Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Behind The Lens with Photographer Joe Raskin

By Michael Perlman

Joe Raskin & his father Jack in Rochdale Village, 1980s
One of the most active urban explorers and gifted citywide photographers of our generation is Joe Raskin, a native of Queens. When asked to estimate how many street scenes he has captured citywide over the years, he said, “I've posted over 48,000 photographs on Wandering New York (his photoblog) over the last seven years, but that's just a drop in the bucket, considering how long I've been taking pictures. It’s easily well over triple that number.” The city becomes his canvas, as he largely documents buildings of varying architectural styles that are most classical, followed by subways and commuter rail lines. Every so often, his eye will turn to nature. 

Joe Raskin & Creative Musings on Mass Transit at the NY Transit Museum, 2016 photo by Marc A Herman
“Ideally, I am out every day of the week in one part of the city or another, and I spend two to three hours each day, not including travel time,” said Raskin. Even in the rain and snow he can be found with a camera in hand. He said, “Creative expression is a wonderful thing, and it always feels great to be out and about taking photographs.” His achievements continue with his subway history book, “The Routes Not Taken, A Trip Through New York City's Unbuilt Subway System.” 

A charming Forest Hills Gardens home

Brownstones in Park Slope
Raskin uploads photos in at least 10 Facebook groups, where some are posted nightly, drawing quite a fan base. Besides Wandering New York, his work can be viewed on Instagram under @rochdalian and on It can also be spotted on NY1 and channels 2, 7, and 11. Raskin made appearances on In Transit on NY1, BronxTalk on the Bronxnet network, and on the Single Shot show on the Manhattan Neighborhood Network.

One may speculate how his passion originated. First off, he looks up to his father Jack, who passed away six years ago. He recalled, “My dad was always taking a lot of family pictures, so he's the one to credit. I began using his 35mm cameras in the late 1970s.” Secondly, Raskin embodies the spirit of some of the past generation’s most highly regarded photographers. He said, “Berenice Abbott, Arnold Eagle and Todd Webb's work has an immense effect on me, with Abbott's in particular. They made it easier to focus on subjects and appreciate the everyday scenes of life in the city.” 

Ridgewood Rooftops,  Mathews Model Flats
For 33 years, Raskin resided in Rochdale Village, Sunnyside, and Astoria, and now calls Chelsea home. Prior to retirement, he served as Assistant Director of Government and Community Relations at the MTA. Now he considers his hobby as his “current job.” Raskin is a graduate of York College, where he majored in Political Science, and achieved a Masters in Urban Studies from Queens College. “I took a photography class at York, which certainly enriched my interest, but I would describe myself as being self-taught,” he said.

Some of Raskin’s most memorable experiences transpire when he encounters people in a diverse range of neighborhoods. He said, “I get into conversations about their communities, and for the most part, they are curious about my work and enjoy that I'm taking pictures there. I'll point out that it is what people usually do in the touristy areas of town, and explain that I’m not a real estate agent or working for one. Generally, they appreciate that, and even suggest other places for me to look at.” He continued, “I also value it most when someone sees a photo that triggers a pleasant memory.” 

Fall foliage along the Franklin Shuttle
A No 7 train approaches the 52nd Street, Lincoln Avenue station in Woodside
“My original camera was a Kodak Brownie, followed by a Kodak Instamatic,” said Raskin. Today his cameras of choice are a Panasonic Lumix and Casio Exilim, and even his Samsung Galaxy phone. Then the question becomes safeguarding a massive photo inventory. He said, “I store them on a lot of flash drives. It's much better to be redundant when it comes to storage. I don't trust the Cloud as the only place.”

Raskin’s explorations take him through the Rego Park Crescents, a most enjoyable enclave. “It’s hard not to get a little bit lost there,” he chuckled. He can also be found wandering through the Forest Hills Gardens, as well as photographing houses north and south of Metropolitan Avenue. Raskin said, “Both communities are consistently beautiful. Although there are some new buildings, much hasn't changed in decades, and hopefully it remains that way.” 

Rego Park rowhouses
Rego Park houses
Among his favorite photos are ones captured along and from elevated subway lines. “It's a great way to get a real slice of life look at the city,” he said. Also in high ranks are houses in Glendale, Ridgewood, Astoria, and Woodside.

Being a history buff, he explained, “What's most meaningful is knowing how these buildings and streets tell the story of how the city grew and expanded from just the downtown areas in each borough. That's also what is most meaningful about the subway photos.” The architectural styles that he finds most intriguing relate to photographing classic city housing, such as Art Deco Bronx apartment houses, row houses such as Mathews Model Flats, brownstones, and townhouses. “All of them definitely add to the spirit of city life, especially when they are well maintained,” he said. 

Townhouses on the Upper West Side
One must wonder if there are there any neighborhoods that Raskin has not documented. He explained, “There has to be some that I've missed. I'd like to think that at some point I've walked on every city block. If there's a to-do list, I'd like to go inside buildings such as the Flatiron Building and take pictures from them.” 

Alleyway from Pelham Parkway

Grand Concourse Historic District
Over the years, Raskin has learned how each community varies and how each section of a neighborhood can offer a spirit of its own. He said, “For the most part, the stereotype images of each community are wrong. I've learned not to take any neighborhood for granted. If it wasn't for my photographic trips, I may never know much about areas like Stuyvesant Heights and Longwood.”

In the long-term, Raskin would like to publish his photos in several books. Sharing his wisdom with younger generations, he says, “Be curious and follow your vision of what you want to do.” 

A similar version of this feature appears in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column:  

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