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Life in His Lens / 'I find excitement in every day,' says veteran photographer Felix Occhiuto

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

competitor.

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.

One of 12 children, Occhiuto was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to a

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

lost time.

"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

said.

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

challenging them.

"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,"

Occhiuto said.

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

School.

"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!"

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