Hazel Kirk native developed early focus on photography
If, as we've been told by many sources, a picture is worth a thousand words, then the countless images captured by Ray Racunas speak volumes about his passion for photography.
“I would classify my photography as advanced amateur,” said Racunas, a 1958 graduate of Monongahela High School who lives in South Franklin Township, Washington County. “I do not want to do anything on a professional basis. There's a fine line between doing something for enjoyment and doing something for work. I have always enjoyed the art of photography as an activity of fun and recreation.”
Racunas, a retired educator whose career in the Trinity Area School District spanned 35 years, does not specialize in any aspect of photography.
“If a subject is interesting to me, I believe it should be preserved by a photograph,” he said. “The subject could range from an unusual knot in a tree trunk to a sunset over the Gulf of Mexico.”
Racunas, 72, has followed that theory as a member of the Washington Camera Club since 1985. The organization was created in 1939 and will celebrate its 75th anniversary next year.
“We have approximately 50 members of various skills who reside from Shadyside, Ohio, near the Ohio River to Clairton and Monongahela,” said Racunas, whose wife, Nancy, is the group's social chairwoman. “We share a common bond in our love and appreciation of photography. We meet twice a month and have a variety of events — exhibits that are open to the public, social events, etc., and we are planning for the big anniversary in 2014.”
His longstanding penchant for cameras notwithstanding, Racunas chose a career in education because of the influence of those who taught him.
“I was fortunate to have an excellent group of teachers at Valley Inn Elementary School in Carroll Township and then Monongahela High School,” he said. “Much of what I learned from them — their words of wisdom and guidance — directed me to teaching.”
Racunas and his wife, the former Nancy Johnson of Claysville, have been married 41 years. A graduate of McGuffey High School and California State College (now California University of Pennsylvania), Nancy also is a retired Trinity Area School District teacher.
Racunas graduated from California State College in January 1963 with a bachelor of science degree in education, majoring in secondary social studies and minoring in elementary education. He received a master's in education in 1966 from the University of Pittsburgh.
He was hired by the Trinity Area School District in Washington in September 1963 and taught at Wolfdale Elementary School for 19 years and Trinity Middle School for 16 years before retiring in June 1999.
It was during his tenure at Trinity Middle School that he developed a unique educational program that went beyond the traditional classroom setting for students.
“The seventh-grade social studies curriculum was ‘Pennsylvania History,'” he said. “The administration requested that we include Washington County in this study. We had five social studies teachers in the department at the time but we could not locate any suitable material about the county for that age group.
“Just by coincidence, I bought my first serious 35 mm SLR camera, a Canon AE-1, around that time. I decided to create a slide show for the kids, and my wife and I traveled throughout the county for the next year to take pictures. The end result was an accumulation of nearly a thousand 35-mm slides. With a taped narration, the project turned into a six-part program that was shown every other day with a discussion period in between the parts.”
The slide presentation was titled “Washington County — Past To Present” and an estimated 7,000 students viewed the program between 1987 and 2010.
Photography has provided myriad evolutions for Racunas and the Washington County Camera Club.
“The entry of digital photography was about as revolutionary as the change from daguerreotypes and tintypes to the various uses of film in the late 1800s,” he said. “The camera club had to purchase digital equipment, such as a digital projector and laptop computers, in order to adapt to this change. These replaced the old slide projectors. Slide film became difficult to obtain and many companies even stopped developing and processing slide film. Classes in digital editing techniques and photo programs were instituted into the club's meeting programs.”
As the quality of digital cameras advanced, the number of film (print and slide) photographers declined, Racunas said.
“The typical camera club member of the 1940s and 1950s had his own home darkroom, where rather questionable environmentally safe chemicals were used to develop prints and slides,” he said. “Today, the purchase and disposal of these chemicals is a major issue. The modern ‘darkroom' is a quality home computer and a good photo printer.”
The change in cameras is equally dramatic, he said.
“In the early years of the camera club the photographer had to do all the settings manually,” he said. “He had to decide on the proper aperture and the correct shutter speed. He had no LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) viewing screen to preview his images. Every shot had a cost factor; there was no deletion of bad images (from a roll of film). Photographers had to be more careful when composing and timing his shots. The good photographers of this era were extremely talented individuals.”
Ron Paglia is a freelance writer.
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