Photographer/Author Steve Riskind Explores Heirloom Industries
You’ve heard of “urban explorers”: adventurers/invaders with cameras, scanning abandoned industrial districts or warehouses to capture crumbling recession landscapes for armchair tourists. When Steve Riskind from Ridgewood, New Jersey, began his first book, art | tradehe wasn’t looking for empty ruins in Paterson, New Jersey, but for remnants of companies that still occupy the town’s factories and factories—longstanding enterprises that manufacture goods hands-on, not outsource to molding workshops in developing countries or pouring concrete. warrens of the commercial parks in the suburbs.
Riskin calls them ‘craftsmen’. In print and portrait, he focused on four companies illustrating artistic craftsmanship: Jerry Valenta & Sons (special weaving), Great Falls Metalworks (jewelry), the Peragallo Pipe Organ Company and Hiemer & Company Stained Glass Studio.
“The four industries… have an analogous feel,” Riskind says, “but it’s really very complicated. The oldest looms in Jerry Valenta’s mill feel very much like industrial revolution tools. They could be powered by belts of pulleys. and powered by water. [Yet] their new looms are complex digital machines…[and] Peragallo Pipe Organ Company is quite technology driven. They even use digitally sampled registers in the pedal divisions of some of their instruments…[but] the principles of how a pipe organ makes sound go back over 500 years.
“Part of what I learned on my journey to creating art | trade is that there is a deep interweaving of analog and digital in at least some of these companies,” notes Riskin. “That intertwining reflects my own life.”
Riskind knew from childhood the pulse of the blast furnace of his native Chicago and neighboring Gary, Indiana, as well as the beauty that resides in tools, pipes, girders and infrastructure. As he writes in his introduction to: art | trade†
Chicago was filled with bridges and other steel structures…. At the [University of Chicago] Lab School, housed in 19th century university buildings, I had the chance to tinker with old physics and electronic equipment. One of my jobs in high school was running closed-circuit TV cables through college steam tunnels. I’m right at home in places full of spare parts.
Young Riskin eagerly studied photography in the age of home and classroom darkrooms and “security film” negatives. His formative photographic experiences began under teacher Ronald Donald Erickson in Chicago. Later, after his marriage and career in organizational development, computing and software consultancy, he took classes at the International Center of Photography in New York City.
“Around 2007, I started scaling back my computer consulting business,” Riskind says. “I had a lot of computer hardware, and I knew both the hardware and the software side… When I started thinking about filling my time, my wife suggested I might want to start shooting again.”
Riskind thanks ICP instructor Liam “Billy” Cunningham (no relation to the late legendary New York Times street fashion photographer Bill Cunningham) for introducing him to the world of portrait photography. Billy helped his students master the interpersonal skills they needed to create great portraits of their subjects.
Even while still building databases, Riskind served his muse by doing portraits of artists for the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont. While he found new subjects amid the production geography of old New Jersey, he says he was less interested in gallery exhibitions on the theme than in realizing a photo book project, using the latest generation of digital SLRs from Canon and subjects that are not in the natural light of their workplace.
“In 2012, I wanted to continue exploring the industrial landscape in the Paterson, New Jersey area,” Riskind explains, “and I wanted to be able to do it indoors, where it would be safer than standing on piles of rubble outside. dangerous neighborhoods.”
Riskin adds, “An artist friend, a painter, commented a few years ago that he found that most photographers took all their photos from about the same angle: standing, looking through the viewfinder.” Digital photography unleashes Riskind from it, through the electronic preview screen, allowing a closer look at detail, immediacy and flexibility. “The technique I use not only allows me to focus on the craftsman’s hands and eyes, but also gives me the freedom to work from many angles.”
Then came prose. “I planned to create a chapter for each company; I wanted a brief introduction to each of the companies,” says Riskind. “I’ve never written a book, but I’ve written for work over the years, and I felt these introductions were well within my capabilities. I am fortunate that my wife is an excellent writer and editor. We also have a friend in our town who co-wrote a textbook on writing with her late husband; Sandra [Scarry] was also willing to help me with editing.”
Economic historian Phil Scranton wrote the introduction. “In a way, this is my own book,” Riskind says. “I wrote – and researched where necessary – the photographer’s introduction and descriptions of all four companies. But in another sense, it is a collaboration with my two editors and with Phil, whose economic and historical overview sets the tone for what follows.”
In a starred review, Kirkus . mentions art | trade “a captivating portrait of craftsmanship as a blend of mechanical genius and human fulfillment.”
The compliments gave Steve Risk a lot of pleasure; his author wife Mary earned a Kirkus star for her children’s book, Apple is my sign, published in 1981 and still in print. “This is actually a family of two Kirkus star reviews,” Steve laughs. “It only took me 40 years to catch up.”
With the Covid quarantine (“I suddenly had a lot time to work on page layout and research”), Riskin, using his Adobe Suite knowledge, pointed out art | trade based on self-publishing. “I decided to go for a printer that takes care of the distribution itself. They print on demand. I wasn’t interested in a garage full of books. So far, this approach seems to be working.”
Moreover, he was able to show the book to his subjects, the acquaintances he made were, according to him, his real reward in the project. “The joy [was in] get to know intelligent, fun and hospitable people. It was a great pleasure to meet Jerry Valenta at the textile factory and to meet Judi Hiemer Van Wie and her husband James.”
He concludes: “I am honored that art | trade was chosen by Kirkus as one of the Top 100 Indie Books of 2021. This reinforces my belief that photography books are the right direction for me.”
Charles Cassidy Jr. is a Midwestern author/journalist.