Tuesday, June 25, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: A Moment with Deb Riggins

A Moment with Deb Riggins
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Empirical

December photographer Deb Riggins tells us of her passion for traveling and Henry David Thoreau. fortunately, she carries her camera with her on her journeys.

Empirical: We’re very delighted to feature you in this month’s Empirical. I know you’re in Massachusetts now, but where are you from originally?

Deb: I grew up in the suburbs of Washington and moved to Southern Maryland when I was sixteen.

Empirical: How did you come to be in Massachusetts?

Deb: I became interested in Thoreau a few years ago and began visiting Concord on a regular basis, so I decided to try it out for a while.

Empirical: We love hearing that. Empirical is grounded in classical American philosophy. What did you like about Thoreau?

Deb: I’d had read bits and pieces of Thoreau’s work most of my adult life, but when I returned to college at Penn State I took a literature class and learned more about his life and him as a person. I was just enthralled with his writing and his life. When I read his journals or his books, I feel like he’s there talking to me. I can’t really explain it, it just is. When my sister died, I went to the pond and, this might sound crazy, but I felt he was there. I started to understand his pain, because he lost a brother he was close to. I just felt at peace when I was there. It comforted me for some reason because I was in a lot of pain after she died. It’s a very personal place for me.

Empirical: We’re very sorry to hear about your loss. And glad to hear you’ve found a spot that brings you comfort. Fortunately for all of us, you’re getting a lot of good photographs while you’re there.

Deb: I’ve taken a lot of pictures of Walden Pond. It’s one of my favorite places in the local area. It’s really sort of a mecca. A lot of people visit it from all over the world. Thoreau was so influential in so many ways. I think he would be surprised at the way people flock to see where he lived. It’s a beautiful place–very peaceful. It’s my get-away place. It’s a place to think and contemplate life and society. On days when I’m having a really tough time dealing with life, I can go there walk around the pond, and sit at the cabin ruins and just feel at peace. If you stand at the rock pile and look out at the pond, which is what he must have seen every morning–it is the most amazing site and feeling. I just feel this wave of serenity every time I look out from that point. The first time I came here I was in awe! And I still am. You can read his journals and go to the pond and still experience what he writes about. I guess that is what I really like about Thoreau. He’s still there in so many ways.

Empirical: In the shot of Thoreau’s headstone with “Henry” written on it, did you find the headstone that way, or did you decorate it?

Deb: Yes. . . I set up that shot! The pine cones are from Savannah and Pennsylvania. Some of the rocks and coins were already there. If I recall, it was near his birthday. The rose that I put there was made for me by a street vendor in Savannah. It’s a very interesting craft.

Empirical: When did you start your traveling?

Deb: I married a military guy and we traveled to California, Japan, and Maine. I just moved to Massachusetts a little over a year ago.

Empirical: How did you get started in photography?

Deb: I was pretty much a loner as a teenager and became enthralled with Ansel Adams. I’ve always loved photography and old photos. I loved looking at his photographs and wanted to see the places he photographed. Maybe that is where my love of travel developed.

Empirical: Ansel Adams is one of our California treasures. I moved to California in that same period you’re talking about, and was also motivated by him. When did you get your first camera?

Deb: When I graduated from high school, my parents bought me an SLR, the Olympus OM-1. My daughter still has it–it is what she learned on too.

Empirical: The OM-1 was my first SLR, too. What equipment do you use now?

Deb: I have a Canon EOS 50D and a variety of lenses. My favorite is a 50 mm 1.8 and 24-105mm 1.4. 

Empirical: When did you start to take photography seriously as an art?

Deb: When I moved to California in my twenties, I began taking pictures of the beach, parties, and my kids. They were always my favorite subjects. But when I moved to Japan, I began exploring the culture. I began thinking more like a photographer. I loved Japan. I took photographs of everything there.

Empirical: Can you give us some examples?

Deb: It was here that I began to read about Buddhism and Shinto. I rode around on my bike and photographed temples and shrines all over the area, including shots of the large Daibutsu in Aomori. I photographed the people, who often love to have their pictures taken, and the landscapes. We went to a lot of festivals and I would photograph the people and nature, a lot of nature, since nature is a large part of their culture and lifestyle. There was a tremendous earthquake when we lived there. I took photos of the damage in the local area.

Empirical: Did you get training for photography in school?

Deb: I’m self-taught. I have taken a few classes over the years, but nothing formal. I just read and experimented with my camera, film, and developing. But while living in Japan, I met other photographers who encouraged me to explore my talents. They were other military members and dependents. One guy was a former service member who served in Vietnam. He took pictures of bridges when he was there. One winter we drove around and took pictures of the snow and ice. He was the first person that ever told me he thought I had talent and really loved what I captured on film.

Empirical: So your work began to take off ?

Deb: Yes. I set up this very portable darkroom in the bathroom. I closed off the hallway, taped off the doors, and taught myself to develop and print. I entered a couple of contests and found people were interested in my work. I won first place and honorable mention in a photo contest when I lived there. That was when I began thinking more seriously about what I was doing with my camera.

Empirical: I know that you’re a professional framer, too. How did that start and does your work as a photographer and framer intersect?

Deb: Japan is also where I began working as a picture framer. They had a self-help area where I would frame my photos and they asked me to work there. My framing and photography did intersect there. I taught framing in the self-help area and a few people bought my photos and had them framed there.

Empirical: What kind of projects do you like working on now?

Deb: It depends on my mood and what interests me at the time. A lot of times, I will pick up a book and read projects in there. When I lived in Philadelphia, a college project really got me back into the shooting mode.

Empirical: What class was that?

Deb: It was a class in urban sociology. That was the most interesting class I think I’ve ever taken. The final project was to choose a neighborhood, interview residents, and give a presentation on the neighborhood. 

Empirical: What neighborhood did you choose?

Deb: I ended up with Queen Village mostly because I liked the name. I talked to a few people and walked the neighborhood. Then I went back with my camera. It’s an amazing neighborhood–the diversity of it. Philadelphia is known for its murals so I started there and moved into the houses, row houses painted all different colors. Old firehouses and warehouses have even been turned into row homes. I really got into the culture of the neighborhood and met some very fascinating and amazing people at that time. The most interesting ones were the ones that stayed there through all the changes from the 60s to the millennium. In the 1960s it was a ghetto, falling apart, and some old “hippies,” I was told, bought up some properties and started renovating the area. It’s gone through the typical ups and downs that neighborhoods and areas do. In 2008 when I was involved with this, it was going through a gentrification that many weren’t happy with. People who had lived there for years were being pushed out by a new gentrification. A lot of trailblazers, really, and down-to-earth, wonderful people who lived there for forty or fifty years, were being pushed out. I met a woman that started the community garden there. I could go on forever about that project.

Empirical: What happened next?

Deb: After that I began photographing the murals and public art around Philly and the architecture and the people. Street and park musicians, re-enactors and such. It’s such a busy city with so much activity.

Empirical: Aren’t you a runner, too? Your photograph of some sneakers is one of the illustrations I chose for a short story called “Sneakers” in our August issue.

Deb: I love running and hiking and just being outdoors. I’m usually running in races, but one year I was injured, so I went to races and shot pictures of runners. A friend of mine was getting into triathlons, so I shot some of a race she did in Philadelphia. So, yes, my photography and my other hobbies do intersect.

Empirical: Not too long ago, you were traveling across the country, weren’t you?

Deb: In 2010, after my sister passed away, I drove across country as therapy and took quite a few shots of the country–places I had never been before, national parks, the zoo, and my granddaughter. My sister always wanted me to pursue my talents, so it was for her. I did it with her in my heart. It was kind of a healing. I also just returned from a trip not too long ago crossing the country again. I love to travel. I only wish I could do it more.

Empirical: And when you’re not traveling?

Deb: More recently, I have been photographing local bands and cars. The man I am involved with at the moment is a huge car enthusiast and he also works with a couple of local bands doing sound and lights. I’ve been taking shots of car shows and cruise nights in Massachusetts. I’ve taken some shots of the tribute band “Crazy Train.” Lately I’ve been taking photos of a local band that was popular in the 60s and 70s that is having a rebirth. It’s called “The Barker Gang.” So really, projects just kind of present themselves to me.

Empirical: It’s been great hearing about your world. Thanks for sharing with us!

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