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THROUGH THE LENS: An interview with Rachel Rosenthal, engineer, college president, photographer, traveler

Jim Bair
Special to The Union

Talking with Rachel Rosenthal, you would never know there were challenges for women becoming engineers (complete with hard hat and steel-toed boots) or mathematicians.

Rachel never alludes to difficulties, but she certainly has chosen career challenges.

A licensed professional engineer with multiple degrees in math, engineering and education, she began her career in the oil fields of Texas and New Mexico, designing and installing natural gas processing facilities. Moving to California, she worked for Caltrans designing seismic retrofits for highway overpasses in southern California.

Having avoided seismic events, her career took a turn toward community college education, joining American River College as a mathematics professor in 1994. As if being a full-time professor wasn’t enough, she became dean of mathematics, then dean of planning, research and development. The splendid image of hers, Trinity College Library, Ireland, reminds us of the historic roots of research.

In 2007, she became the assistant superintendent/vice president of instruction at Sierra College and subsequently, president of Folsom College. In 2017, she “retired “and leapt full time into lifelong pursuits of photography and travel.

Rachel’s photo Under the Stairs, taken Fort Point, San Francisco, is a metaphor for her career, spiraling upward toward ever new heights. Her photography is now doing the same thing. Within the last year, she was elected Vice President of the Nevada County Camera Club, won several awards, and had a showing at Studio 125 in Nevada City.


But photography is not new to Rachel. She bought her first SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera in 1980 to take pictures of her young daughter. Being an engineer, the technical aspects of photography captured her interest. Her photo, Outside the Fado, Portugal, is an excellent example of technical acumen with perfect exposure given the challenging night lighting conditions. Of course, photography is far more than just technology. For example, developing visual themes, or specialties like wedding photography, or focusing on a specific genre like landscapes.

Colleagues advised her to choose one photographic focus but she still struggles with that idea. “I do a lot of family portraits. I’ve done 11 weddings. I don’t market myself, people just ask me. But I’m still trying to figure out what I want to focus on.”

One focus has come naturally: international travel. She’s been to over 60 countries and said, “I like to show viewers where I’ve been and transport them to a place and time. I’m especially drawn to indigenous people in third world countries. I have an entire series of images of indigenous people from across the globe.” For example, Maasai Woman, Tanzania (notice the mud wall). “It’s an honor to learn about different cultures and be allowed to take their pictures.” She especially enjoys engaging with people on the street — a musician or women with their children.

Another favorite image was taken of the water taxis in picturesque Inle Lake in northern Myanmar. Rachael recalls that she had walked up to a restaurant’s upper deck to admire the stunning view. The lake was dotted with fisherman, and nearby were the traditional wooden homes perched on rickety stilts. In the distance, pagodas were sprinkled on the surrounding hills. Down and below were countless water taxis, long tailed wooden boats with used by the locals, all awaiting riders.

The chiseled shapes of the boats combined with their vibrant colors presented a moment that demanded this photo, Water Taxis, Myanmar. “This photo has remained forever real to me as I can still close my eyes and imagine standing on that very deck, the boats below and warm breezes wafting by,” she said.


Back home, Rachel and her husband, Steve, own Tess’s Kitchen Store in Grass Valley. She connected with the Nevada County Camera Club through David Wong, former President of the Club, who taught a cooking class there. Despite the predilection for international travel, Rachel wanted to be part of the local and very active community of photographers in Nevada County.

The Camera Club has become a learning experience though the sharing, teaching and critiquing of photos. Today’s photography has become almost an infinite world to explore and Rachel finds the community to be great fellow travelers. She gives back by serving as the club’s vice president, which includes finding guest presenters and judges for the critiques of members’ photos, as well as identifying creative challenges.

Recently, members were challenged to submit triptychs for the critique, but first the club needed to know what triptychs are! It was as if Rachel was back in her teaching days when she defined triptychs. Basically, a triptych is three photos that are related in some way and grouped as one image. Rachel’s own entry is Hoyt’s Crossing from the South Yuba River 49 bridge.

In addition to learning from Club members and the presentations, Rachel continues her technical travels with Adobe Creative Live (a training Webcast), B&H Photo Event Space, and Lynda.com. Her photo process (photography jargon for the personal way of editing photos) is first, Adobe Lightroom, then Photoshop, and possibly Google’s Nik Collection of photo enhancements. She then sends her finished files to her website at http://www.rosenthal-photography.com and her travel blog http://www.ImOutoftheOffice.com.

Jim Bair is a member of the Nevada County Camera Club. See his work at http://www.jimbairphotography.com.

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