Faculty Spotlight: Prof. Steven Raskin

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To see more photographs visit http://www.stevenraskinphotography.com

How did you become involved in photography? Describe the journey that led you to your current relationship with the medium.

I began making photographs in my mid-twenties, primarily because I had a couple of housemates who had gotten involved and it looked like fun. My earliest work was frankly pretty boring – flowers, family, and fire trucks. I was primarily self taught and moved from color slide film to B&W within a couple of years. Ask me sometime how to improvise a darkroom in a rented bathroom! What also happened at that time was a major change in my life circumstances – an unexpected loss that I considered a “moment of agonizing reappraisal” – when one’s circumstances and the decisions that led to them come into painfully sharp focus. I needed a distraction, I needed answers to fundamental personal questions, and I desperately needed to explore and express myself. I discovered that making photographs could fulfill all of these requirements. I found that photographs could facilitate a conversation that I needed to have with myself, and they became an amazing tool for self-discovery. I consider every photo I’ve made since then to be a self portrait in one form or another.

I was passionate about making images, took a couple of classes here and there, and became an active member of the photography community flourishing in the Bay Area in the late 1970s and 1980s. I started exhibiting work in 1978 and was teaching photography by 1982. I found that sharing my passion for image-making and my skills in doing so was an avocation that was extraordinarily fulfilling. My bread-and-butter came from another career entirely, but by the late 1980s I realized that teaching was the direction my life needed to go in. I enrolled at California College of Arts and Crafts (now known as CCA rather than CCAC) in their graduate program in Photography. At the time there were only two of us in the program, so I had the benefit of incredible resources in the faculty and facilities at CCAC. My son was born and I left my job, both in the month before school started. Big changes were in the works!. I expected to motor through grad school as fast as I could and get on with building a new career, but once I started I realized that this was one of the most important opportunities in my life. I invested myself fully in the program, and took every class I could. What should have been a two year program I managed to stretch to three, and only left when my grad advisors were pushing me firmly towards the door. If there were a doctoral program in Photography I’d still be there. I graduated in 1991 with an MFA “With High Distinction” in Photography, immediately started teaching at UC Extension in SF, and soon found adjunct teaching work at College of Marin, Academy of Art College, Foothill College, and City College of San Francisco. I worked at those of schools until I landed this full-time job at City College in 2000. I continue to produce my own work, though ironically not at the level of production that it used to be. Full time teaching is way more than a full time job! That brings me to the present. As member of the CCSF faculty for 23 years, I think of my students, and colleagues as family.

Which photographers have influenced you?

I think most of my primary influences come from my formative years in photography. I loved the narrative dreamscapes of Duane Michals, and his ability to weave incredible stories through a handful of images. His in-camera multiple images and the scrawled writing on the photos spoke to me of the psychological potential of photos. Likewise, Jerry Uelsmann’s surreal composites are like waking dreams. Cartier Bresson, Robert Frank, Dorothea Lange, Dianne Arbus, ‘Danny Lyon, Ralph Gibson, Lisette Model, Lee Friedlander – the list goes on and on. I got very involved in landscape photography, though not in terms of depicting place. Rather, I found that landscapes were a perfect metaphor through which I could explore my psyche. I also became fascinated with early landscape photographers and the life of a photographer in the days of glass plate and colodion. My master’s thesis explored how 19th century photography interwove with the exploration and expansion of the US and how that continues today. The civil war, the rise of an industrial nation, the use, exploitation, and also preservation of our natural resources – all of these things happened in part as a result of the efforts of photographers. Carleton Watkins, William Henry Jackson, Timothy O’Sullivan, Alexander Gardner, John Hillers, George Fiske…

Those photographers coupled with my love of the outdoors led me to a more current crop of photographers; those who understand their roots yet explore the landscape through fresh eyes: Robert Adams, Henry Wessel, Bob Dawson, Lewis Baltz, John Pfahl, Mark Klett, Richard Misrach, John Divola, Joel Sternfeld, William Garnett, Linda Connor, Robbert Flick, Kenda North, Peter Goin, William Garnett, Stephen Shore, Frank Gholke. The photographers of The Rephotographic Survey Project, and those of the New Topographics and The Great Central Valley Project. Is that list long enough? I’ve of course left out hundreds of other influences on my work, my attitudes, and my teaching.

As I mentioned, I think of my work as self portraiture, and used the landscape to describe moods, fears, and epiphanies. The emotional tone of my black and white work moved from certainty and serenity through confusion, noise, confrontation and fear, reflection, and ultimately naked revelation. At the conclusion of my grad program, a project that had been many years in the making came to a close. It took a few years for my work to begin to move on a new path.

What classes do you teach at CCSF?

That one’s easy. I teach PHOTO 51; Beginning Photography, PHOTO 81A; Intermediate B&W Photography, PHOTO 81D; Intermediate Digital Photography, PHOTO 60A; Beginning Photoshop, and I have on occasion taught PHOT 130; Portfolio Production, and PHOTO 50B; History of Photography Since 1945. PHOTO 81D is a new course, and I’m very excited to be teaching Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop as tools in service to image-making rather than as “applications classes.” Of course students’ continued interest in learning film and darkroom-based photography warms the heart of an old timer – it’s great for me to be active with both analog and digital tools and techniques. I truly love teaching 2nd semester courses – it’s an exciting time to be working with students. They’ve taken a beginning class and something has stimulated them to the extent that they are back again for more. What a great time to be available as an influence!

Tell us about your latest photographic excursion.

During the past year I revisited the American Southwest and the California desert – landscapes that I fell in love with many years ago. For a number of weeks I ranged through California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. My work is no longer strictly landscape, but I found a richness of opportunity to make photos in all of these places nonetheless. It’s really enlightening to look at this current work next to the images I produced in these same areas 30-odd years ago. Fascinating to see how I and my vision have changed; perhaps more enlightening to see how I and my vision have remained constant. The newest work is called Error Messages. I’ve been working on it over the past 10 years or so. It centers around how we miscommunicate on a public scale, and frankly the pictures indulge my [often sophomoric] sense of humor. As I’ve aged, my need for angst has thankfully diminished! Still, I think there are personal and cultural truths to be found lurking among the paradoxes and enigmas explored in the photos.

Where can we see your work?

One of my projects before the start of the Fall 2014 term was to get my website up and running. No more excuses – I now have work available online at www.stevenraskinphotography.com. This site holds a sampling of what I’ve produced since the mid-80s. I’m very interested in the progression of ideas, so I intentionally included older work along with the newest. I encourage you to visit the site and I’d be delighted to receive any feedback or questions that might come up.


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