As a photographic artist, J. Franklin “Jim” Willis has found the Walla Walla Valley to be an ideal canvas for his colorful, dynamic landscapes of texture and light.
But ask him what makes a good photographer and his usual answer is “luck.”
Then he’ll add “talent, equipment and luck.”
And it helps to be in the right place at the right time.
And be sure you have your camera.
Dorothy, his wife of 47 years, adds one more thing to Willis’ toolkit: “He’s not afraid to be creative.”
Creativity extends into his life as well as his expression through art. He’s lived a life of adventure with academic and business success in many careers. “It’s been a very full life,” said Willis, 69.
Willis served in the Navy from 1961-1964, then was a reporter for The Oregonian in the summer of 1964. He worked as an economist and statistician and worked in new product analysis from 1968-1988 with C. Brewer Co. and U.S. Bank. In Hawaii with C. Brewer he was involved in developing new tropical food products. With the bank, he helped initiate the placement of cash machines into grocery stores.
In 1965 he received a bachelor’s degree in social science from Oregon State University. That was followed with a masters degree in 1968 from Purdue University in agricultural economics. Still not finished with education, he took a tech prep coordinator position at Walla Walla Community College in 1995, then received his doctorate in education from OSU in 1996.
Between his academics and professional achievements, Willis got serious about photography in 1979 when he got his first camera with interchangeable lenses. He was shooting pictures on the weekends, getting the slides back within a day. At work his boss asked if he could take a box of slides home to look at them.
It turned out his boss’s father-in-law was a professional photographer. Willis got a note that said he’d been set up with appointments with corporate buyers and he suddenly entered the commercial photography world.
He began selling his work to businesses and individuals. Now in Walla Walla, Willis sells his work at open air markets, the Whitman College Bookstore, Sweetwater Paper & Home and at festivals and bazaars. His work is also showcased and sold from his gallery website, jfranklinwillis.com.
He’s also vice president of the Blue Mountain Photo Club and often teaches photography classes.
“I had fun teaching children at the YMCA,” he said. “I expected sixth and seventh graders. The kids there were kindergarten through second grade. I threw my notes out and the class became an activity; I stressed composition. Those little guys and gals soaked up everything I said.”
Composition is where the art in photography lies, he said. And there are “rules.”
“Although I call them suggestions,” he said. “You can break rules and end up with something wonderful.”
He likes the rule of thirds and leading lines. The rule of thirds suggests you divide the picture into thirds vertically and horizontally, then place your subject on one of the intersections.
“Move your subject toward a corner until you smile,” Willis said.
With leading lines, such as a walkway, stream or road in the photo, place the subject at the end of the line. That way the eye is drawn along the line toward the subject.
His favorite photo is of a landscape in which his application of the rules are evident. In the photo, titled “Rural Intersection” and taken where Five Mile and Scenic Loop roads intersect, the natural lines of a ravine on lush green foothills of the Blue Mountains lead the viewer’s eyes to up to a burst of light above passing clouds.
His photographic artistry has evolved with time, inspiration and practice.
“I’ve changed my focus on the outdoors, changed from close-up outdoor shots to a panorama. I just opened my eyes. I was going to classical art exhibits and I was starting to see pleasing panoramas. And I also got new software so I could stitch together three or four shots to make an effective panorama.”
He has also done a series of macro shots of mushrooms and a whole gallery of rose portraits, large prints of a variety of scenes and an assortment of notecards.
His current project is converting his photographs to digital paintings, using digital software that creates the appearance of brush strokes.
“That gives me more satisfaction,” he said. “It allows me to be more creative. My wife says that I’m miserable if I’m not creative.”
Among projects he wants to explore include photographing the same scene in all four seasons to capture the changing light and character of the place.
“You have to be willing to fail,” he said. “Try different angles, get different images. You’re looking for not just the beauty of the scene but the right composition. You might have to hike half a mile and then take the picture from several different angles.”
His photographic artistry has evolved with time, inspiration and practice. Willis also wants to do photos of the area’s classic old houses and create the images as paintings.
“You learn as you go,” he said. “If you stop growing, you’re dead.”