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In the Spotlight: Deirdre Visser, Visiting Photography Professor, Bids Farewell to Mills

Glodean Champion

By Glodean Champion

For Deirdre Visser, visiting Mills photography professor, photography is an art form that encourages exploration, beyond the visceral to the deep inner recesses of the mind.

It is a tool for engaging in the world, asking questions, challenging what we think we know. As a result, she integrates that approach into her teaching and makes a commitment to actively engage her students in exploring questions that arise when learning the art of photography.

"I welcome the element of surprise and being pushed," says Visser. "And I'm trying to talk about the way of thinking about art making as inquiry. If I knew the answer I wouldn't need to make the art."

Visser took her first photography class in the 5th grade and knew it was, pardon the pun, love at first sight. As she fondly recollects that time in her life, she explains that it was not just the connection the camera made with the subject but the magic of the darkroom. She has been photographing ever since, with the exception of the year-long hiatus because of the impact she felt the photography chemicals had on the environment.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines photography as "the art or process of producing images on a sensitized surface (as a film) by the action of radiant energy and especially light." Visser defines it quite simply and with far fewer words as "a language of images." She is very interested in thinking conceptually and expansively about photos and visual culture, especially vernacular photography because family photos and snap shots of events form the way most people think about images and image making.

"She has profoundly impacted my art process. I have always grappled with deep intense issues but I think there's something about the way she emphasizes the conceptual in a non-threatening way that has really deepened that type of thinking for me," said sophomore Anna Rembold. "Hers is a voice that will be with me for the rest of my life. She has totally gotten me into photography."

Visser's creative work is, in part, governed by her desire to include the daily rituals of life into her art. In Mapping San Francisco she uses different systems to map her walks through San Francisco, defining the parameters of her personal sense of place. Along these walks she records objects that she feels reflects history and ownership.

Objects like random class photographs, a crumpled and torn title page of a manuscript entitled "Mad" written by Jim Woo Joo and a piece of a Nigerian currency that has oddly been ripped across the top center of the bill are all examples of these found treasures. Each image requires the viewer to think about and reconsider what is being seen and perhaps ponder the circumstances that separated the items from their owner.

"She's such a great artist," said sophomore Frances Sarcona. "And she's such so great at teaching the art of photography that I'm just sad she's leaving because I'd love to pick her brain more about photography. I've learned so much this semester."

Graduate student Susannah Slocum, Visser's teaching assistant, describes her as one of those rare people that is intended to be a teacher because she always engages with her students work, and she helps artists connect their work to the broader world-the world outside of artmaking and the art market.

"She really encourages students to explore social issues through thier art practice," says Slocum. "I have worked with her for two semesters and I have seen the students in her class make really amazing leaps in their development as artists. I think they have been allowed to blossom as a result of her inspiration and her ability to see the potential in their work."

Visser attended UC Berkeley for two years and then took two years off, during which time she spent four months backpacking on the Pacific Crest trail. She later transferred to Mills because a friend told her she should "check it out." After graduation she took four years off and worked at the Oakland Museum, in the trades and education before she went on to UC Irvine to obtain her MFA.

When asked if she has any hobbies or other interests, Visser replies " Art is my thing.

She continues on explaining how she has spent a lot of time thinking about the impact of photography on the eye and the mind.  Now, in the age of digital photography, she is thinking about how digital photography will possibly change the way we currently think about photography.

"It has the potential to change the way we think about images and about making picutres," says Visser.  " As well as the exchange of images as objects."

Every artist has a muse and mentor.  For Visser, there were several mentors.  Mills photography professor Catherine Wagner and Anna Murch and UC Irvine professors Catherine Lord and Daniel J. Marinez individually and in totality changed the way she though about art and herself as a maker of viual culture.

Visser has been a visiting professor for the past three semesters and will now be moving on and away from her Mills family-at least for now-having plenty to do to fill the void.

In the spring she is goint to take the time to focus on her small business that specializes in matting and framing, as well as her art.  Visser also currently teaches three art/photography history classes at the California College of the Arts, in Oakland.  Two of these classes are new and she is looking forward  to being able to focus on developing those classes as well.

"I love Mills and I will truly miss it here," says Visser. "But i hope to come back some time in the future.  It has really been a joy to be here."