Photographers, the really good ones, don't retire.
They gather and select the finest examples of their work and show them in a gallery.
The work of Odell Mitchell Jr., a Post-Dispatch staffer for 24 years and now a photography teacher, is the subject of an artistic retrospective opening Friday at the Sheldon Art Galleries.
"I am seriously blessed and just happy to be doing this," said Mitchell, 57.
The exhibit will include about 40 photographs that cover Mitchell's career, which began when a teenage Mitchell got a camera his older brother brought home from Vietnam. The collection includes work from his college days at Iowa State University, his journalism career at the Florida Times-Union and the Post-Dispatch, and from photos he took for two children's books written by his wife, Linda.
Taking those thousands of pictures was easy, Mitchell said. It was paring them down that was hard. The process began almost two years ago.
"I get attached to my photos, so I spent a lot of time in my garage going through old prints and looking for photos from old contests, trying to decide what to include," he said. "I got it down to 100 photos, and I put them on a disc. Then (gallery curators) picked about 40."
The hand-wringing didn't stop there.
"Then after all that, I'd remember some photos I had on old negatives and I'd say to myself, 'I should have include that one' or, 'I should send them this one.' But I had to draw the line somewhere," he said.
One major news event captured in the display is Mitchell's assignment for the Post-Dispatch in 1990, when he and reporter Jon Sawyer traveled to South Africa. At the time, that nation was struggling to end its longtime apartheid policies and gearing up for free elections.
The series of stories and photographs, entitled "Apartheid's Legacy," garnered numerous accolades, including awards from the Overseas Press Club and the National Association of Black Journalists.
"That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and the images were powerful," he said.
Mitchell took care to explain that some of his work was not meant to be "artistic" in the strictest sense.
"What I learned working for newspapers was that I had to shoot photos of what was actually going on," he said. "I wasn't shooting for some national interest, I was shooting for the readers," referring to that kind of work as "a document of history — because that (event) is never going to happen again."
Mitchell stressed that this show also recognizes the excellent photographers with whom he has worked over the years.
"I had a lot of good teachers, at college, in Florida and at the Post," he said. "There were a lot of good people at those places. They talked, and I listened."
That learning process continues for Mitchell, who said he would constantly ask questions of younger photographers when he was still at the Post.
"They knew things about Photoshop and whatnot, and I never hesitated to ask, 'How did you do that?' about something," Mitchell said.
"I don't think you ever stop learning at this."
Odell Mitchell photo retrospective
When Opening reception 5-7 p.m. Friday; through Sept. 1 • Where Sheldon Art Galleries, 3648 Washington Boulevard • How much Free • More info thesheldon.org