Cathie Anderson

Sierra College photography professor pictures herself retired

Rebecca Gregg, 73, who has been a counselor and photography teacher at Sierra College for 48 years, looks over photographs taken by student Courtney McArthur, who is putting together her final portfolio. Gregg is retiring at the end of the semester.
Rebecca Gregg, 73, who has been a counselor and photography teacher at Sierra College for 48 years, looks over photographs taken by student Courtney McArthur, who is putting together her final portfolio. Gregg is retiring at the end of the semester.

Want a picture of Rebecca Gregg’s impact over nearly five decades at Sierra College? Talk to former students of her photography classes, many of whom are eager to talk about the 73-year-old educator because she is retiring this month.

Photographer and gallery owner Gene Rodman recalled meeting Gregg in the 1970s when his personal life had reached a nadir. He had gone to seek help from a counselor, he said, because his first wife was seeking a divorce.

“There was only one counselor available, and it was Rebecca,” said Rodman, an Oakmont High School graduate. “She was a counselor at Sierra before she was a photography teacher. ... I went in there, and she just listened.”

Years later, Rodman went back to Sierra to take a photo class, and he was surprised to find that Gregg was his instructor. He found her guidance and lessons so inspirational that, after later moving near Yellowstone National Park and founding Montana Photographic Arts, Rodman built a photo gallery and named it the Rebecca Gregg Gallery for his former teacher.

As for Gregg, she is wont to describe herself as a dying breed because she’s a photography professor who doesn’t have a degree in the photographic arts. How did she end up here? Gregg told me that she followed the counseling advice she had given to others and listened to her heart. Her interest in photography led her to take courses and workshops at Sacramento State, UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz, and she ended up teaching classes at a park district.

Then California voters passed Proposition 13, she said, upending how Sierra College and other community colleges received financing. Massive budget cuts ensued, Gregg said, and night photography classes were obliterated. Slowly, though, new financing streams emerged and students began asking that those courses be restored.

“By this point, I realized I had a credential in photography just from taking all those different classes,” Gregg said. “I didn’t need a degree (in photography) because I had two degrees. ... So, I asked my dean if I could teach one night class, so we could bring back photography. And the rest is history.”

Gregg has bachelor’s degrees in English and history from the University of Texas and a master’s degree in counseling from California State University, Los Angeles. She is a licensed marriage, family and child counselor and worked for 12 years in the counseling department at Sierra, leading the creation of the college’s career center. She even chaired the counseling department before transitioning into a career as a photography professor for 36 years.

Over those nearly four decades, Gregg has taught students and her former students’ relatives. She not only taught Gene Rodman but also his niece Katherine Gray; not only Beverly Canfield but also her son David; and not only Colleen Gros but her son Jeff Gros. David Canfield and several other former students have named their daughters Rebecca in honor of Gregg.

But Gregg has had lasting impact on her students’ families in other ways. Jeff Gros, a Del Oro High school graduate, took his first course from Gregg after she had returned from a sabbatical, in which she had taken documentary photos of her family.

“Those photos she took of her family inspired me to photograph my own family for that class,” the 43-year-old freelance photographer said. “To this day, I still photograph my family every time we’re together. That’s probably been the longest, biggest influence on my life that Rebecca made.

“I just love now looking back that I have a 20-year photographic record of my family. I was a 19- or 20-year-old kid taking pictures, and my brother was five years younger than me. He was a teenager, and the last thing he wanted was a camera pointed at him in any direction. Now my brother is 38 and has two teenage daughters, and I have photos of all of that.”

Gros has made a career of photographing celebrities in the Los Angeles area for magazines and album covers, though he is now venturing into documentary reporting and fine art photography. Gregg, he said, exposed him to a world of photographers beyond Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.

“You go to Rebecca’s class, and there’s a Joyce Tenneson poster on the wall or a Mary Ellen Mark poster on the wall, or you talk about maybe Jim Goldberg, Jerry Uelsmann,” Gros said. “As a kid, I was a sponge, and I wanted to know more about who these people were. It led me on a path to the library to find books.”

Freelance photographer Drew Herrmann, 27, said that he would probably have majored in business if it hadn’t been for Gregg. He was named the outstanding photography student at both Sierra College and California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

“I was at Sierra College for about three years, and then when it came time to apply to colleges, I went to Rebecca and asked her what I should do. I was weighing a business major when I started,” Herrmann recalled. “She said, ‘These are the schools you should apply to, and you should do photo,’ so I gave up business. She said she thought I was meant to do photography, so that’s what I chose, and I never looked back.”

Gregg said she never intends to be quite so direct, but she’s had several students who have come back to her and told her that if she hadn’t told them to go for a career in photography, they never would have tried it. That was true for Ukrainian immigrant Svitlana Vronska.

The 32-year-old Vronska, an Antelope resident, had been working as a caregiver but had always longed for a photography business. She didn’t think she could do it because her English was so poor, she said, but Gregg told her she was certain she would be a success.

“Now I have a full-time job every day taking pictures,” Vronska said.

Vronska said she’ll never forget the portraiture class that she took from Gregg.

“My dream was always to photograph Queen Elizabeth one day,” Vronska told me. “Then we had a portrait class. Rebecca was my model for one of the classes. When I took the picture, I came home and I started to look at them, edit them, and then I noted how beautiful she was. I almost cried. It was not Queen Elizabeth, but I said to my husband, ‘My dream came true. I really photographed a queen.’ 

Vronska admired the delicate laugh lines, crinkles and folds on Gregg’s face so much that she decided to name her photography business Highlight Your Wrinkles. While she takes photos of people of all ages, she particularly tries to cultivate business from people 40 and older.

Gregg gave Del Campo High School grad Tim Engle the encouragement he needed.

“I was ... a college football player,” Engle said. “When I took the photo class, I think everybody had the impression of this dumb jock coming in for an easy grade. I had just done it because I enjoyed it. I don’t think I considered it as a career when I enrolled. But through her encouragement, I evolved.”

Engle’s photographs now appear regularly in publications such as Sacramento and Comstock’s magazines, and he contracts with a number of companies for commercial shoots.

“One technical thing she told me still sticks in my head,” Engle said. “She said, ‘Lighting becomes good at the point when people can’t tell that you lit it.’ I always wanted to achieve a level of quality where people weren’t saying, ‘Oh, this is how you did it.’ It shows that you understand your tools to the point that the tools aren’t evident.”

Over the past few weeks, Gregg said, dozens of former students have come by Sierra to wish her well, and she’s been moved to tears because more than a few have quoted things she told them in the past, things she had no idea had resonated so deeply.

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee