P O W E L L, W y o. - Last summer, wildlife photographer J.L. Wooden found himself in some close encounters of the animal kind during a 15-day trek into Tanzania. The evidence of those encounters goes on display Tuesday, Feb. 6, in the SinClair Gallery on the Northwest College campus in Powell. The exhibit opens with a 7:30 p.m. artist's reception in the lounge adjoining the gallery.
"In the Bush - Tanzania 2006" features 53 images of animals, native peoples and landscapes achieved through an intimacy many visitors to Africa never achieve. They zoom in on life as it exists only along the eastern coast of Africa, from the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro to deep inside the Serengeti.
Wooden, who traveled with another photographer and two native guides, confides some of the images weren't obtained without a little fear factor.
"One evening we were photographing a lioness at sunset, and we were so close, maybe only 15 yards away, that I was shaking. I couldn't get a good shot," Wooden said. "When I told our Matusi guide this, he said not to worry because the lioness wasn't hungry so she wouldn't hurt us."
Wooden learned there were other differences between the familiar animals he photographs regularly in Yellowstone country and those in Africa. When a lion walked through camp one night within arm's reach of the netting on his tent, Wooden couldn't help but think back to how handily bears shred canvas tents in Wyoming to get to what's inside. That, and the realization of just how large lions are when they're up close, created another less-than-comfortable scenario, but once again, his guides told him not to worry because lions see netting as a solid wall, something they can't penetrate.
He received different advice when they encountered another lion in the Ngorongoro Crater. "We came across this lush green fig tree with a lion's head sticking out," Wooden said. "The guides warned us to not go any closer because the animal must be hurt and would be angry, so we waited. The lion finally came down and we could see it had been gored."
His trusted guides who were so familiar with lion behavior were from the Matusi and Maasai tribes. The Maasai man only spoke Swahili, so the two photographers communicated to him through the Matusi's translation. "We had a lot of interaction," Wooden said, "but not necessarily in a spoken language. The Maasai guide saw how excited we got when we saw the animals and he then got excited, too."
The two guides amazed their clients every morning over a breakfast of English biscuits and tea when they'd casually ask which animals the photographers wanted to see that day. "Leopards, hippos, camels, ostriches, no matter what we asked for," Wooden said, "they knew where to find them."
The four men lived out of a Land Rover for the entire 15 days, camping three nights near the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, home to the largest, oldest and healthiest herd of elephants in the world, according to Wooden. After another three nights in the Ngorongoro Crater, they spent the remainder of the trip deep in the Serengeti along the great migration routes.
Seven months later, Wooden still finds himself in awe at the diversity of wildlife he saw, saying many of the creatures looked like something only possible in a fantasy. "The lilac-breasted roller was one of the craziest," he said. "It looks like someone took a gold spray paint can and sprayed it with gold." The gerenuk was another that caught his eye. "It looks like a cross between a baby deer and a giraffe and stands around three feet high at the top of its head."
Wooden said hands down his favorite African animal is the flamingo, whose color is so dark (because of the naturally occurring shrimp they eat) that it's "iridescent."
Animals weren't the only African subject Wooden got up close and personal with during his stay. Because of the rapport with their guides and their willingness to photograph a Maasai wedding ceremony, the two Americans were embraced by the tribe in a way most outsiders never are. The candid moments among these people were among Wooden's most prized memories.
"The Maasai are very hesitant and protective of their way of life," he said. "They are the most noble people I've ever met. They're tall, dark, have high cheekbones and are always smiling."
While this was Wooden's first trip to Africa, the veteran photographer has previously traveled to several other continents to create the images that have distinguished his award-winning career.
His work has been exhibited in museums in three countries, can be found in the private collections of celebrities like Joe Walsh, Olivia Newton-John and Kris Kristoffersen, and featured on a Jimmy Messina album cover (of Loggins and Messina fame). In the 1980s he was asked to photograph then President Reagan and earned accolades for his "As Seen By Both Sides: American and Vietnamese Artists Look at the War" exhibit, which hung in offices in Washington, D.C., and toured the United States for two and a half years.
Wooden is probably best known for capturing lightning on film. After working with world renowned lightning physicist Leon Salanave, he became one of the nation's leading experts on lightning photography and published a two-volume thesis on the subject.
He's currently a member of the photography faculty at Northwest College. It's in that capacity that he'll lead a group of photography students to Cambodia and Vietnam in March. Wooden is represented locally by Open Range Images in Cody.
"In the Bush - Tanzania 2006" hangs in SinClair Gallery through April 17. Located in the Orendorff Building, the gallery is open from 8 a.m.-9 p.m. weekdays. Admission is free.