Photographer/Author Steve Riskind Explores Heirloom Industries 

One hears of “urban explorers”: adventurers/trespassers with cameras, probing abandoned industrial districts or warehouses to capture crumbling recession-scapes for armchair sightseers. When Steve Riskind of Ridgewood, New Jersey, started his first book, art | commerce, he was not questing for empty ruins in Paterson, New Jersey, but rather remnant businesses who still occupy mills and factories of the town—enterprises of long standing, fashioning goods hands-on, not outsourcing to injection-mold sweatshops of developing nations or poured-concrete warrens of suburbia’s commerce parks.

Riskind calls them “artisans.” In print and in portraiture, he focused on four businesses exemplifying artistic craftsmanship: Jerry Valenta & Sons (specialty weaving), Great Falls Metalworks (jewelry), the Peragallo Pipe Organ Company, and Hiemer & Company Stained Glass Studio.

“The four industries…have an analog feel to them,” says Riskind, “but it is really quite complicated. The oldest looms in Jerry Valenta’s mill feel very much like tools of the Industrial Revolution. They could be driven by belts from 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 stops 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 have learned in my journey creating art | commerce is that there is a deep intertwining of the analog and the digital in at least some of these businesses,” observes Riskind. “That intertwining mirrors my own life.” 

Riskind knew from boyhood the blast-furnace heartbeat of his native Chicago and adjacent Gary, Indiana, as well as the beauty that dwells in tools, ducts, girders, and infrastructure. As he writes in his introduction to art | commerce:

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 high school jobs was to run closed-circuit TV cables through the University’s steam tunnels. I am right at home in places filled with spare parts. 

The young Riskind avidly studied photography in the era of home and classroom darkrooms and “safety film” negatives. His formative photo experiences started under teacher Ronald Donald Erickson in Chicago. Later, after marriage and intervening careers in organization development consulting, computers, and software, he followed up with classes at the International Center of Photography in New York City. 

“Around 2007, I began scaling back my computer-consulting business,” Riskind says. “I had lots of computer hardware, and I knew both the hardware and the software side....As I began thinking about filling my time, my wife suggested that I might want to get back into photography.”

Riskind credits ICP instructor Liam “Billy” Cunningham (no relation to the late, legendary New York Times street-fashion photographer Bill Cunningham) for bringing him into the world of portrait photography. Billy helped his students to master the interpersonal skills they needed to take great portraits of their subjects.

Even while still building databases, Riskind served his muse on the side, making performer portraits for Vermont’s Marlboro Music Festival. As he found new subjects amid the manufacturing geography of old New Jersey, he says he was less interested in gallery exhibitions on the theme than he was in achieving a photo-book project, using late-generation Canon digital SLRs and subjects unposed in the natural light of their workplaces.

“In 2012, I wanted to continue to explore the industrial landscape in the Paterson, New Jersey, area,” explains Riskind, “and I wanted to be able to do it indoors, where it would be safer than standing outside on piles of rubble in dangerous neighborhoods.” 

Riskind adds, “An artist friend, a painter, commented a couple of years ago that he felt that most photographers took all their photos from about the same angle—standing up, looking through the viewfinder.” Digital photography unchained Riskind from that, via the electronic image-preview screen, allowing up-close detail, immediacy, and flexibility. “The technique I use, besides allowing me to concentrate on the artisan’s hands and eyes, also gives me the freedom to work from many angles.”

Then came prose. “I planned to have a chapter for each business; I wanted a brief introduction about each of the firms,” Riskind says. “I’ve never written a book before, but I have written for my work over the years, and I felt that 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 wrote a textbook on writing with her late husband; Sandra [Scarry] was also willing to give me editing help.”

Economic historian Phil Scranton wrote the introduction. “In one sense, this is my own book,” says Riskind. “I wrote—and, where necessary, researched—the photographer’s introduction and the descriptions about all four firms. 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 calls art | commerce “an engrossing portrait of artisanship as a blend of mechanical genius and human fulfillment.” 

The compliments gave Steve Riskind particular 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 starred reviews,” laughs Steve. “It only took me 40 years to catch up.” 

With the Covid quarantine (“I suddenly had lots of time to work on page layout and researching”), Riskind, with his Adobe Suite knowledge, brought out art | commerce on a self-publishing basis. “I decided to go with a printer that handles the distribution themselves. They do print on demand. I was not interested in having a garage full of books. So far, this approach appears to be working.”

Moreover, he was able to show the book to his subjects, the acquaintances he made that he says were his real reward in the project. “The joy [was in] getting to know intelligent, fun, and welcoming people. Meeting Jerry Valenta at the textile mill, and Judi Hiemer Van Wie and her husband, James, has been a great pleasure.”

He concludes, “I am honored that art | commerce 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 Cassady Jr. is a Midwest-based author/journalist.