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Most people gaze at whatever life shows them.

Ron Zak is different. The photographer is proactive, constantly framing his world, image by image. For Zak, photography is the art of noticing.

“When you’re a photographer, you’re looking for something but you don’t know what it is,” Zak said, peering through his black-framed glasses intently to make the point.

Zak, 68, has taken countless trips to far-flung places over the years, leading a pack of his photography students in tow. The most recent destination was India, and a gallery exhibit that runs through Sept. 26 in Sonoma captures images Zak and his students photographed.

The 22 students who ventured to India last January were enrolled in Zak’s travel photography class at Fairfield’s Solano Community College. Zak, who lives in Sonoma, is a professor of art, with an emphasis on photography and printmaking. He earned a master’s degree from San Francisco State University in 1976.

“I tell students probably the best thing you’ll get from exploring photography is visual literacy, the opportunity to notice the fine details,” Zak said. “Do you really notice? Do you pay attention and see things?”

In India, what the camera showed Zak surprised him. It revealed a common thread, a deep reservoir of spirituality, between the wealthy and the poor.

Land of contrast

In material for their exhibit “Auspicious India,” Zak and his students wrote: “It’s a land of contrast, to be sure — the vast divide between the haves and the have nots; the staggering pace of modern life as it speeds alongside ancient traditions; the astounding political and human rights differences that persist regardless of forward-thinking, open-minded opinions — but at its core, the people are overwhelmingly happy. Seemingly unabashedly happy — and it’s infectious to behold.”

Zak said when he took his students to a chaotic market, they all noticed things, like light streaming through a window, or a hand, or a face.

“I tell them you don’t have to know what you’re looking for,” Zak said. “It will be different for everyone.”

The idea, Zak said, is for people to trust their instincts and follow their lens.

The professor of art is bald with a white goatee, and he’s clad in black jeans, a charcoal shirt and Gdefy-brand black shoes.

“The whole thing about teaching is shared experiences, shared stories,” Zak said. “What did you see?”

Photography 24/7

David Alosi, 67 of Napa, has taken about 15 travel classes with Zak and he appreciates his photo-centric trips.

“We get to do photography 24/7,” Alosi said. “We don’t do a lot of normal tourist stuff. All business is taken care of before... It frees us up to be in the visual mode the whole time.”

Maureen Kelly, 59, of Angwin, agrees.

“I like that we critique each other’s work,” Kelly said. “This way we get to look at a country through many people’s eyes.”

Zak’s students range in age from 20 to 70 and he said the magic of photography can strike people at any time.

The camera made a lasting impression on him when he was 22 years old. He took an elective at Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh, Pa. Developing film the traditional way surprised him, Zak said.

“I was taken by how you expose a blank piece of paper and then an image appears when you put it in a developer,” he said. “That was magic to me.”

Photo wizardry

The Vietnam veteran thought he was going to be an engineer and then a psychologist, but he couldn’t resist the wizardry of photography or the anti-war sentiments of San Francisco. He migrated west in 1970, his camera his chief possession. Zak has lived in northern California ever since. He has two sons, Malcolm and Marlon, both in their 40s, who live in Los Angeles.

While Zak’s base is Sonoma County, he has traveled extensively through Europe, Asia and beyond. Travel is a natural extension of the camera, he explained.

“It expands your vision of the world in a very intimate way,” Zak said. “If you stay in your neighborhood, you’re limited.”

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