to run a framing and custom mounting mail order
service, while specializing in portraiture.
"We complement one another. Our styles are different. I like simplicity in
my work, whereas he can put more into a scene," explains McCauley.
Occhiuto is effusive in his praise of his partner. "She is my critic,
encouragement, other hand, in good and bad times. Without her support, I don't
believe I would have been as successful," he said.
Occhiuto and McCauley often use one another as photo test subjects, with
the results sometimes surpassing their expectations. An example was a black and
white photographic portrait of a pensive Occhiuto, taken by McCauley.
"That's going to be the cover of my book!" Occhiuto said, referring to his
ongoing project of compiling his works into a book.
Both Occhiuto and McCauley believe in community involvement and for a time
decorated their block of Jamaica Avenue for the holidays. Just last year, they
were honored as Store Owners & Business Family of the Year by State Sen.
Serphin Maltese (R-Middle Village).
Occhiuto and McCauley consider their six employees as part of a family.
Included in the staff is Andrew Ulozevicius, a Lithuanian-born photographer.
"It was a case of talent meets talent," Occhiuto said of Ulozevicius, who was
recently abroad showcasing his photo exhibit "Dreamlands of America."
Education is an ongoing process for Occhiuto, his way of catching up on
"Growing up in such a large family, it was unaffordable to attend college
right after high school, yet the desire to learn burned in me all the time," he
In 1988, he began to take courses at Queensborough Community College and
has completed 126, according to Jennifer Dullahan, a spokeswoman for the
school. The courses have mostly been in the areas of photography, philosophy,
psychology and nutrition.
"I have grown so much at QCC in these past years."
For this he credits his professors. But that doesn't mean he's above
"I like to challenge them. I've been around long enough to teach them some
things," he said with an impish grin. His professors are equally complimentary.
Professor Ron Fusco said in a letter: "Thank you for being there in my classes
to lend that astute, philosophical wisdom that always seems to make an issue
clearer and meaningful to the rest of us."
"Community colleges were created to provide lifelong learning, of which
Felix is a perfect paradigm. His presence at our college serves as an
inspiration to our entire student body," commented Philip Pecorino, who has
taught Occhiuto in several philosophy courses.
Occhiuto has already registered for the fall semester.
The intersection of art and education is what Occhiuto believes has
broadened his horizons and allowed his mind to remain young and imaginative.
His photographic images show the bounty of his imagination. The works run
the gamut from old-fashioned finishes in the style of the Old Masters to
digitally enhanced images, something he once frowned upon.
A fan of Georgia O'Keeffe, Occhiuto is enamored with the beauty of flowers.
A number of his floral images contain hidden scenes within the petals. Some of
a sensual nature, such as his "Flaming Passion," which out of 1,000 entries
broke a 42-year record, earning a perfect score of 100 percent by the judges in
the competition for the Masterpiece Award bestowed by the Professional
Photographers of New York State. The photo shows a couple in a surrealistic
embrace, embellished with images of flames. Occhiuto describes the work as
"sensuous and suggestive, combining realism with imagination."
Some of his works are finished in a way that the photographs look like
paintings. Occhiuto said he has been asked to patent his method of finishing
but has refused to do so. "Then someone can figure out my process. If I don't
patent it, it remains my 'secret.' Even McCauley is not privy to the secret,"
Despite his numerous awards for photography, the award he says means the
most to him is the public relations award he received from the Dale Carnegie
"In every class a student is chosen to assist the instructor for 10 weeks.
In my class, it was me."
With no plans of slowing down in the foreseeable future, Occhiuto cites his
mother's longevity as evidence of his good genes.
"My mother was 98 when she passed away," he said. Yet, Occhiuto insisted,
"Chronological age is not important. When I'm asked to list my age, I fill in
'ageless.' I feel more comfortable today than ever.
"I find excitement in every day. I wonder what I'm going to do next; what
I'm going to find out next. I'm like a child going to Disney World. I never
stay still. Life is an adventure and I love it!"