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A Teacher Affects Eternity


Shea Stanfield
Arts Columnist

Great American historian and author Henry Adams wrote, “A teacher affects eternity, he can never tell where his influence stops.” In the case of locally-renowned photographer and educator Willis Peterson, his influence has expanded into the third generation of gifted Arizona photographers.

For over 70 years, Willis Peterson’s wildlife and nature photography has gained national and international recognition. His work has been featured in Arizona Highways Magazine, National Geographic, Audubon Magazine, Pacific Discovery, and Natural History. He was a contributor in the International Wildlife Photographic Exhibit, produced in London in 1969 by the Nature Conservancy Council. The National Audubon Society featured his color prints in their traveling environmental exhibit in 1970, and the Eastman Kodak Company displayed a group of his prints in their New York City Gallery in 1972. 

Peterson grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado during the Great Depression and World War II. He received his first camera as a gift when he was fourteen years old. This set off him roaming the natural landscapes of back country Colorado Springs and led to a lifelong career in images and education. His photography was so well received as he grew in maturity, skill, and photo techniques, that the national press sat up and took notice, leading to commissions involving national and international assignments. 

Eventually, Peterson and his family moved to the Phoenix area, where he became a photographer and feature writer for the Arizona Republic. As his reputation became established in Arizona, Peterson was asked in 1966 to be one of the founding faculty members of Glendale Community College. With the opportunity of a lifetime to create a photography program of his own, Peterson left the Republic to obtain a master’s degree in educational technology, which enabled him to join the faculty of GCC as a full time member in 1968. It wasn’t long before Peterson had built his program into “the place to be if you were serious about a career in photography.” In 1975, he was named the photography teacher of the year in the community college system. He continued to be known as the “Father of Photography” at GCC for the next 18 years.

During his teaching years, Peterson continued to freelance with his own work, building national and international recognition. His work appeared in major art museums and natural history museums across the U.S., as well major exhibitions, nationally and internationally. Education and the arts was a family affair in the Peterson household, as well. Roberta, his wife, was an elementary teacher in the Phoenix area and “held down the fort” in the evening, typing his articles, filing negatives, answering correspondence, and filling requests for Peterson’s photographs.  Daughter Cynthia has followed in her father’s footsteps building her own successful and recognized painting career; she has become well known in her own right, occasionally exhibiting her work with her father. Willis and Roberta now live in Clarkdale, AZ, retired from their teaching careers but not from the wildlife and nature photography that still takes them “into the wild.”

Area residents will have a rare opportunity to view Willis Peterson’s images as part of the Mentor, Teacher, Student exhibit at the Desert Foothills Library, Sept. 22-Oct. 5 during library hours. Local resident and photographer Jerry Sieve, Peterson’s former student, and Arizona Highways photographer himself will be doing a “walk-through” of the exhibit on Sept. 26 at 1 p.m.; everyone is welcome. Don’t miss the opportunity to view almost 100 years of worldwide images captured by three generations of Arizona’s most celebrated photographers.

Contact Arts Columnist Shea Stanfield at